Did you know that Americans are the repartnering champions of the Western world? First marriage didn’t work? Try again. Next one didn’t work either? Try, try again.
Americans go in and out of marriages and cohabiting relationships so frequently that sociologist Andrew Cherlin came up with a great title for his book about the phenomenon: The Marriage-Go-Round. As he notes:
“…frequent marriage, frequent divorce, more short-term cohabiting relationships. Together these factors create a great turbulence in American family life, a family flux, a coming and going of partners on a scale seen nowhere else. There are more partners in the personal lives of Americans than in the lives of people in any other Western country (p. 5).”
Oh, and one other thing:
“Children whose parents have remarried do not have higher levels of well-being than children in lone-parent families, despite the addition of a second parent (p. 5).” [emphasis mine]
So why do we marry over and over again after each previous marriage ended badly?
You know the cliché about it – the triumph of hope over experience. I will leave it to Cherlin to explain to you why Americans in particular are such matrimaniacs. Here I want to point to one particular insight from my field of psychology, social psychology. It is not the only answer to the question, but it is one that is frequently overlooked.
Whereas personality psychology is all about individual persons – their traits, habits, temperaments, and all the rest – social psychologists like to look at situations and contexts. Sociologists go even broader as they consider social structures.
In the way we Westerners think about things, we are often personality psychologists. We look inside ourselves and try to see inside other people. We ask what was wrong with the person we picked to marry the last time around. We ask what personal shortcomings we may have had at that previous point in time that led us to the wrong person. Or maybe we don’t consider previous marriages to be failures at all – they were right at the time, but now we have changed (or our spouse changed).
What we wonder about less often (except, perhaps, in women’s studies courses) is whether there is something about the institution itself that is at fault, or whether the way we practice marriage today – expecting our partner to fulfill all of our wishes and dreams, and also to hang out with us all the time and not spend too much time with friends because, hey, that might be a threat to our relationship! – has made it more difficult to stay married.
Here’s how I put it in Singled Out:
“The mythological view of singlehood and coupledom has been propped up by chicanery. Think about how people talk about their marriages that did not work out. “I was too young,” they say. Or, “I had bad judgment. I read people better now.” Or maybe, “I married for all the wrong reasons back then. This time I’ll get it right.” These talking points, and many more like them, all have one thing in common: They keep the special place of marriage safe and protected. When individual marriages prove disappointing, the crestfallen spouses do not blame the institution of marriage, nor the intensive and insular way that marriage is practiced these days. Instead, they and their fellow Americans look for something much more fixable, like flawed choices, that can be pinned on imperfect individuals, rather than a faulty institution (p. 240).”
Older couple marrying photo available from Shutterstock
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Last reviewed: 20 Aug 2012