Intimacy Meets Hard Times

The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today by Andrew J. Cherlin, Knopf, 288 pages, $25.95

The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century by Jacqueline Olds and Richard S. Schwartz Beacon Press, 228 pages, $24.95

When Richard Schwartz, one of the authors of The Lonely American, was shoveling snow after a storm a few years ago, he looked up and noticed that all the other shovelers on his street were hired crews. Gone were the days when he and his neighbors used to tackle the job together, pausing from their task to reconnect socially. That change may now have some bearing on how Americans confront another kind of storm -- in the economy.

In recent years, many Americans have paid for various services instead of relying on communities of friends and relatives. As a result, they have withdrawn from, or never developed, social connections that used to be important sources of support. In the face of economic crisis, will they now turn to kin and neighbors for favors, offering something in return, and in the process restore some of the torn and fraying fabric of their lives? Or will financial worries further weaken their social ties and personal relationships, destroying some families entirely?

Two new books, both written before the economic crisis, offer some perspective on how families may respond to rising financial pressures. Sociologist Andrew Cherlin's The Marriage-Go-Round is a masterful comparative analysis of marriage in the United States and other developed Western nations. Cherlin argues that Americans have a distinctive pattern -- a revolving door of intimate partnerships, hence the term "marriage-go-round" -- which stems from our simultaneous commitments to marriage and to self-expression and personal growth. In some countries, such as Italy, there is a strong marriage culture (including opposition to divorce), while in others such as Sweden marriage is treated virtually the same as cohabitation between unmarried partners. Only in America, Cherlin contends, is there a culture that cherishes both marriage and the right to exit from it.

Cherlin is agnostic about the impact of this pattern on adults. Yet in his calm, reasoned way, he sounds an important alarm about the price paid by children for their parents' frantic partnering and re-partnering. Amazingly, children born to two married adults in America are more likely to see their parents break up than are children born to a cohabiting couple in Sweden. And among those American children born to couples who break up, almost half will see a new partner come into their household within three years, far more than in Europe. Almost 10 percent of children have mothers who will have three or more different live-in partners before the children turn 15.

When it comes to intimacy, there is, of course, no single American way. Whites with a college education as well as Latinos are the most likely to develop long-lasting marriages. In contrast, whites with less than a high-school degree and African-Americans are the most likely never to get married at all. It's the whites in the middle, those with a high school degree or just some college, who tend to cycle in and out of partnerships. They strive for a nuclear family, but their marriages often fall short -- and then they start all over again.

These are the couples whose members aspire to the male-breadwinner family model, but the husbands can't sustain it on their incomes and the wives work out of economic necessity, breeding resentment on both sides. These are also the couples who are most likely to have homes in foreclosure. Unlike the poor, they were able to get a mortgage, but unlike the affluent, they don't have the means to ride out the economic crisis. Financial pressures drive the marriage-go-round of these white workers, and these pressures have only gotten worse.

Ironically, given criticism of African American family patterns, Cherlin says these less-educated whites could look to African American practices for ways to stabilize their children's lives. African American grandmothers, he suggests, offer a model of a steady adult caregiver who can be a significant boon to a child buffeted by family breakups. Cherlin maintains, in fact, that it is the dogged allegiance of less-educated whites to the nuclear model that jeopardizes their children's chances to thrive. Slow down, he urges lone parents. Don't feel compelled to re-partner quickly. "See the traffic light of singlehood as yellow rather than green."

Due in part to institutional supports for the marriage-go-round, Cherlin does not see "a large-scale return to marriage, home, and childrearing" anytime soon, unless a future generation faces a cataclysmic series of events. "Only then would the exhaustion and the desire for an inward, nurturing family life that we saw in the Depression generation resurface." At the time Cherlin wrote those words, the possibility of another "Depression generation" must have seemed remote, but now it looms as a serious possibility.

Some analysts question, however, whether an "inward" family life can really assure domestic stability. In The Lonely American, Schwartz and his wife Jacqueline Olds, both Harvard psychiatrists, argue that marriages need a wider web of social support. Americans, they say, have been burrowing in, trying to escape from the obligations and time-drain of wider social ties, but by doing so, they have actually been destabilizing their own relationships. Extended ties help maintain intimacy. They bring into a couple's lives people who act as witnesses, provide perspective, and often lead partners to behave more thoughtfully toward each other. Without that wider support, the spouse is everything -- lover, companion, confidant -- and the burden is too great.

And the married people are the lucky ones, because at least they have someone. Olds and Schwartz contend that Americans, married or not, have been withdrawing from social obligations and connections -- a tendency they blame on some of the usual suspects, such as the "cult of busyness" and the ideal of the self-reliant loner.

Cherlin's book is the more analytically sophisticated of the two. Yet, in his comparative analysis of marriage, I wish he had explored the effects of Americans' devotion to work and the marketplace. Compared to their counterparts in other advanced countries, Americans in recent decades have worked longer hours, earned more income, and consumed goods and services at a higher rate. Those longer work hours interfere with intimate relationships as well as sociability outside of the workplace. And with their extra income, couples have bought services -- from transportation to child care to snow shoveling -- instead of relying on extended kin or neighbors. In short, both the push and the pull of the market have led Americans to withdraw from wider social connections.

For Americans who have been "choosing loneliness," we can expect the financial crisis to chip away at their ability to buy the goods and services they need. Some may be able to reinvigorate community bonds withering from disuse. For those families on the marriage-go-round, however, the economic downturn is likely to make their nightmarish carousel turn even faster, as financial worries aggravate marital conflicts. The socially isolated, cocooning marriage may be as ill-suited to hard times as an SUV.