So, things change. In March, Stephanie Coontz commented on the popular concern that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had been “leading young couples astray” through their premarital cohabitation and childbirth, pointing to Council on Contemporary Families (CCF) research that has demonstrated that both premarital cohabitation and having a baby before marriage actually don’t make a couple more likely to divorce than those who begin their families after marriage. Research has shown that the concern about premarital cohabitation addressed by Coontz in her 2016 revised and updated book, The Way We Never Were, has abated – Americans now hold more favorable views about cohabitation.
Nonetheless, Jolie and Pitt did divorce later this year, though probably not due to their pre-marital cohabitation. Pitt’s divorce is, remarkably, a “gray divorce.” Media coverage concerning gray divorce, or divorce of those over 50, has given the floor to CCF scholars to set the record straight about divorce, a trend about which the general public is becoming less accepting: the percentage of respondents to the National Survey of Family Growth who said that “divorce is usually the best solution when a couple who can’t seem to work out their marriage problems” declined by almost 9 percent for women and 5 percent for men, to 38 percent and 39 percent, respectively, between 2002 and 2011-2013. These beliefs are reflected in practice, too: couples who married in the twenty-first century have lower divorce rates than those who married earlier. (Keep in mind: fewer people marry these days.)
But gray divorce is becoming more common. Today, it’s estimated that 15 percent of people over 50 have been divorced, and that almost 25 percent of divorces in the United States are between people over age 50. When put in historical perspective, this shouldn’t be surprising: Vicki Larson of Quartz recently wrote,
Our current contract—“until death”—might have worked when people didn’t live all that long (according to the American [historian] and author Stephanie Coontz, the average marriage in colonial times lasted under 12 years); or when many women died in childbirth, freeing men to marry multiple times (which they did); and when men of means needed women to cook, clean and caretake, and women needed men for financial security. But that isn’t why we marry nowadays.
In an article about Sarah Jessica Parker’s new HBO program Divorce, CCF historian Steven Mintz pointed out in Time that the freedom to divorce has long been an American ideal, whose justification can be traced to the ideology of the American Revolution. Ronald Reagan, a famous conservative, helped to change divorce laws so that people could do so when they had “irreconcilable differences,” according to Stephanie Coontz.
Vicki Larson of Quartz suggested, in light of a longer history of divorce in the United States and more recent social changes such as increasing life expectancy and gender equality, that it might be appropriate for us to “rethink ‘until death’ [do us part].”
Braxton Jones is a graduate student in sociology at the University of New Hampshire, and serves as CCF Graduate Research and Public Affairs Scholar.