Marriage is in decline. In roughly 35 years, or about two generations depending on the age of marriage, the percentage of married men aged 20-39 has halved.
This is not a conundrum only for the curious. The decline of marriage has far reaching negative consequences for men, women, and most especially children. Yet, the data testifies that men do not want to get married. The quick and easy assumption is that they prefer the single life. But if the answer is that simple, then why the dramatic change in since the 1970’s?
There was another dramatic change in the 1970’s, which might explain men’s crashing marriage rates. The divorce rate spiked. The question for men stopped being single vs married and became single vs. married vs. divorced—and men’s perception of divorce’s risks far outweighs the benefits of marriage.
Men see other men enduring divorce, losing their children, and sometimes their livelihoods in pursuit of their children, soon after they lose their spouse. Emma Johnson at Wealthy Single Mommy published a wealthy man’s perception of divorce. From a letter from “John G.”:
From my own experiences, I believe it’s widespread for women to use children as a weapon to exact revenge against the ex during, and after, divorce proceedings.
During my lengthy divorce, my ex-wife claimed I was abusive, that she was ‘afraid for her safety,’ and tried to get ‘supervised visitation.’ None of it worked, because it wasn’t true, and because, as an educated professional I had enough money to spend six figures on an attorney. However, it was still a waste of time and money. Even after the divorce, the games continued. My son was being tutored on what to say to me (did you ever hear a 7-year-old respond ‘I’m not comfortable talking about that’ when asked a question?) and being instructed to call me by my first name and not ‘dad.’ I grew tired of making phone calls that weren’t answered, or of being put on hold and the child not coming to the phone, and of cancelled visits. It was heartbreaking seeing the child slip away from me, little by little.
This testimony from John G. continues and is depressing enough for John and his cohort of wealthy men. Read the whole thing and then imagine the story for the man who cannot afford to spend six-figures on an attorney.
To fix marriage, we must first fix divorce
If we want marriage to make a comeback—and we should, for the sake of children, women, men, and society as a whole because the advantages are not figments of researchers’ imaginations—we are up against not only a fancy-free singledom, but also men’s desolate experience of divorce.
Many efforts to reverse marriage resistance are difficult long plays. For instance, the labor market has made it difficult for men to find a job, which impacts women’s willingness to marry them, but economic reform is rarely quick or uncomplicated. When men do marry, women are more likely to file for divorce. The decline in marriage rates is not solely because men are not willing to get married, but also because women are not willing to stay married. The foundations of that problem lay in cultural assumptions that are not easily or quickly broken.
Some realities of divorce, however, are simple to address through family law reform. State budgets and agencies see the impact of fractured families, and state lawmakers have heard the outcry of their constituents.
One of the largely solvable problems concerns the creation of father absent homes through custody assumptions. Since the divorce boom, courts have routinely and habitually awarded custody to mothers and turned fathers into visitors in their children’s lives.
The vast and growing body of research — meta-studies, 43 peer reviewed studies, 110 world experts, and the largest study of children post separation — has refuted the old assumptions about child custody, and grassroots efforts to change custody laws have been spreading across the US for almost a decade. Previous joint custody reforms boosted marriage statistics. This year, twenty-five—half of the states—have a pending shared parenting bill. The details vary by state, but these are essentially rebuttable presumptions for kids to have equal time with both parents post-divorce or parent breakup. This is up from 22 states with bills last year.
As state legislative sessions opened for 2017, I spoke with state representatives about these reform efforts. From Rep. James White in my home state of Texas, to Sen. Laura Ebke in Nebraska, to Rep. Jim Runested in Michigan, and Rep. Tom Kading in North Dakota, they each and all described shared parenting as a classic grassroots concern in which constituents who are caught in the system seek relief from their local lawmakers—and in which members of the public without divorce experience tend to mistakenly assume shared parenting is the norm.
Missouri State Senator Wayne Wallingford has served in Missouri’s legislature since 2010. He received the most feedback, almost all of it positive, from the shared parenting reforms that went into effect in Missouri last summer. “Fathers are tired of walking into court as a parent, and walking out as a visitor in their kids’ lives. Divorce ends a marriage. It shouldn’t end a family.”
Despite Missouri’s new law, Missouri is again one of many states with a shared parenting bill this year. Missouri State Rep. Kathy Swan has sponsored a bill that gives more guidance to judges. We have many studies disproving old assumptions about child custody but courts are creatures of habit. When in doubt, Missouri courts were defaulting to the old assumptions, thus, Missouri needed a clarification bill.
Shared parenting is in the best interests of the children, and it could change a story like John G’s. Men would see a change from their brothers losing everything in a divorce to just losing the marriage. If we reduce that risk then perhaps some men will reconsider marriage and society will realize the benefits of a return to marriage.
Leslie Loftis is an attorney, freelance writer, and member of Leading Women for Shared Parenting. Further research on issues discussed above may be found at their website, lw4sp.org.