Andrew Cherlin

In his recent book, “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today,” Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin argues that it’s the high turnover rate of our relationships— as opposed to simply the divorce rate— that contributes to instability in American families. Style talked with him about his findings and his ultimate message, which is to urge Americans to “slow down” how quickly they divorce, re-marry and cohabitate.

Why are Americans unique among Western countries in the high turnover of our intimate partnerships?

Alone among Western countries, we place a high value both on marriage and on individualism and personal choice. You can find some countries that value marriage highly like Italy, and others like Sweden that value personal choice, but none like ours that values both. We’re the only country in the world that’s spending money on marriage promotion— $100 million a year since 2007.

One of these promotional campaigns you discuss is the ‘Marriage Works’ billboards we’ve seen all around Baltimore.

The hope is that these ads will make marriage more attractive to poor teenagers in Baltimore. But I think they already know that ‘marriage works’— they just can’t find a way to get there. Some have very few role models of successful marriage in their neighborhoods. I think the billboards are harmless but not very effective. I’d like to see efforts that help young adults to marry rather than efforts to exhort them to.

The Marriage Go RoundIn your book, you discuss covenant marriage, a stricter form of marriage offered by several states earlier in the decade. You predicted a substantial number of couples would go for it. But that didn’t happen.

It turns out almost no one went for the covenant marriage. I think it’s because young adults don’t want to close the exit door too tightly. I think what most Americans would like is for everyone else to have a covenant marriage, i.e., ‘If you get a divorce, it’s a tragedy. If I do, it’s an unavoidable consequence.’

Perhaps one of the most surprising things your work reveals is that it’s stability— rather than a two-parent household per se— that is most important in the raising of children.

Studies are now suggesting a home with lots of partners coming in and out is difficult for a child to adjust to, maybe more difficult than a stable single-parent home. A stable good marriage is the best arrangement for children, but a stable single-parent household might be second-best, compared to lots of turnover and churning.

Could you see a billboard campaign that says ‘Slow Down’ instead of ‘Marriage Works’?

A ‘Slow Down’ billboard campaign might reduce traffic accidents, but I don’t think it would change much else.

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