Divorce in America: Historical Perspectives

The purpose of this study is to examine two differing scholarly perspectives on the questions of the history and origins of divorce in America. For many the issue of rising divorce rates in the United States is perceived as a breakdown in basic social structures that provide stability. Recent changes in cultural mores are often cited as the causative factors that underlie the apparent breakdown of the marriage unit in the United States. However, according to at least two authors on the subject, the roots of divorce in the United States have a much longer historical precedent.

In "The Origins of Modern Divorce" Stephanie Coontz evaluates how the development of new ideological perspectives regarding marriage about two hundred years ago dramatically changed the relationship people have towards marriage and consequently the likelihood of divorce. Taking a different tack, Elaine Tyler May discusses the effects of rising affluence and consumerism during the early 20th century in the United States as underscoring increases in divorces in her article "The Pressure to Provide: Class, Consumerism, and Divorce in Urban American, 1880-1920." An evaluation of these two perspectives should reveal much about the historical underpinnings of changing marriage and divorce rates and patterns in the United States. Even though the authors choose very different modes and focuses of investigation, the end result is remarkably similar: the modern rise of divorce in the United States has causes stretching back a century of more.

The Relevant Points-of-View

Coontz argues that the cause of rising divorce rates in the United States is both historical and ideological. By this she means that changing attitudes and beliefs about marriage as an institution that began to occur roughly two hundred years ago had a direct impact on the slow, but steady, rise in divorce rates. Specifically, she points out that historically marriage has been perceived as an institution by which men and women can achieve socials stability and raise children (Coontz 8). However, starting during the Victorian era and taking root in the early 20th century in the United States, a new perspective on marriage emerged. The new paradigm stated that marriage should be based on love and affection primarily and that marriage should be the central commitment that any individual makes in his or her life (Coontz 7-9).

The end result of this change has been that marriage no longer performs the same role as a social stabilizer, and that men and women invest more of their personal identities and life goals in marriage. Thus, when the promise of love and affection do not necessarily materialize, the disillusionment can be so strong as to encourage higher incidences of divorce as individuals can no longer see other reasons to remain married.

Whereas Coontz looks to ideology and changing attitudes to understand rising divorce rates, May examines somewhat more tangible and materialistic issues that had an effect on the institution. Specifically, May makes the case that the emergence of a more affluent society in the latter half o the 19th century and the early 20th century placed new stresses on the institution of marriage and, not coincidentally, parallels the skyrocketing divorce rates in this country (May 180). This point-of-view places the primary cause of rising divorce rates squarely on socioeconomic changes that were occurring in the United States around the turn of the last century. Paradoxically, many might believe that rising affluence would ease pressures on marriage and lead to a decrease in divorce rates. May, however, illustrates how this has not been the case.

One might think that more affluence would mean more financial security, but this only manifested for some individuals. Those couples with more financial security were now faced with new pressures about how to spend their expanded financial resources. For those slightly less affluent concerns about status and limitations on consumption were also prevalent. And for those in the working classes, rising affluence was a far off dream that only increased frustrations and thus pressures on marriage (May 192). As affluence in the United States has continued to rise throughout theā€¦