When Bill and Melinda Gates announced their divorce last week, people expressed a surprising amount of shock and disappointment. Seattle’s second-wealthiest divorcing couple will be fine, as money is the modern world’s shock absorber.
Similar to its effect on so many other things, the pandemic has acted not as a change agent for marriage, but as an accelerant: Inquiries with divorce lawyers melted up a third during lockdown, while 58% of surveyed Americans say the pandemic strengthened their marriage. The strong unions got stronger, the fractured split wide open.
It’s not just couples that are reevaluating their bonds. Last week, Verizon parted ways with its media harem (Yahoo, AOL, TechCrunch, etc.). A divorce everyone saw coming — at the ceremony of this corporate marriage, the attendees smiled politely and wondered why it was even happening. In D.C., the Republican Party is renewing its vows with Donald Trump, ignoring Liz Cheney’s sober reminder that their abusive relationship is bad for everyone.
Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
Ending a partnership — personal or corporate — is generally seen as an admission of failure, and one that sticks. Frequently on administrative forms, the options for marital status are single, married, and divorced. (How is “divorced” a status? Isn’t that just single?) Five years after my own divorce, telling people about it still inspired a depressing mix of pity and judgment from those whose (married) lives rested somewhere between denial and awful.
Companies, likewise, experience shame after a failed marriage. To avoid looking foolish, firms resist writing down the value of an acquisition or selling it outright (as Verizon did with Yahoo). After unwrapping the gifts and evangelizing the synergies to shareholders, they’re loath to admit they were wrong. The disarticulation of any union is expensive and painful, and most people and corporations would be better served to acknowledge the mistake … sooner.
As if stigma and pride weren’t enough, divorce was once legally impossible, or impossibly burdensome. Couples seeking divorce would do things like arrange for the husband to meet another woman at a hotel and take nude photographs to provide “evidence” of adultery. Henry VIII founded the Church of England so he could annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. I get it. I’d be willing to start a religious institution to avoid spending more time with several of my friends’ spouses. But I digress.
Trapping people in unhappy marriages can have profound, negative consequences. Loosened restrictions on divorce are correlated with an 8% to 16% decrease in female suicides, and a 30% decrease in domestic violence.
Today we’ve largely stopped trying to limit divorce through the legal system. California was the first state to enact no-fault divorce in 1969; New York was the last, in 2010. The divorce rate peaked around 1980 and has declined since. Before the pandemic, it had dropped below its 1970 level.
The Costs of Divorce
While divorce is legally available today, it remains expensive (the median U.S. divorce costs $7,500), and in the short run, it’s emotionally grueling. Women initiate most divorces (perhaps as many as 80%), but they also bear the brunt of the financial impact: Women typically see a decline in income for years afterward and have a more difficult time repartnering. It’s even harder for women with children. The data on long-term psychological well-being after divorce is mixed — as with most things, we tend to revert to the mean — but men may experience greater emotional harm.
The most profound costs of a split don’t fall on the couple. Divorce is hard on kids, and the consequences persist into adulthood. I remember, at the age of 10, registering that I was a liability in the eyes of the men who’d arrive at our door to take my mom on a date. Children of divorced parents are on average unhappier, more anxious, and more likely to be depressed. They’re also less likely to graduate from high school and college, typically make less money, and are more likely to ultimately get divorced themselves. But: The same is true of children whose parents stayed in a high-conflict marriage. Relationships that breed severe conflict can be as hard on children as breakups. Chaos is the culprit, not legal status.
Divorce has been at the center of the most disturbing periods in my life: when my mom picked me up from Little League and told me we weren’t going home; when I acknowledged my own immense shortcomings after telling my wife I wanted a divorce; and most recently, when I watched my father leave his wife of 25 years a year before she died. Just as Jane Goodall was profoundly disappointed when she realized that chimpanzees are like us, violent and selfish, divorce brings you face-to-face with your flaws and the collateral damage they levy.
Marriage Inequality and the Divorce Divide
Marriage is a powerful institution. It gives us a partner, economically, emotionally, and logistically. Two people form a more efficient household and a stronger foundation for children: Sustaining a two-parent household takes just two-thirds the income required to support two households for separated parents. Married people have better health insurance (as do their kids) and greater access to social networks (via their spouse). So, not surprisingly, they tend to live longer, experience fewer strokes and heart attacks, and have a lower incidence of depression.
Yet the U.S. marriage rate has steadily declined — it’s down 25% since 2000, and 50% since 1980.
The share of adults who’ve never married is at an all-time high: 35% of Americans between 25 and 50 have never tied the knot. The declining divorce rate we’ve seen since 1980 is in large part a function of fewer marriages.
Marriage and divorce rates reflect our widening economic inequality. Wealthy people are far more likely to get and stay married. Among the top third by income, 64% of people are in their first marriage, versus only 24% in the bottom third. Americans with a college degree are more likely to get married (38% vs. 30%) — before 2000, college-educated people were less likely to marry, but that’s flipped, and the gap is widening. College-educated Americans have seen their divorce rate drop by about 30% since the early 1980s, whereas Americans without college degrees have seen theirs increase by about 6%.
Employment is a major factor. Men without full-time employment are much less likely to marry than employed men. Among men 25-50 without full-time work, 55% have never married, compared to just 32% of employed men. Meanwhile, there’s evidence that the structure of our social safety net discourages marriage among low-income people.
This broadens the embrasures of our already fracturing commonwealth. At a minimum, the partnership of a marriage creates economic strength via shared expenses and consolidated income. The declining marriage rate among those already disadvantaged, combined with the increasing numbers of children raised in single-parent homes in that demographic, may only deepen our economic divide.
The liberalization of divorce laws initially freed many couples from unhappiness, literally saving the lives of women shackled to abusive men. But it remains exorbitantly expensive to end a marriage that should end, and our society struggles to provide a stable environment for kids that doesn’t rely on having two parents under the same roof.
My father has been married and divorced, to the best of our knowledge, four times. He divorced his last wife at the age of 89, just one year before she passed away from Parkinson’s. By 34, I was divorced.
What can we learn? Undoubtedly, we need better marriages. Do we want fewer divorces? Are the exit costs of shame discouraging people from forming partnerships in the first place? Does “divorce” need a rebranding? Or, do those exit costs encourage people to endure the obstacles that inevitably appear in a relationship, despite our naive expectation that a marriage can absorb all stressors? Is it wrong to be held accountable for life’s disappointments? It’s complex.
I’m searching for a takeaway, a lesson that will endure. Is marriage, or divorce, better? I think the answer is yes. Only one truth manifests: Twitter should absolutely leave Jack Dorsey.
Life is so rich,
P.S. You know how I feel: If you’re not innovating, you’re dying. Many firms (even entire industries) get complacent, and trust me, you don’t want to be the next BlackBerry/Sears/Kodak. We created a new sprint with Berkeley Haas Professor Sara Beckman to systematize innovation by putting the consumer at the center of your work. Check it out.