America's Marriage Carousel

WEDDINGDavidMcNew:Getty

Random House interviews Andrew Cherlin about his new book:

Some observers have focused on changes in marriage, others on divorce, and others on non-marital births. But I realized that you have to look at the whole pictureall of these aspects togetherto appreciate what was happening. We have more marriages and remarriages, more divorces, and more short-term cohabiting (living together) relationships than the other countries. Put them together and you have more turnover, more movement in and out of relationships than anywhere else. As a result, Americans have more spouses and live-in partners over the course of their lives than do people in any other Western country. We step on and off the carousel of marriages and partnerships faster than anywhere else.

He has a theory why this is:

Americans believe in two contradictory ideals. The first is the importance of marriage: we are more marriage-oriented than most other Western countries. The second is the importance of living a personally fulfilling life that allows us to grow and develop as individualscall it individualism. Now, you can find other countries that place a high value on marriage, such as Italy where most children are born to married couples and there are fewer cohabiting relationships. And you can find countries that place a high value on individualism, such as Sweden. But only in the United States do you find both. So we marry in large numberswe have a higher marriage rate than most countries. But we evaluate our marriages according to how personally fulfilling we find them. And if we find them lacking, we are more likely to end them. Then, because it’s so important to be partnered, we move in with someone else, and the cycle starts all over again.

(hat tip: Justin Wolfers. Photo: David McNew/Getty.)