Did No-Fault Divorce Create A “Divorce Culture”?

01.03.2012, 12:58 AM

Douglas Allen, in an interview Karen linked to, said:

In the 1960s debate [over no-fault divorce], no one thought the divorce rate would change, but it changed enormously and led to a divorce culture.

A lot of social conservatives, like Allen, believe that the evidence strongly supports the view that no-fault divorce caused a permanent change in the culture — a “divorce culture,” in people get divorced at the drop of a hat.

In fact, the best evidence indicates that any changes to the divorce rate caused by no-fault divorce laws were temporary.

Douglas Allen — yes, the same Douglas Allen — and Maggie Gallagher wrote a useful review of the empirical research on no-fault divorce laws and divorce. Allen and Gallagher, both of whom are conservative on marriage issues, cite two papers in particular as the “high water mark” of divorce research, saying that “Friedberg’s study stood as the high-water mark of the no-fault divorce literature
until the arrival of Wolfers (2006).”

Much of the debate over no-fault divorce and divorce rates seemed to be over with the publication of Friedberg’s (1998) seminal work in the American Economics Review. This paper created a panel data set of every divorce in the United States from 1968 to 1988. It used sophisticated econometric techniques to control for state endogeneity and changes in behavior over time. She tested for different legal classifications, and performed a series of robustness tests. In the end she found that no-fault divorce laws led to a 6% higher divorce rate and that they accounted for about 17% of the increase in divorces over the time period studied. She also found that the change was permanent, and exogenous. Differences between states and changes over time, however, accounted for most of the divorce trends. She concluded: “The results above make it clear that unobserved covariates and unobservable divorce propensities — which may include for instance, social attitudes, religious beliefs, and family size — are the main determinants of divorce.”

Friedberg’s study is excellent, but it had one unavoidable limitation: Because it was conducted so soon after many states instituted no-fault divorce laws, it was not able to distinguish between permanent changes and temporary changes. When Wolfers replicated Friedberg’s study in 2006, extending it with up to date data (pdf link), he found that the increase in the divorce rate Friedberg had observed disappeared after about ten years.

A clear finding from this analysis is that the divorce rate exhibits interesting dynamics in response to a change in legal regime. [...] The data broadly indicate that divorce law reform led to an immediate spike in the divorce rate that dissipates over time. After a decade, no effect can be discerned. [...] It should be clear that unilateral divorce laws explain very little of the rise in the aggregate divorce rate.

Allen and Gallagher classify Wolfers as evidence that no-fault divorce laws led to a change in divorce rates, and technically they are correct. However, for most people, the difference between a temporary change in divorce rates and a lasting change in divorce rates is essential.

If “after a decade, no effect can be discerned,” then it is not legitimate to claim that the divorce law reforms of the 60s and 70s created a permanent “divorce culture,” and were a disastrous change. Rather, it seems as if the change to the laws had virtually no long-term effect on the divorce rate; the law changed in response to the culture changing, but it did not itself create cultural change.


31 Responses to “Did No-Fault Divorce Create A “Divorce Culture”?”

  1. [...] [A crosspost from Family Scholars Blog.] [...]

  2. Any Mouse says:

    Since divorce rates and marriage rates are calculated independently of each other (per 1000 any persons, rather than 2 per 1000 married couples), it might be helpful to ask what effect this temporary divorce effect had on marriage rates themselves. If marriage rates fall, divorce rates must also fall.

  3. gregorylent says:

    no, it’s evolution of consciousness that is making marriage drop away into the past.

    the early stages of this are the increase in the concept of individual self-fulfillment.

    this proceeds into an expanded understanding of what it means to be a human being.

    in the course of that expansion one naturally realizes the unity of life, develops new social structures that reflect this unity, discovers the ability of intention in a developed awareness to be able to create better circumstances, and the fulfillment formerly found in marriage is now part of the common fabric of society.

    nature is wiser than we are.

  4. R.K. says:

    Friedberg’s study is excellent, but it had one unavoidable limitation: Because it was conducted so soon after many states instituted no-fault divorce laws, it was not able to distinguish between permanent changes and temporary changes.

    However, for most people, the difference between a temporary change in divorce rates and a lasting change in divorce rates is essential.

    So you are thus saying that it is quite possible that a change could be apparent in the immediate years following a change in a law, but that it should not be thus extrapolated that the change will be apparent after a longer period of time.

    Yet you are not as willing to accept the converse: that no change could be apparent in the immediate years following a change in a law, but that it should not be thus extrapolated that the change will not be apparent after a longer period of time.

  5. Ledasmom says:

    Well, it does make sense that there would be a spike in divorces right after the law changed that might not carry over to following years – there would be a backlog, so to speak, of unhappily-marrieds who were suddenly able to divorce.

  6. RK, I can certainly accept that it could be the case that the changes from a law won’t be immediately measurable, but will be visible after a greater period of time passes.

    For example, women’s emancipation. When women first got the right to vote in the US (which happened not all at once, but in some states first), women were much less likely to vote than men were. Some opponents of women voting used this fact to argue (wrongly, imo) that changing the law to allow women to vote was a waste of time. But over the decades since 1919, women’s share of the vote has increased, until women became more-or-less equally likely to vote as men.

    I’d say that shows that just having the right to vote wasn’t enough, for women to be equal voters. What was required for men and women to vote equally was both equal legal rights and a couple of generations of women to be born into the habit of voting.

    So, sure, that happens.

    But if that’s your claim regarding SSM, it’s up to you to describe in empirical terms what changes you predict will result, and when those changes will be measurable. It’s also important that you describe a plausible chain of causation leading to the outcome you describe (as Ledasmom just did, for example).

    But please do it on a thread where it’s more on-topic, not on this thread. :-)

  7. R.K. says:

    But please do it on a thread where it’s more on-topic, not on this thread.

    Well, of course, which is why I didn’t even mention SSM or anything else, and why I’m only making the point that whether we are talking about positive effect, negative effect, or no effect, when it comes to cultural things we should not prematurely call “case closed” based on studies only a few years after the legal change (or other type of change) against which we are measuring the effect is introduced. Fair statement? Or are you arguing that we should simply assume the case to be closed after only a few years unless we describe in empirical terms exactly how and when the long-term effect which differs from the apparent short-term effect will manifest itself? Would you have applied that to the case of no-fault divorce?

  8. R.K., as I just said “it could be the case that the changes from a law won’t be immediately measurable, but will be visible after a greater period of time passes.” With all due respect, is there something about that statement that is ambiguous?

  9. Karen, I’m confused by that quote. Can you spell out what point you’re making by quoting it, please?

  10. Well, the main thing the quote seems to demonstrate, to me, is that yet another SSM opponent takes it as a matter of faith that “marriage as an institution was terribly weakened by… the no-fault divorce laws first passed in the 1970s” even though the evidence is decidedly mixed, but tends to show that the no-fault laws didn’t weaken marriage as an institution.

    I mean, yes, both my post and the quote mention the phrase “no fault divorce,” but the quote doesn’t actually address the argument made in my post in any way at all.

    (Permission granted to post more than three times in this thread, obviously! :-) )

  11. Ledasmom says:

    Well, it did used to be that the main point of marriage was to produce children, who were then the property of the parents, more or less, to do with as they would (more specifically, the property of the father). In some cultures, this extended as far as giving the father life or death authority over the children, and it’s only relatively recently that sex crimes within a family would be investigated at all.
    I’m also curious as to how many children, say, a hundred and fifty years ago, grew up with their genetic mother and father. I would guess the percentage wasn’t high, but I don’t actually know.
    In other words, those who want to return marriage to the definition of an earlier time always seem to have pretty rigid ideas as to exactly how far they want to go back: no farther and no closer, but only to one very specific, sometimes mythical time.

  12. Ledasmom, did you by any chance post your comment in the wrong place? Your comment reads to me as if it might have been intended to go on the post about marriage in 1886, more than this post about no-fault divorce.

  13. R.K. says:

    R.K., as I just said “it could be the case that the changes from a law won’t be immediately measurable, but will be visible after a greater period of time passes.” With all due respect, is there something about that statement that is ambiguous?

    The ambiguity is not in that statement, but in the qualifier you appear to add later down in the post. Now, maybe you don’t mean it as “yes, changes from a law may not be immediately measurable, and may only be visible after a greater period of time passes, but unless someone describes in empirical terms exactly how and when the long-term effect will manifest itself, we should assume that the immediately seen effects (or lack of them) settle the case”. But that’s how it appears, and if that’s not what you mean it should be further clarified.

  14. I’ll respond to RK later (maybe much later, like after my work day is over).

    But in the meantime, I wanted to say feel free to post more than 3 on this thread, Karen, RK and Ledasmom.

  15. Ledasmom says:

    Nope, playing off Karen’s quote and this bit in particular:

    “Marriage has always been the union of one man and one woman because children need one mother and one father”,

    a statement that is untrue on the face. Certainly the comment would fit the other thread as well.
    Now, did a tendency to use child-rearing arrangements involving others besides the mother evolve in humans due to the ridiculously long dependent period of the human child? Probably, yes. But the adults involved are not necessarily the genetic parents of the child, and the arrangements not necessarily marriage.

  16. Hernan says:

    if not for that FACT.

    That procreative FACT may not remain a fact. There are plenty of counter-examples in biology of procreation that do not follow male/female model. We are getting closer to the day where it won’t even be true of humans. That model is not mythical, but it does not rise to the level of a fundamental, universal law, either (like say, gravity). We simply do not live in a universe where it is the only option. That is the reason I asked the question “What then?” in the other thread and not to discuss transhumanism. Procreation seems like a solid anchor for marriage but becoming dependent on it actually might be making the definition more brittle and weaker in the longer term. That’s my point.

    I won’t say anything more on this subject without Barry’s explicit permission.

  17. mythago says:

    R.K., you’re misstating Amp’s point through exaggeration. He never said that you must describe in “empirical terms exactly how and why the long-term effect will manifest itself”, and if all you are saying is that we cannot dust off our hands and say “case closed” after a few years, then you’re not really disagreeing, are you?

    But somebody who says “we will have this effect in the future even if we don’t see it now” owes more to that argument than wild speculation or saying that such-and-such an effect is possible.

    For example, one could point to other states or countries that already did [thing] and show that they did in fact have [undesired consequence] happen. Or one could logically explain why [undesired consequence] will not happen immediately. Say that the issue in question is ‘giving money to women to get pregnant will encourage births’ and two months later, Amp is pointing to statistics that show no spike in the birth rate. You, quite logically, could counter that human pregnancy takes about forty weeks, and that is why the effect you predict is not going to happen right away.

  18. R.K. says:

    Or one could logically explain why [undesired consequence] will not happen immediately.

    Much more broadly applicable than the example you give, mythago, is that consequences often depend on changes in cultural perceptions which do not happen overnight when a law changes, as the old perceptions reflected in the old law are still ingrained, and it takes generational change for new perceptions to slowly become ingrained.

    Those who dismiss concerns or arguments about what cultural effects might happen generationally over time remind me of ex nihilo creationists who dismiss the idea of one species giving rise to another by saying things like “dogs don’t give birth to cats, do they?”

  19. mythago says:

    R.K., to follow your analogy, it’s more like saying “I believe that housecats will turn into saber-toothed tigers, over time, and if you disagree then you remind me of a creationist.”

    In other words, you’re presenting ‘it might take generations to happen’ as sufficient proof that doing X will have undesired effect Y. You suggested, in your criticism of Barry’s post, that anyone who requires more evidence than that of the argument that X will actually result in Y is imposing an unreasonable and unfair level of proof.

    If, in fact, one is arguing that doing X will lead in Y (an undesirable consequence), I do not see that it is inappropriate to ask why and how X will result in Y. I also do not think it is unreasonable to ask why those changes will take generations.

    Otherwise we’re back to Mark Twain’s comments about scientific conjecture.

  20. Phil says:

    Well, for the record, I never said a child needs just 1 mother and 1 father but I do believe it is wrong to intentionally create children in a way that intentionally denies them their 1 and only mother and father (as in sperm/egg) and extended biological/genetic family…

    Can we agree, Karen, that this has absolutely nothing to do with same-sex marriage? Same-sex couples cannot conceive a child together. In this aspect, they are exactly the same as more than a million heterosexual couples.

    If you truly care about the issue of creating children who are not related to their parents, then it would make sense for you to support full marriage equality for same-sex couples, and focus instead on the issue that you really care about. As it is, you come across as someone who uses assisted reproduction issues as a red herring to oppose same-sex marriage on a completely irrational basis.

    Same-sex couples are identical to millions of mixed-sex couples with regard to the number of children that they can conceive together. Zero equals zero. Your insistence on opposing legal, optional SSM simply perpetuates the oppression of a long-oppressed minority and actually detracts from any valid point that you might otherwise try to make about assisted-reproductive technology.

  21. Permission is given to all participants on this to continue past three comments, if they wish.

  22. Phil says:

    R.K. writes

    Well, of course, which is why I didn’t even mention SSM or anything else, and why I’m only making the point that whether we are talking about positive effect, negative effect, or no effect

    I think the problem with this statement is that it is inescapably vague. It sounds like you’re talking about something (“positive effects” and “negative effects”) but unless you specify what effects you’re talking about, it is virtually impossible to have a meaningful conversation using those terms.

    For example, with regard to women’s suffrage, Person A may refer, vaguely, to positive effects and negative effects. They may consider an increase in the number of women voting to be a negative effect. Person B may believe that an increase in the number of women voting is a positive effect. By failing to specify what s/he means by “negative effect,” Person A eliminates the possibility of meaningful communication.

    On the other hand, if Person C says, “I believe that legal no-fault divorce will lead to a longterm increase in the rate of divorce,” that allows Person D to actually engage in a meaningful discussion. One need not agree on whether said increase is positive or negative in order to have the discussion.

    It is possible that one reason that SSM opponents frequently choose vague terms when they are discussing the effects of same-sex marriage is because the negative effects they have in mind are not something that would be universally considered to be a “negative effect.”

    No-fault divorce is often brought up as an example of a legal change that had unintended consequences. This is meant to illustrate that we must be wary of making any other legal changes. I’m not sure that argument is persuasive. A simple thought experiment might help to understand where your perceptions lie on the issue. Imagine if we could poll every single American and ask, “Do you believe that we should eliminate no-fault divorce, across the board?” Do you honestly believe that you’d get a majority to say “yes?” And if not, isn’t it reasonable to conclude that Americans don’t view the “consequences” of no-fault divorce as worse than the benefits?

  23. R.K. says:

    Phil, is your above response intended somehow as an argument that a delayed negative effect (that is, one that most people would regard as being a negative effect) is not possible? If not, then you have not even really engaged with the point I was raising.

    I think the problem with this statement is that it is inescapably vague. It sounds like you’re talking about something (“positive effects” and “negative effects”) but unless you specify what effects you’re talking about, it is virtually impossible to have a meaningful conversation using those terms.

    Barry’s post, 01.04.2012, 9:09 AM, at the very bottom, Phil. I agree that we should not go off tangent too much on these threads, which is why I’m only arguing here in general terms and not going into specific issues.