Thursday, December 22, 2011

Is Fear of Divorce Keeping People from Getting Married?

by Belinda Luscombe


December 22, 2011

Marriage, it is sometimes argued, is a feminist institution, put in place to offer legal protection to women from being abandoned by men who wish to sow their seed in ever greener pastures. It’s a slightly antique (and misandrist) view, formulated at a time when home and hearth were a woman’s horizons. Plus, as a new study suggests, it is often women, rather than men, who view marriage as a trap.

In a survey of 61 cohabiting couples ages 18 to 36 in Columbus, Ohio, researchers from Cornell and the University of Central Oklahoma found that women, particularly lower-income women, were concerned about being trapped in marriage and having no way out if things went awry. The survey respondents also revealed that they had serious concerns about divorce: about 67% said they were worried about the potential social, emotional and economic fallout of splitting up. The researchers suggest that this is one of the reasons the couples had chosen to live together without getting married. While that sounds a little bit like choosing to stick with the shrimp appetizers for fear that the main dish will give you food poisoning, these young couples tended to think the legal and financial upheaval caused by a divorce wasn’t worth the risk.

The study, which was published in the December issue of Journal of Family Relations, is one of several in recent weeks to examine the diminishing rate of marriage in the U.S. According to a Pew Research Center analysis last week, just over half of adult Americans are married, the lowest rate in decades. Some of the rollback is because people are getting married later, and some of it is because cohabitation rates are rising. The new study suggests that divorce is also a very real presence in couple’s minds.

Divorce is not an equal-opportunity specter, however. Middle-class couples were less spooked by it — and by marriage — than low-income couples. For poorer women who tended to feel that marriage was a trap, many reported fearing that a legal union would lead to extra work and responsibilities on their part, without any additional benefits. “Middle-class respondents disproportionately asserted that marriage meant commitment, something they viewed as a positive feature of the institution,” the authors write. “When working-class women referenced commitment, on the other hand, they did not view it in a particularly positive light.”


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