Room for debate: Clayman Institute Faculty Advisor RickBanks weighs in on divorce

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Room for debate: Clayman Institute Faculty Advisor RickBanks weighs in on divorce

by gender news on Wednesday, June 9, 2010 - 7:02am

Originally posted to the New York Times on June 4, 2010.

Divorce: It’s Not Always About You

In the discussion that followed this week’s news that Al and Tipper Gore were separating — the “if they can’t make it, who can” ruminations — we heard that the breakup of such long-term marriages is going to be more common,as baby boomers, healthy and relatively wealthier than previous generations, don’t want to stick it out, or don’t have to stick it out, with their longtime spouses but can indeed have a new start, to go it alone, or find new romance. But what do we really know about the broader economic and social consequences of the break-up of long-term marriages? Are we far more insulated from its effects, given that couples have more legal and financial resources than in the past (or do they)? Which groups are affected most?

The Soul Mate Factor

Professor Richard Banks Ralph Richard Banks is the Jackson Eli Reynolds professor of law at Stanford, a Clayman Institute Faculty Affiliate, and the author of the forthcoming book, “Is Marriage for White People?” which you can follow on Facebook or on Twitter. The unexpected announcement by Al and Tipper Gore that they plan to divorce after more than 40 years of marriage has prompted a lot of hand-wringing, with some commentators worried anew about the state of marriage. But the Gores’ story offers little reason to worry. It is the case that long-married couples are more likely now to divorce than ever before. In prior generations, the marriages of couples in their 50s or 60s typically ended when one partner died. That divorce has become a more common ending to long-term marriages reflects two developments, one cultural, the other biological. The cultural development is that people want more from marriage than they ever have, an expectation embodied in the idea of soul mate, a partner who can not only help to pay the bills and raise the children but who understands you to your core. People now want a marriage that promotes their personal fulfillment. The biological development is that people are living longer than ever.

A 58-year-old with only a few good years of life to go might decide to tough it out through a less than fulfilling marriage, but if he or she can reasonably expect to live another two decades in decent health — as the Gores well might — then the calculus shifts. For such couples, if they think correctly that they would be more fulfilled outside the marriage than in it, then why shouldn’t they divorce? In the case of the Gores, they have already accomplished the primary social function of marriage: the bearing and rearing of children. If the children are no longer bearing the cost of their divorce, they should be free to make whatever decision seems right for them. As a society, we’ve come to accept that people may want to live their young adult lives singly. Why shouldn’t they be able to live their later adult lives singly as well? Read all commentary on this Room for Debate.