The Institute for 21st Century Relationships

Fast Facts

On the "dangers" to children posed by the "divorce culture" and alternative families
On the "naturalness" of monogamy and the "nuclear family"
On "putting the toothpaste back into the tube" - the changed reality of families today
On the so-called "divorce culture" in America
On the effects of monogamy on women
On "the good old days"
On the "modern epidemic" of teenage and unmarried childbearing

On the "dangers" to children posed by the "divorce culture" and alternative families:
Children are at vastly greater risk of abuse and neglect from biological parents than from caregivers or co-residents unrelated by blood. According to the Third National Incidence Study on Child Abuse and Neglect (1996), 78% of children who suffered maltreatment were maltreated by a birth parent.1

While research consistently finds that children whose parents divorce do seem more likely to suffer emotional harm than those whose families remain intact (providing there is an absence of open conflict in the "intact" home) the fact remains that 75%-80% of children from divorced families experience no negative effects whatsoever. Furthermore, there continues to be strong debate concerning the ability of the research to date to identify the discrete effects of divorce on "average" children as contrasted to the corollary effects of other circumstances that often accompany, precede, or follow the divorce itself.2

The average length of a colonial marriage, principally due to high mortality rates, was less than a dozen years. One third to one half of all children lost at least one parent before the age of twenty-one.3

In 1940, one in ten American children lived with neither biological parent. By the 1990’s, that figure had fallen to one in twenty five.4

Although courts and lawmakers cannot compel a married couple to finance their children’s college education, they can make a divorced parent do so.5

There is real danger in stigmatizing children in non-traditional families. One study found that teachers shown videotapes of children in a variety of settings consistently rated the child’s behavior more negatively when told the child came from a divorced family than when told the child was from an intact family.6

"Examining a nationally representative sample of children and adolescents living in four diverse family structures, we find few statistically significant differences across family types on measures of socioemotional adjustment and well-being."7

"[There is] no clear, consistent, or convincing evidence that alterations in family structure per se are detrimental to children’s development." [Emphasis in the original.]8

A 1976 report reviewing six previous studies of the effects on children of being raised in alternative family forms (the communal family and multilateral [or group] marriage) showed no measurable harm and many positive outcomes for such children.9

A 1983 longitudinal study of children raised in "non-conventional" families in California contrasted their psychological, educational, and social development with that of a control group being raised in conventional families. The study found that 86% of the children from non-conventional families scored above median grades and test scores.10 The study also concluded that "they do not appear on the whole to be suffering significantly from social and emotional problems."11


On the "naturalness" of monogamy and the "nuclear family":
Regarding the "permanence" of social constructs such as monogamous marriage: Our species (a generally moderately polygamous primate) migrated from the African savannah somewhere around 100,000 years ago. This represents approximately three thousand generations of humans – roughly the evolutionary equivalent to a day and a half in the life of bacteria. Aspects of "civilization" such as agriculture, writing, and metalworking arrived less than three hundred generations ago. Our brains, and genetic predispositions, remain firmly that of our foraging ancestors; all the artifices of "civilization," including lifelong monogamy, are of such fleeting duration as to leave no meaningful impression on our genetic "hard-wiring."12

Estimates of the incidence of marital infidelity in the United States range from 20% to 50%.13 One estimate rated the percentage of all Americans who would have an extramarital affair during their lives as high as 70%!14

One indisputable measure of the prevalence of infidelity is the consistent finding, aided by DNA testing, that up to 15% of the children in some urban areas are not the biological children of the "father of record."15

The "household" of husband, wife, and biological children is such a recent social construct that demographers can’t accurately track it before 1940.16

"Before the eighteenth century, no European language had a term for the mother-father-children group." [Emphasis added].17

One researcher offered a "conservative" estimate in 1988 that 2 to3 percent of all U. S. adults have "swung" (i.e., engaged in consensual sexual non-exclusivity) at least once, which gives a numerical value of between 3.1 and 4.7 million people, based on the 1990 census figures for Americans aged 26 and older.18,19 This number is greater than the 1998 population figures of 29 states!


On "putting the toothpaste back into the tube" - the changed reality of families today:
There has been a 15% increase in the median age at first marriage (from 23.2 years old to 26.8 years old) for men, and a 20% increase (from 20.8 years old to 25 years old) for women, between 1970 and 1997.20

It is estimated that 40% of children in the United States will, at some point in their childhood, live in a household where the adults are cohabiting rather than being legally married.21

Despite claims to the contrary, there is credible research that suggests that cohabiting partners reap the same psychological benefits as married partners do.22

Americans are choosing to live alone at unprecedented rates. In 1998, over 26 million Americans age 15 or older (over 15 million women and 11 million men) were living alone.23 This represents a huge shift from the past when the majority of unmarried people lived with blood relatives. To some observers, this suggests a new form of "kinship" based on intentional selection rather than accidents of birth, with profound implications for the future legal and social meaning of "family."24

Nearly half of all U.S. marriages are remarriages for at least one of the spouses.25

About one out of five U.S. married couples live with stepchildren.26

The proportion of adults who describe themselves as "happily married" has fallen from approximately half in 1973 to less than 40%.27

Cohabitation is increasingly a routine part of life for Americans. By 1995, over 41% of American women between the ages of 15 and 44 had cohabited at least once in their lives,28 up from about a third as recently as 1988.29

One consequence of our increased longevity is the concomitant decline in the proportion of our lives spent in the parenting role historically seen as so central to marital harmony. The average U. S. couple that stays together after their children are grown now faces more than a third of a century with no other company in the home besides each other.30

A 1995 Harris poll showed 90% agreement with the statement that society "should value all types of families."31


On the so-called "divorce culture" in America:
Contrary to stereotypes, modern divorce is not primarily a phenomenon of male (or female) "mid-life crisis." Examining worldwide statistics on divorce reveals that 81% of all divorces occur before age 45 among women; 74% of all divorces occur before age 45 among men.32 In the United States, the median age at divorce from a first marriage in 1990 was 33.2 for men and 31.1 for women.33

The monolithic monogamist view that "easy" divorce is shortening the duration of nuclear families is belied by the evidence of the past. Just taking into account shortened lifespans, nuclear families were intact for shorter periods historically than is true today.34

Americans for Divorce Reform ("Reform" = re-instituting fault-based divorce) approvingly quotes Iowa State Representative Charles Hurley as saying in 1996, "The guardrails were taken down in 1970 and a lot of marriages that would have stayed on the road and maybe bounced off the guardrails have instead gone over the cliff." Many commentators seem to agree with this timing for the "no-fault divorce revolution."35 Connecticut, for example, passed a law that allowed divorce for "any such misconduct as permanently destroys the happiness of the petitioner and defeats the purpose of the marriage relation." - in 1849.36

The Catholic Church did not finally codify its ban on divorce until 1563. So, counting from the time of the birth of Jesus Christ, divorce was permitted, even in the Catholic Church, for nearly three times as long as it has been prohibited.37

Marriage was not even considered a sacrament by the Catholic Church until 1215.38

According to a General Accounting Office report issued on January 31, 1997, there are no fewer than 1,049 "federal laws in which benefits, rights, and privileges are contingent on marital status."

The United States has had the highest divorce rate in the world – since 1889.39


On the effects of monogamy on women:
The first written evidence of laws treating women as chattels or the possessions of men dates to about 1100 B.C. in Mesopotamia.40

Plow (as opposed to hand cultivation using "digging sticks" and the like) agriculture marked the fundamental turning point in the creation of a sexual double standard that cemented monogamy in place and relegated women to a subordinate role. It emphasized the male role because generally only men had the strength to operate the animal-driven plow effectively, and de-emphasized the female role of providing for the family by foraging. As Helen Fisher notes, "With the advent of plow agriculture, neither husband nor wife could divorce. They worked the land together. Neither partner could dig up half the soil and depart. They had become tied to their mutual real estate and to one another – permanent monogamy."41

Jealousy over real and/or perceived infidelity is among the most frequently cited causes of domestic homicides in the United States.42

In 1989, more women were abused by their husbands than got married in the same period.43

In 1955, tranquilizer use in America was virtually nonexistent. By 1958, (mostly female) Americans were taking 462,000 pounds of pills. Just a year later, that number nearly tripled to 1.15 million pounds.44


On "the good old days":
America has a long history of viewing any non-approved sexuality extremely seriously, and punishing it harshly. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, for example, in 1631 included adultery and sodomy along with treason, murder, and rape as capital offenses punishable by death.45 In 1645 the Massachusetts court ordered 18-year old Mary Latham hanged for adultery.46 Didn’t work, though. Over half the divorce cases in seventeenth century New England cited adultery as a cause.47

Gays and lesbians were subject to harsh punishment in colonial times as well. Despite very high standards of proof required before the death penalty could be handed down, the records show at least five men were executed for sodomy or buggery in the colonies during the seventeenth century. Public whipping was the more frequently handed down penalty for both men and women, though being burned with a hot iron was also a possibility.48

Talmudic rabbis prescribed the sexual frequency within marriage, based on occupation and status.  If these standards were not met, it constituted grounds for the wife to request a divorce.49

Notwithstanding the furor over contemporary high school dropout rates, as recently as the 1940’s, less than half the young people entering high school managed to finish.50

"In the 1820’s, per capita consumption of alcohol was almost three times higher than it is today..."51


On the "modern epidemic" of teenage and unmarried childbearing:
The rate of live births to teenagers 15-19 in 1997 was 52.9 per 1000. It was 90.3 per 1000 in 1955. 52

Over half of all births in Sweden and nearly 40% of all births in France and Great Britain were to unmarried women in 1997. The comparable U.S. figure was barely over 30%.53


1. Sedlak, A. J. and D. D. Broadhurst. Third National Incidence Study of Child Abuse and Neglect. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1996.

2. Hetherington, E. M., M. Bridges, and G. M. Insabella. "What matters? What does not? Five perspectives on the association between marital transitions and children’s adjustment". American Psychologist, 53, pp. 167-184, 1998.

3. Greven, Philip. Four Generations: Population, Land, and Family in Colonial Andover, Massachusetts. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970, and Fox, Vivian, and Martin Quit. Loving, Parenting, and Dying: The Family Cycle in England and America, Past and Present. NY: Psychohistory Press, 1980, p. 401, cited in Coontz, Stephanie. The Way We Never Were: American families and the nostalgia trap. NY: Basic Books, 1992, p. 10.

4. Coontz (1992), p. 15.

5. Beck, Phyllis. "A Balancing Act." in Sigel, Irving and Louis Laosa (eds.). Changing Families. NY: Plenum, 1983.

6. Guttman, Joseph, Nehemia Geva and Sally Gefen. "Teachers’ and School Children’s Stereotypic Perception of the Child of Divorce," American Educational Research Journal 25, 1988.

7. Acock, Alan C., and David H. Demo. Family Diversity and Well-Being. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994, p. 213.

8. Gottfried, Adele Eskeles, and Alan W. Gottfried (eds.). Redefining Families: Implications for Children’s Development. NY: Plenum, 1994, p. 224

9. Constantine, Larry L., and Joan M. Constantine. Treasures of the Island: Children in Alternative Families. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, Inc., 1976.

10. Weisner, T., M. Bausano, and M. Kornfein. "Putting family ideals into practice: Pronaturalism in conventional and non-conventional California families." Ethos 11 (4), Winter, 1983, pp. 278-304.

11. Weisner, et al, cited in Kilbride, Philip L., Plural marriage for our times: a reinvented option. Westport, CT: Bergen & Garvey, 1994, p. 20.

12. Ridley, Matt. The Red Queen: sex and the evolution of human nature. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1994, pp. 10, 188-89.

13. Lampe, P. E. (ed.). Adultery in the United States: Close Encounters of the Sixth (or Seventh) Kind. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1987.

14. Marriage and Divorce Today, June 1, 1987, cited in Fisher, Helen E. Anatomy of Love: the natural history of monogamy, adultery and divorce. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1992, p. 86.

15. Wilson, M. and M. Daly. "The man who mistook his wife for a chattel." In Barkow, J. H., L. Cosmides, and J. Tooby (eds.). The Adapted Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, pp. 289-322.

16. Hayghe, Howard V. "Family members in the work force," Monthly Labor Review, March 1990, pp.14-19, cited in Graff, E. J. What is Marriage For? Boston: Beacon Press, 1999, p. 98.

17. Gies, Frances, and Joseph Gies. Marriage and Family in the Middle Ages. New York: Harper and Row, 1987, p. 4.

18. Karlen, Arno. Threesomes: Studies in sex, power and intimacy. New York: Beech Tree Books, William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1988, p. 179.

19. Statistical Abstract of the United States – 1999. U.S. Census Bureau.

20. Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1998. U.S. Census Bureau.

21. Bumpass, L. L., and H. H. Lu. "Trends in cohabitation and implications for children’s family contexts in the United States." Population Studies, 54, pp. 29-41, 2000.

22. Ross, C. E. "Reconceptualizing marital status as a continuum of social attachment." Journal of Marriage and the Family, 57, pp. 129-140, 1995.

23. Statistical Abstract of the United States – 1999, Tables 61, 87. U.S. Census Bureau.

24. Fisher, (1992) p. 305.

25. Statistical Abstract of the United States – 1999, Table 156. U.S. Census Bureau.

26. Gallagher, Maggie. The Abolition of Marriage: how we destroy lasting love. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1996, p. 70.

27. Ibid., p. 107.

28. Statistical Abstract of the United States – 1999, Table 66. U.S. Census Bureau.

29. Ahlburg, Dennis A., and Carol J. DiVita. "New Realities of the American Family," Population Bulletin 47, no. 2, August 1992, p. 10.

30. Coontz (1992), p. 186.

31. Cited in Coontz, Stephanie. The way we really are: coming to terms with America’s changing families. NY: Basic Books, 1997, p. 95.

32. Fisher, Helen E. "Evolution of human serial pairbonding." American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 78, 1989, pp. 331-54.

33. Clarke, S. C. "Advance Report of Final Divorce Statistics 1989 and 1990." Monthly Vital Statistics Report, Vol. 43, No. 8, suppl., Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 1995.

34. Bohannan, P. All the Happy Families: Exploring the Varieties of Family Life. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985, and Levitan, S. A., R. S. Belous, and F. Gallo. What’s Happening to the American Family? Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

35. See, for example, Gallagher, Maggie, in First Things 75, August/September, 1997, pp. 24-30.

36. Graff, p. 234.

37. Ibid, p. 233.

38. Ibid, p. 196.

39. Coontz (1992), p. 66.

40. Christian Science Monitor, October 28, 1991, p. 20.

41. Bullough, V. L. Sexual Variance in Society and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976, p. 53.

42. Fisher, (1992) pp. 284-85.

43. Baker, R. R., and M. A. Bellis. "Number of sperm in human ejaculates varies in accordance with sperm competition." Animal Behaviour 37, 1989, pp. 867-869.

44. Coontz (1992), pp. 36-7.

45. D’Emilio, John and Estelle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters. New York: Harper and Row, 1988, p. 28.

46. Mary Latham, vol. 38B, pp. 39, 42a Massachusetts State Archives (1645?) cited in D’Emilio and Freedman, p. 11.

47. D’Emilio and Freedman, p. 28.

48. Ibid, pp. 30-31.

49. Noonan, John Thomas, Jr. Contraception: A History of Its Treatment by the Catholic Theologians and Canonists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995, p. 52.

50. Coontz (1992) p. 5.

51. Ibid.

52. Ventura, S. J. and S. C. Curlin. "Declines in teenage birth rates, 1991-97: National and State patterns." National vital statistics reports, vol. 47, no. 12. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 1998, Table 1.

53. Kiernan, Kathleen. "Cohabitation in Western Europe: trends, issues and implications." Paper presented at The National Symposium, "Just Living Together: Implications of Cohabitation for Children, Families, and Social Policy." October 2000, Pennsylvania State University.

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