form of formal marital dissolution has always been part of human
Women with choice about when and if to become pregnant
and, by extension, an affordable choice when and if to stay in
a marriage, effectively doubles the size of the married population
reconsidering their vows.
If one-half of all marriages will divorce, then statistically
if not culturally, divorce is normal.
the first time in human history, divorce has replaced death as the most
common endpoint of marriage. This unprecedented shift in patterns of human
coupling and uncoupling requires a new paradigm, that is, a more humane
approach for social policy, family law, and marital therapy.
subtitle of this article is borrowed, with grateful permission, from a
carefully researched study by prominent family psychologist William M.
Pinsof, Ph.D. Both intriguing and at times controversial, his essay is
worthy of a wider audience.1
Brief History of Marriage
Beatrice Gottlieb researched marriage in the Western World from 1400 to
1800. From the end of the black plague to the beginning of industrialization,
she found marriages seldom lasted longer than 20 years. During this period:
all broke up, not because of legal action but because of death...The
fragility of marriage was deeply embedded in the consciousness...hardly
anyone grew up with a full set of parents or grandparents. From the
point of view of the married couple, this meant that however fond they
were of each other, they were likely to feel it necessary to make provisions
for a future without the other. Marriage ‘‘contracts’’ were primarily
provisions for widowhood. For couples who were not particularly fond
of each other, it was not unrealistic to dream of deliverance by death.2
were viewed as permanent, but relatively unstable and short lived. ‘‘In
the past when a couple got married they could not help but have ambivalent
expectations about the durability of their relationship,’’ reports Pinsof.
‘‘While they were tightly locked into it and could not easily get out
of it by legal means, they knew very well that the time was probably not
far off they would part.’’
Modern Marital Experience
form of formal marital dissolution has always been part of human experience.
From the mid 19th Century, the dawn of industrialization, the probability
of a marriage ending in divorce (or annulment) hovered below 10 percent.
1974 marked the year that the most common endpoint of marriage became
divorce. By 1985, the divorce rate had steadily increased to over 55 percent.
Over the past 20 years, it has remained level at about 50 percent.
Pinsof uncovered an interesting fact: the mean length of marriage changed
very little over this period of time. It remained surprisingly constant,
hovering at about 20 years. In other words, after almost 600 years, 500
of which the predominant terminator was death, and in modern times divorce,
a substantial body of empirical data inferred hard wiring of one generation.
Death to Divorce Transition
modern human life is dramatically different from its past, this does not,
ipso facto, explain away this seeming anomaly of the family. Dr. Pinsof’s
carefully documented study attempts to identify the reasons behind what
he calls ‘‘the death to divorce transition.’’
and unprecedented transformation is that we live longer and better. From
1900 to 2000, the average human life span increased more than 25 years.
In other words, persons surviving to adulthood can now expect to have
‘‘two adult life cycles’’ when compared to our forbears. As well, the
mortality decline in this century is greater than that which has occurred
during the preceding 250 years.
an increased life span result in longer marriages? Logic suggests yes.
But as the abundant statistics clearly demonstrate, this was not the case.
As people lived longer, the duration of their marriages did not substantially
increase. Instead, dissolution rates skyrocketed.
not only are we living twice as long as our grandparents, but we are living
better qualitatively. A healthy and vigorous life is a reality for many
people in their late 80s. People’s values, goals, and beliefs change as
they age. Are any of us the same at 40 as we were at 20? Or will be at
55 and 80?
most people now marry between the ages of 25 and 35, in all probability
they will have changed, and ‘‘grown’’ substantially by the time they reach
50. The arc of circumstance in life, careers, grown children, death events,
often merge, or even initiate an individual’s capacity for personal growth
and adult development.
alternative explanation is that people’s sense of their relational future
at 35 and 40 is very different now than it was before the 20th Century.
The prospect of another 40 or 50 years with decent health and possibilities
for individual growth in an unhappy relationship is very different than
the prospect of another 10 or so years under the same conditions.
well as living longer and healthier, Dr. Pinsof identifies the changing
‘‘bio-psychosocial’’ roles of women as having an enormous impact on this
transition. The reduced fertility rate, through the diffusion of modern
contraceptive technology, has resulted in much smaller families in the
past half century. Several cited studies demonstrate that the likelihood
of divorce is lower among larger families and greater among smaller ones.
concurrent factor is the rise in women’s income. Financial independence,
especially together with contraceptive freedom, has greatly increased
choice. Women have freedom of opportunity heretofore largely unavailable
for this half of the marital partnership. Women with choice about when
and if to become pregnant and, by extension, an affordable choice when
and if to stay in a marriage, effectively doubles the size of the married
population reconsidering their vows.
Values and the Law
one of the most debated factors in the effort to explain the increase
in divorce in the last 30 years is the reformation of divorce laws, the
rise of ‘‘no-fault.’’ Pinsof cites over 10 independent studies exploring
the impact of no-fault divorce laws. All conclude easing statutory requirements
did not ‘‘cause’’ people who were otherwise inclined, to divorce. Empirical
evidence suggests that blaming divorce on no-fault statutes places the
cart before the horse. It most probably reflects, he concludes, a movement
to minimize the social and legal stigma associated with divorce and reduce
the psychosocial trauma historically associated with it.
to Stay Married/Capacity to Divorce
one-half of all marriages will divorce, then statistically if not culturally,
divorce is ‘‘normal.’’3
This perspective does not view divorce as a failure of the inclination
to remain married but its own event, and one with its own potentially
positive outcome. Pinsof states:
marital therapist who has treated a wide variety of couples over a number
of years, knows that the divorce decision, however initially difficult,
is in a number of circumstances
a positive act. In such circumstances, staying married may reflect an
inability to pursue what may be in the best interests of oneself, one’s
partner, and even one’s children.
capacity to divorce derives from one or both individuals in a couple concluding
that its benefits outweigh that of staying married. In essence, Pinsof
argues that people are rational decision-makers and a disinclination to
stay married is a rational act perceived by the individuals making the
decisions as a beneficial step for their continuing lives. In this day
and age, divorce is not a failure, but to the extent to which an individual
is disposed or inclined to consider it, a realistic and oftentimes positive
come to a tentative explanation of the death to divorce transition, Pinsof
reasons that we must rethink our world to incorporate the new marital
law practitioners will agree with Dr. Pinsof’s conclusion that ‘‘rethinking
domestic relations law is likely to be a lengthy, contentious process.’’
A new system of thought and law must transcend the dichotomous ‘‘marriage
versus everything else’’ model by legally recognizing and appropriately
protecting non-marital cohabiting, non-marital child bearing and child
rearing, as well as marriage.
and case law regarding the family and social policy generally are struggling
to catch up with the new realities of human pair bonding and re-pair bonding.
Examples abound. Attempts are being made to determine and enforce the
rights and obligations of non-marital partners, unmarried parents to their
children, rights of grandparents to their grandchildren, and the rights
of gays and lesbians to marry—and divorce.
courts, and to a lesser extent, legislatures, are coming to increasingly
understand the value of co-parental relationships and protecting healthy
child development as an alternative to adversarial proceedings. The major
challenge to the distigmatization and cultural normalization of marital
dissolution is the creation of non-traumatic legal processes that do not
become party to the acrimony and alienation that many families unnecessarily
and unfortunately bring to the divorce process.
science as well needs to confront the implications of the death to divorce
transition. Conceptualizing divorce as a ‘‘bad outcome’’ whose probability
needs to be reduced misses the point. Uncoupling is here to stay. About
half of all people who marry will probably experience it at some point
in their lives.
needs to move beyond a judgmental attitude towards divorce, and view it
as a normal outcome that may be desirable or undesirable. For example,
‘‘Stop comparing children of divorce to children of marriages,’’ Pinsof
recommends, to determine if divorce is emotionally and physically bad
for children. That is the wrong comparison.
of divorce, if they are to be compared to anyone, should be compared to
children in families with unhappy or deeply troubled marriages. People
who divorce do not do so because they are happy with each other. A substantial
number of couples who divorce have miserable marriages with high rates
of depression and conflict. Pinsof states, ‘‘It is the rare social scientist
who would assert that deeply troubled families are better for child rearing
than a two-home couple that can co-parent collaboratively and effectively.’’
such data is only beginning to emerge, it will most likely confirm the
hypothesis that, in most situations, a good divorce is better for all
concerned than a bad marriage.
for marriages and couples has only recently emerged as a distinct form
of mental health intervention, which by and large has coincided with the
death to divorce transition. Are mental health practitioners integrating
the implications of the death to divorce transition and the emerging pair
bonding paradigm into their theories and interventions?
family and marital therapists help couples stay together and dissolve
their marriages every day, Dr. Pinsof concludes that most forms of therapy
are designed to ‘‘strengthen’’ the marriage. Given that many of their
patients will probably divorce anyway, is it fair to say that therapy
has failed? In medicine for example, it would be irresponsible and unethical
not to train obstetricians to do non-vaginal deliveries, or not to train
oncologists to treat patients who don’t respond to chemotherapy.
health professionals should help couples divorce as well as try to stay
together. They need to develop more explicit theories and practices to
help couples exit from their existing pair bond structure, with minimal
damage to both parties (and their children).
Pinsof believes the mental health profession, in all probability, will
become the primary social educator for marriage’s new paradigm. Increasingly,
they will need to think of themselves as offering a set of services to
couples and potential couples. Services will range from improving their
patients’ marriage, to educating what alternative pair bond structures
are most appropriate at this junction in their lives, to repairing damaged
relationships or facilitate their constructive dissolution.
has replaced death as the primary terminator of marriage. It has statistically
become an overwhelmingly, albeit still an extremely difficult, ‘‘normal’’
life event. A number of factors have caused this death to divorce transition.
The lengthening, and the qualitative improvement of the human life span,
and enhanced opportunity for personal growth are two reasons. Reproductive
technology has brought choice, resulting in smaller families. Social and
economic improvement in women’s lives, finally approaching that of their
husbands, has doubled the couple’s specter of choice.
is no longer the bankruptcy, or bad result of marriage choice. Indeed
it is altogether too common to view it as anything other than culturally
‘‘normal.’’ The emergence of new relationships, family values, and laws
have contributed to a fundamental transformation in pair bonding.
Pinsof’s hope is to further stimulate law, social science, and mental
health practices, to integrate what can be learned about human pair bonding
from the events of the 20th Century into a new paradigm, a new and beneficial
way of betterment for the family in the 21st Century.
This author thanks William M. Pinsof, Ph.D., President of the Family Institute
at Northwestern University and Director of Northwestern Center for Applied
Psychological and Family Studies. His articles, The Death of ‘‘Till Death
Do Us Part’’: The Transformation of Pair Bonding in the 20th Century can
be found at Family Process, Volume 41, No. 2, 2002.
Gottlieb, B. (1993). The family in the Western World: From the Black Death
to the Industrial Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press. P. 108.
Hereafter, for ease of reading, citations to Dr. Pinsof’s thorough recitation
of authority are omittedC For those interested, reference is made to his
‘‘Normal’’ is used in the specific context of the statistical sense—meaning
‘‘most common.’’ See Walsh, Normal Family Processes (1982, 1993).