"The Marriage-Go-Round"

August 17, 2009

The U.S. has the highest divorce rate in the world, but what is even more interesting is that "We divorce, repartner, and remarry faster than people in any other country," says Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins sociologist and author of the new book The Marriage-Go-Round. Because many of the people who create multiple marriages are also parents, American kids are more likely than those in other developed countries to live in a household with a revolving cast of parents, step-parents, and live-in partners moving in and out of their lives—a pattern that is not healthy for children. Cherlin says he was particularly stunned to discover that American kids born to married couples experienced 6 percent more household disruption by age 15 than Swedish kids born to unmarried parents. Experts predicted that the study would find exactly the opposite, since research has long shown that cohabiting relationships are more fragile than married ones. "Remember, we're talking about the 'avant-garde' Swedes compared to the 'conservative' Americans," Cherlin says. When researchers broadened the categories, they were further surprised to find that American families were less stable: 40 percent of American children born into a two-parent family experienced a parental breakup by age 15, compared with 30 percent of Swedish kids. And American kids are 47 percent more likely than Swedish kids to have a stepparent move into their home within three years of a divorce. The further down the economic ladder the parents are, the faster the turnover occurs because splits tend to be less complicated (there's less stuff to divide up before the relationship is dissolved). The bottom line is that while marriage is good for kids, it's best when it results in a stable home. Or as Cherlin puts it, "Many of the problems faced by America's children stem not from parents marrying too little but rather too often."

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