Are Americans Polygamous?

Is marriage a failed institution in America? Is it polygamy that we're looking for?

Our divorce rate has increased 600 per cent since the Civil War. Its trend is still upward. Two marriages in five now end in divorce. (No one knows how many persons, unable to afford the luxury of divorce, simply "take up" with another mate.) Ten years hence, it is estimated, one marriage in two will conclude in the courts. Who says Americans are monogamous?

Business certainly could not endure as a stable system if two out of five business contracts reached the courts. What must be the effect upon marriage as the contracting parties enter upon it in a nation where so large a part of the contracts are broken? To what degree does the instability of American marriage breed instability?

The casualties of American marriage are higher than those of our wars, and more damaging to the country. You see the scars in the truncated spirit, the embittered heart, and the cynical mind. You see the wounds in the bewildered children of the divorced—displaced persons from the American home. Who shall calculate their pain and ingrowing misery?

The casualties of American marriage indicate our most unhappy national failure. For if a man fails in the central relationship of his life, if his family is shattered and the family security of his children is destroyed, his home is obviously worthless.

This is not to decry the uses of divorce. It is to say that however "right" divorce may be in a given case, it nonetheless marks a grave breakdown in man's most important relationship. And since divorce is an omnipresent fact in our national life, with its rate constantly increasing, American marriage, on the evidence, is a monumental failure. How did this come to be?

Forty years ago, a woman who indulged in extra-marital relations not only gravely endangered her marriage, but the penalty of discovery was often banishment from the society of so-called "nice" people. Forty years ago, a girl who indulged in pre-marital relations gravely endangered her chances of marriage. Today, as we know, effective prohibitions are no longer in force. The married woman who has a love affair may be the subject of gossip but, unless she uses a gun, is not an outcast within her own group. The premarital relations of girls, which have been stimulated by the war, are so common that young men, by their own testimony, no longer expect to marry a virgin. Thousands of girls' letters ask the same question of columnists for the lovelorn: "How can I be 'popular' and virginal?" There is no doubt that the change in our sexual morals over these forty years has had a direct effect upon our divorce rate.

I am not arguing that we are necessarily "worse" than our ancestors; I am simply looking certain facts in the face. Consider the car which enables couples to escape the eyes of the community; consider also the widespread knowledge of contraception which enables them to escape the biological consequences of their sexual acts. Who shall say how our elders might have behaved in the 1890's if these factors had been present?

With our departure from the old sexual standards and with promiscuity made inviting by both world wars, one can mark the growing irresponsibility toward marriage. Marriage has been made almost meaningless by many who marry with the reservation that if they do not like the marriage, they will quickly get out of it. Whenever the parties enter into the marriage contract with an escape clause in their minds, it is a marriage of the market place, as when one buys a stove upon thirty days' trial. Yet such marriages, which in many cases are merely the expression of an unconscious desire to have the law bless a fleeting experimental mood, are performed every day, and this with the general approbation of the community, for they could neither exist without that approbation nor be conceived in an atmosphere hostile to them.

No people can take marriage seriously who take divorce lightly, even jocularly. Picture magazines display pages of photographs of divorce court scenes as casually as if they were fashion shows. Gossip columns, read by the millions, gleefully speculate upon prospective divorces among the well-known. Metropolitan newspapers carry announcements of the multiple marriages and divorces of the fashionable, for Names Make News. These facts are significant in any appraisal of our manners, since in our allegedly classless society the masses tend to ape the classes.

This is the land where we mouth noble words about marriage, and set up profitable red-light districts of divorce. These districts are Nevada, Arkansas, Florida, California, Wyoming—and others are eager to enter the trade. This is the country, and these are the states, where the marriage contract, alone among contracts, may be broken at will—even though, nine times out ten, the breaking is a travesty of the law because it is an act of collusion between the parties.

In these districts no questions are asked. The test is simply that of a house of prostitution: ability and willingness to pay for the services demanded. Residence is established by hanging up your hat, and a hat for the hanging may be rented. Divorce is granted for good reason or no reason. The complainant's whim is the state's will. Divorce is big business. Competition is keen, and while the state, in its organized harlotry, does not send its girls to meet the train, the traveler is sure of a hearty welcome by the Madame masquerading as a judge in what—God help us—is known as a court of justice. Competitive pressure has reduced the required period of legal residence in Nevada from six months to six weeks.

Business magazines report divorce business as they report sales of sewer pipe. Business Week (July 14, 1945) says:—

Estimates of what the divorce business means to Reno run from $3,000,000 to $4,000,000 a year. It costs...$500 to $600 to get a divorce in Reno...Counsel fees vary widely. The basic fee is said to be $100 in Las Vegas, $150 in Reno. From there it ranges up to about $5,000 for the average wealthy client, a great deal more for the fabulously rich (Gloria Vanderbilt is said to have paid $25,000 for her freedom; Barbara Hutton $50,000).

Nevada, with 0.1 per cent of our population, grants more than 2 per cent of our divorces. But the greatest increase in the divorce traffic was recorded in 1945 in Los Angeles County, California, where 17.083 decrees were entered. This is almost double the Nevada trade, and three times the divorce sales of a rising competitor—Miami, Florida. We have, then, the revolting spectacle of several states scrambling for divorce business as they do for the tourist trade. Man's most significant personal relationship is sundered in an atmosphere of chicanery and buffoonery.

Why do our marriages fail so widely? The reasons are many and complex, but only a few can be touched upon here.

It may be that in this era of revaluation of values, we are slowly abandoning our ancient concepts of marriage and the family as we move toward new forms whose shapes are still inchoate. Man's relation to God, the state, the family, and marriage have all come under increasingly sharp scrutiny and have been subjected to various degrees of change since the French Revolution. Two hundred years ago there began the gradual dechristianization of the West, in the sense that man, not God, was enthroned at the center of the universe. The consequences are necessarily profound and all-pervasive. But mankind does not trust itself. The period since 1914 has been marked by wars, revolutions, crashings of empires, risings of dictators, and destruction unparalleled in history. Men yearn for a security which does not exist. They seek a faith which they do not find in their religions. Their moorings have been swept away. They scarcely know what to believe or where to turn.

Presented by

David L. Cohn

David I. Cohn was a regular Atlantic contributor during the mid-1900s. A Mississippi native who studied at the University of Virginia and Yale, he authored books as diverse as African American history (God Shakes Creation), American industry (The Good Old Days), and and matrimony (Love in America).

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