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Further Reading

Society: Feature

Born to Split

Is Divorce Simply a Matter of Genes?

by S. T. Karnick

One of the trends made possible by modern science is the consistent gravitation of reporters toward findings that tend to absolve people of responsibility for their actions. Making the leap from "possible" to "likely," journalists continually take complex scientific issues and boil them down to explanations that favor the antinomian point of view that dominates contemporary culture.

Case in point: Britain's Daily Telegraph—a basically conservative newspaper—reported late last year on a Swedish study of body chemistry and male-female bonding ("'Divorce gene' linked to relationship troubles," September 1, 2008). Using data on more than 550 twins and their partners or spouses, the researchers "looked at a protein in the body which responds to a chemical called vasopressin, which is central to human bonding. The scientists looked at DNA that flanks [sic] the vasopressin receptor." They found the following, according to the Telegraph:

Men with one version of the gene—called the "334" version, or allele . . . were less likely to be married.

The wives of those [with the allele] who were married were also less satisfied with their marriage than women whose husbands did not have that genetic variant. Those with two copies of it were twice as likely to report having had a marital crisis in the past year, the team report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The story noted that other studies have also suggested that there is a genetic component to unfaithfulness: "Previous studies of twins suggest that both the tendency to be unfaithful and the likelihood of divorce are more likely to be inherited than [are] major illnesses such as high blood pressure and cancer."

Even so, the story acknowledged that the genetic component is not entirely predictive: "[The researcher] stressed that the gene could not be used to predict with any real accuracy how someone is likely to behave in a future relationship." Nonetheless, the story strongly suggested that unfaithfulness is something some people are just stuck with, and that one possible solution, though an admittedly "highly speculative" one, is that "scientists could one day develop drugs to target the gene in an attempt to prevent marriages from falling apart."

More Than Genes

What is fascinating about this sort of reporting is the relentless and often openly gleeful way in which it reduces human beings to a mere mass of chemicals, as reporters and others embrace the idea that people have little ultimate choice in what they do. Absent from this story—and a multitude of others like it—is any mention of the notion that we make conscious choices about what we do, nor is any attention paid to the countless other chemicals in the body that might have an effect on the characteristics studied here.

Divorce Rates Over the Last 50 Years

The facts tell a different story, as the graph of divorce rates shows. If genetics are so important a cause of unfaithfulness and divorce, how can they have varied so radically over such a short period of time? What massive genetic change overcame the population to cause such a radical jump in divorce rates beginning in the mid-1960s?

Of course, the raw numbers don't tell how happy or unhappy these people were in their marriages, but the reality is that genetics cannot be the sole, or even main, cause of the kind of change shown in the chart. On the other hand, divorce statistics correspond very strongly with known social, cultural, and legal factors. Obviously, the genetic component is just that—a component—and clearly a rather small one.

Costs of Divorce

It's certainly important to identify the real causes of changing divorce rates, since nearly half of all marriages in the United States now end in divorce. Yet even this statistic must be qualified. It is important to note that about two-thirds of first marriages do not end in divorce; the overall rate is skewed higher because of multiple marriages and divorces among those in the one-third of first marriages that do fail. Even so, one-third is a distressingly high failure rate, since, as American Enterprise Institute scholar Kevin Hassett has pointed out, divorce can have "terrible consequences both for the individuals involved and for society as a whole."

In a column for Bloomberg.com ("Christie Brinkley's Not Only Victim of Divorce," July 14, 2008), Hassett describes, for example, the financial costs of failed marriages on the families involved, especially the women. He writes: "Researchers at Ohio State University found that while divorce reduces a person's wealth by an average of 77 percent, men typically have 2.5 times the wealth of women after a divorce."

Hassett also identifies the high social costs of divorce, especially the toll it takes on children. He cites a 2005 study by Pennsylvania State University sociology professor Paul Amato, as summarized in a literature review by three economists, who wrote:

Amato reports that if the same share of children lived with their biological parents today as did in 1980, about 300,000 fewer children between the ages of 12 and 18 would repeat a grade, 485,000 fewer would be suspended from school, 250,000 fewer would need psychotherapy, 210,000 fewer would be involved in violence, and 30,000 fewer would attempt suicide every year.

Government or Science?

Hassett then asks the important question: Since divorce is so damaging both to individuals and to society, what can we do to help strengthen marriages so that they don't break apart as often as they do? While acknowledging that Washington policymakers have tried to do something—"over the past decade or so, a number of steps have been taken"—he also notes that their efforts "have hardly made a dent in the problem. That's evident both from the macroeconomic trends, which continue to worsen, and from the scientific literature."

Citing the 1996 welfare reform act, the 2002 Healthy Marriage Initiative, and President Bush's 2001 tax cuts (which, among other things, reduced the "marriage penalty") as examples of federal programs that have not worked, Hassett says that we should look to science to solve the problem:

Commit to using the scientific method to discover innovative public programs that work. A good way to do this would be to provide ample research grants for pilot programs designed to encourage family formation, and to consider relying on faith-based initiatives in this area as well.

This seems worth a try, but given that all the national-government efforts to strengthen marriage have gone for approximately naught, perhaps we should think more basically about government's proper role regarding marriage and divorce, and look at the fundamental rationale behind laws regulating the dissolution of marriages. After all, before we run to government to solve the problem, we should make sure that government isn't actually helping cause it.

No-Fault at Fault

As it turns out, government has indeed been a major factor in rising divorce rates, and the policy that has done the most damage is no-fault divorce. Enacted in state after state beginning in the 1960s, no-fault divorce laws were put in place for a highly compassionate reason (which itself ought immediately to arouse suspicion): to keep people from being trapped in unhappy marriages, especially ones in which children would be exposed to hostility between their parents on a daily basis.

Even the most cursory look at daily news stories will show just how dismally no-fault divorce has fared at achieving its goal of ridding society of all bad marriages and retaining only the good ones. One might, from these stories, even come to suspect that there is a causal connection between no-fault divorce and a rise in domestic violence, which has coincided with the implementation of such policies across the nation.

That's because, far from reducing the number of unhappy marriages, no-fault divorce actually undermines all marriages, by creating an easy "out" for every married person. All marriages have their ups and downs, but with no-fault divorce, each spouse is always vulnerable to the possibility that the other will simply call it quits during one of the "downs." It gives all marriages an inherent instability.

It is important to emphasize that no-fault divorce laws undermine all marriages at all times, by weakening each party's trust of the other. This is true regardless of how strongly the spouses may love each other or be committed to marriage in general and their marriage in particular.

Contractual Responsibility

This suggests an urgent need to rethink our divorce laws. The key is to recognize that as far as society is concerned, marriage is a contract between two individuals. Now, one of the central roles of government is to enforce contracts. No-fault divorce, therefore, can be characterized as an abdication by the state of its responsibility to enforce a particularly vital and consequential contract.

Hence, a central aspect of the effort to strengthen marriage in the United States should be for states to repeal their no-fault divorce laws and replace them with laws that would permit divorce only for compelling reasons. As with laws governing any contract, those governing marriage should require any party calling for a divorce to show that the other party has violated the marriage contract so egregiously that the only fair outcome is for the contract to be dissolved and the wronged party to receive just compensation.

This is a fairly simple but not simplistic proposal. Certainly, it would leave much discretion to judges, juries (potentially), and, of course, to the parties to the marriage. But it would be truly liberating for all marriages because it would remove the instability that undermines trust.

Of course, it stands to reason that making divorce more difficult to obtain would result in a lower the number of divorces, but the crucial point to understand here is that the ease or difficulty of divorcing has a synergistic effect through its impact on spousal trust: Government undermines marriages by making the contract easy to dissolve, and it strengthens marriages by making dissolution more difficult.

More Factors Involved

Undoubtedly, religious and cultural factors must also affect divorce rates, and they could certainly contribute much to an effort to strengthen marriage. A recent Barna poll, for example, refuted the now-common belief that evangelical Christians have a higher divorce rate than the US population as a whole. In addition, a 2007 essay in the New York Times pooh-poohing divorce as a social issue ("Divorced From Reality," September 29, 2007) included the following useful information:

The story of ever-increasing divorce is a powerful narrative. It is also wrong. In fact, the divorce rate has been falling continuously over the past quarter-century, and is now at its lowest level since 1970. While marriage rates are also declining, those marriages that do occur are increasingly more stable. For instance, marriages that began in the 1990s were more likely to celebrate a 10th anniversary than those that started in the 1980s, which, in turn, were also more likely to last than marriages that began back in the 1970s.

A look at divorce certificates—certainly a superior method of measuring divorce rates—confirms this trend, the article notes:

The narrative of rising divorce is also completely at odds with counts of divorce certificates, which show the divorce rate as having peaked at 22.8 divorces per 1,000 married couples in 1979 and to have fallen by 2005 to 16.7.

The authors' description of events is rather deceptive, however, as a look at the graph above and the New York Times authors' numbers will demonstrate: US divorce rates have indeed dropped by about six percentage points in the last three decades, but only after rising by twice that much, a dozen points, in about a decade after the late 1960s. The rate is still almost twice as high as it was in the late 1950s.

Clearly, divorce rates rose as the Sixties' mentality spread through the population and as no-fault divorce became common. That would seem to confirm the influence of religious and cultural factors, in addition to the legal changes. Then, as the Do Your Own Thing poison began to work its way out of our national veins, and as people became used to the new rules regarding marriage, things turned around somewhat and we began making achingly slow progress toward a better marriage culture.

Personal Responsibility

But divorce rates in the United States are still far too high by historical standards, so although cultural and religious efforts are certainly important, it's not implausible to think that their effect has been blunted by the state governments' refusal to treat the marriage contract as an immensely serious commitment that should not be sundered without either strong agreement from both parties (which is not the case with most divorces, including no-fault ones) or a sufficiently egregious breach of the contract by one of the parties. That is what divorce laws did before the no-fault trend arose.

Yet, even as we acknowledge and begin to deal with the effect of government and culture on divorce, it is important to continue a strong espousal of the reality of personal choice. The tendency to reduce the complexity of human behavior and motive down to nothing and instead to see people as hopelessly reactive to external stimuli and internal chemistry is a thoroughly deterministic and demoralizing point of view. If we embrace such notions, we will surely create even more excuses for divorce, and that in turn will seriously undermine any effort to reform our divorce laws. 




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