Undoubtedly, we’ve all heard something along the lines of “the divorce rate is so high in America!” Have you ever wondered why? Maybe you have a couple theories. Is romantic love, which is seen by Westerners as the only proper basis for marriage, just not a fundamental enough glue? Or does it involve the emergence of greater independence in women? I decided to delve deeper and took to the scientific discipline of sociology. My goal here is to analyze the social institution of marriage through three theoretical perspectives and supply some informed guesses as to why the divorce rate in the US has burgeoned over the past century. (click on pictures to enlargen)
The first of the three theoretical frameworks and also the one that I most identify myself with is symbolic interactionism. The central tenet of this perspective is that symbols, things we attach meaning to, are essential to comprehending how we view the world and communicate with one another.
Imagine this classical scenario: you are absolutely in love and it is the night before your wedding. Just thinking of tomorrow brings a distinct, elevated bliss to your eyes. The lips part perfectly to reveal your pearly whites. As you wait in immeasurable anticipation, your mother approaches you in tears. Still crying, she tells you that she had a child before she married your father and she gave up that child for adoption. Now in staccato sentences she tells you that she just discovered that the girl you are going to marry is this child.
Whoa. Hold on a second. See how the symbol you have attached to this girl just changed. Not only did the symbol change, your behavior drastically changed too, I bet. The symbol of fiancé and sister are entirely different, and each symbol requires a different behavior! Moreover, not only do relationships rely on symbols, but so does society!
Now that we have an intuitive sense of what symbolic interactionism is, let’s apply it to marriage and see how it works instead of fixating on jargon. To lay the groundwork, it’s critical to understand that marriage was, at first, seen as a lifelong commitment. Less than a century ago, divorce was seen as immoral, an abandonment of adult responsibilities, and a disregard for public opinion. What changed?
—> The meaning of marriage: In the late roaring 1920’s and 30’s, sociologists of the time reported that young people placed more emphasis on personality of potential mates. People expected more compatibility, affection, and understanding in marriage. At this point, marriage was viewed as an arrangement less based on obligation and duty and more on feelings of attraction and intimacy. It became an arrangement that one could break when feelings changed.
—> The meaning of divorce: As the prevalence of divorced increased, its meaning changed. Divorce came to symbolize freedom and a new beginning rather than failure. The stigma from divorce faded and was no longer an effective force that prevented husbands and wives from calling quits.
—> The meaning of parenthood: Back then, parents had less responsibility for their children in terms of providing food, clothing, shelter, and moral guidance. In industrial societies, however, we assume children are vulnerable and must depend on their parents for financial and emotional support for many years, often until the mid 20s. This greater responsibility we assign to parenthood may be placing a heavy burden on the marriage.
—> The meaning of love: We expect “true love” to supply unwavering emotional highs. This expectation sets people up for crushed hopes, as dissatisfactions in marriage are inevitable. When dissatisfactions do drop by, spouses tend to blame one another for failing to meet the expectations.
In total, the classic symbolic interactionist will say that these changing symbols, or ideas, of marriage are responsible for providing a path toward making divorce more acceptable.
The second theoretical framework we shall utilize is functional analysis. Its central tenet is that society is a whole unit, made up of interrelated parts that work together. When all parts of society fulfill their functions, society is “normal.” Otherwise, it is in a “pathological” state. As we begin to apply functional analysis to marriage, you will internalize what functional analysis is all about.
According to functional analysis, industrialization and urbanization have undermined the traditional functions of the family. Before industrialization, the family formed an economic team—the wife was in charge not only of household tasks but also of raising small animals, churning butter, and milking cows. She also did the cooking, sewing, washing, and cleaning. The daughters helped. The husband was responsible for large animals (horse and cattle), for planting and harvesting, and for maintaining buildings and tools. The sons helped.
This is a stark contrast from today’s life isn’t it? Anyways, how does this relate to divorce? Before, the husband and wife depended on each other for survival. Other functions that kept family members bound to one another included educating children, teaching religion, and caring for the sick and elderly. When family loses function, its fragility increases, and divorce becomes inevitable. The changes in economic production can show us how the family has lost its previous functions. Living is no longer a cooperative effort, in which husband and wife depend on one another. Today, husbands and wives earn individual paychecks and increasingly function as separate components. The fewer functions family members share, the fewer their ties. Right?
The last theory we shall visit is conflict theory. The biggest name associate with this class of thinking is Karl Marx—one of the grandest thinkers of his time. The main tenet of conflict theory is that society is composed of groups that are competing for scarce resources. How can this theory help us analyze marriage? Here’s how: let’s focus on how men’s and women’s relationships have changed. For almost ever, men have dominated women, and women had little alternatives other than to accept their exploitation. As the world became more industrialized, women started gaining the ability to meet their basic survival needs without being married. This premier ability endowed them the power to refuse to bear burdens the earlier generations had simply accepted. The grand result of interest is that women are likely to terminate a marriage that becomes unbearable, or even simply unsatisfactory.
To rehash, the dominance of men over women was always assumed. As women became educated and started earning, they questioned and, shortly, rejected this assumption. The divorce rate increased as wives gained more power and grew less inclined to put up with unfair relationships. Then, the elevated divorce rate didn’t arise because marriage weakened, but rather that women are progressing in their age-old struggle with men.
Each theoretical perspective produces a different picture of divorce, right? The story these perspectives tell are starkly different from the nonscientific conjecture that two people are just “incompatible,” right? Hopefully each perspective got you to see marriage and divorce form a different, enlightening angle. Feel free to comment or critique on my Facebook.
Henslin, J. (2013). Essentials of sociology. (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Inc.