Why are upper class marriages more egalitarian yet less prone to divorce?
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“I actually popped back in here because I wondered Novaseeker’s take on [this page from American Compass: Let them eat daycare], which I find fascinating for a number of reasons. It really speaks to the fracture in our culture that the more education and money people acquire, the more they reject the more traditional, patriarchal model of marriage and family. If you just look at the money, it seems counterintuitive, which leaves the education factor as a major contributor to the disintegration of the type of family structure in which children most thrive.”
My first impression was to think that the author and publisher must be Woke. But upon further contemplation, it is indeed striking that, based on various data, higher educated people (generally higher earning) tend to…
- Have children almost always when married (and not otherwise).
- Embrace egalitarian sex roles within marriages.
- Have the lowest divorce rates.
It likewise appears that lower educated people (generally lower earning) tend to…
- Have children more frequently without being married.
- When married, have more traditional sex roles in their marriages.
- Have higher divorce rates.
Overall, it seems clear that upper-middle (and higher) class marriages (which I will refer to here as UMC/+ Marriages) are more egalitarian and more feminized yet less prone to divorce, while lower middle (and lower) class marriages (which I will refer to here as LMC/- Marriages) tend to be more patriarchal, yet more prone to divorce.
In fact, the data are even worse than this, when one takes into account family formation. In that data, the percentage of kids raised in intact families by “class” is compared. However, that data looks at “couples” only — in lower SES segments, single parenthood is much more common. Because of this, the data concerning how people who aren’t in the couples category are doing, with respect to breadwinning in the lower levels, dramatically overstates the difference, I think, because it omits the data that relates to the children that are raised outside stable couples in those classes — situations where there isn’t any “intact patriarchal model” at all, because there isn’t an intact family of any kind.
This does, indeed, break down by the mother’s education levels, married and unmarried, as seen in this article from EconoFact: Widening Socioeconomic Differences in Childrens Family Structure. And, the data also “leaves out” the highly educated high-income people who are not coupled, or do not have children, too. So it skews on that side, too, although the overall tendency is for uncoupled UMC and higher people, who are not divorced, not to have children regardless of their sex.
In general, all of this tends to undermine what we believe about Patriarchy and Headship, where we would expect that couples of any SES category who are following a patriarchal headship model to have higher marriage rates, lower divorce rates, and a more stable family life than couples who eschew patriarchy, headship, and any sex roles in marriage. Is there an explanation for this?
The Secular Life Script Works for Successful Secular Outcomes
The UMC/+ Marriages tend to result from the common life success script that we have discussed quite a bit at Sigma Frame. This is the life script that emphasizes college and, in many cases, some post-graduate education, career formation, traction, travel and personal development in the 20s, with marriages taking place around age 30, and child-bearing in the early to mid-30s.
Key elements of this script, when it comes to marriage, family formation, and children are:
- Avoidance of children prior to marriage (and aborting if necessary)
- Income sufficient to source either housing in top school districts or elite private schools
- Career traction for both members of the couple to finance that income (outside of cases where the man has a truly high income)
- High parental investment (particularly time) per child relative to past parenting methods
- High amounts of “enrichment” activities/experiences for children of all ages, which are often very expensive
These life choices tend to result in positive external/secular/material results for the people who can manage them (as discussed in the next section below) and who wish to pursue them. That is, they tend to result in increased income and earning capacity, which makes for more attractive candidates for marriage from a secular perspective. They also tend to facilitate the sourcing of top school districts or elite private schooling, which tends to lead to a higher percentage of external/secular/material “results” in the children (albeit with a significant fail rate, as there always is with children in any scenario).
Who is it that is successful in pursuing this life path, which leads to more stable than average families and marriages?
ADIEU skews heavily towards the Upper Middle Class
Not everyone is equally well-suited to execute the secular life script successfully.
- Attractiveness / Looks
- Intelligence / Smarts
All else kept equal, people who have more of the ADIEU characteristics will tend to reach more successful outcomes, as determined by the secular life script, and external/secular/material standards, because these characteristics all serve to facilitate success in that life path.
The Rise of the Secular Life Script Has Weakened Christianity Substantially among the ADIEU
In the relatively recent path, the life script for secularly upwardly-mobile people did not openly conflict with traditional Christian ideas about sex, family formation and marital sex roles. With the social revolution of the period from 1965-1990, that dramatically changed.
The primary change was the vastly increased emphasis on women’s education and financial independence as a requirement for the upwardly-mobile life script. This conflicted with Christian sexual morals by postponing marriage, which resulted in a massive increase in extra-marital sex among Christians. It also conflicted with Christian ideas about marital sex roles, because the new upwardly mobile script featured substantial female incomes as a part of the upwardly mobile familial trajectory in most cases, and this trend tended to make most marriages egalitarian because income egalitarianism generally leads to social egalitarianism in marriage.
The Christian response to this has been varied. Much of Christianity has tacitly accepted the new secular life script, and all that goes along with it (including delayed marriage, massively increased fornication, smaller family sizes and marital egalitarianism), turning a rather studied blind eye when necessary. A smaller group within Christianity has redoubled its emphasis on traditional marriage roles and Christian patriarchy, but most typically where there is not a substantial male income available (and this is not common, because such incomes are not, in general, common) this approach comes at the expense of the secular upwardly mobile script.
Because of this, the UMC/ADIEU/elite class has become both less Christian and, when it remains Christian, much less morally orthodox. This is the case, even leaving aside the secularizing influence of university education (which is, of course, substantial). The kind of Christianity that is practiced generally in most UMC/+ Marriages is not generally morally orthodox when it comes to sex (particularly the couple’s sexual history outside of marriage), procreation/family size and sexual roles in marriage, and there are plenty of people in UMC/+ Marriages who have simply left Christianity altogether. This can happen due to the conflict between the morally orthodox Christianity of their upbringing and the life script they wish to pursue, their disinterest in any other forms of Christianity, the secularization of their university educations, or the pervasive influence of the social culture of their similarly-educated peers when it comes to the kinds of issues on which Christianity and the secular life script conflict.
For those with further interest in these kinds of issues, Ross Douthat, the “house conservative” at The New York Times, has written about some of the challenges we face in countering the trend of de-Christianization among the social class that has the most stable marriage and family life today.
Stability, Divorce, and the Golden Handcuffs Effect
Of course, stable marriages are not necessarily happy ones.
That is, the fact that a marriage fulfills the success track of the secular life script in external/material/secular terms does not mean that the husband and wife are emotionally, sexually, and spiritually engaged, fulfilled and nourished in these marriages. In fact, there have been at least some studies suggesting that egalitarianism in marriages tends to suppress sexual satisfaction in them. My own guess is that a fair number of these marriages are average to below average in marital satisfaction. But it does not appear to increase the divorce rate — the divorce rate for this group is the lowest overall.
Why is this the case? Why doesn’t this group divorce more, if it is no happier than other married demographics?
Generally speaking, in my view, having observed this group for decades as a newcomer to it myself, the basic reason can be described as the “golden handcuffs effect”.
In other words, the upper middle class striver set tends to be in a very particular situation in terms of household income. That income tends not to be so high as to obviate any negative financial impacts of divorce, but also not low enough such that the loss of income does not have massive changes in lifestyle on both spouses.
For example, an upper middle couple in the Bay Area or Boston may have a combined household income of $400k (let’s say $200k per spouse). If that couple divorces, the main income effect is child support for the non-custodial parent, but the diminution of lifestyle is felt massively by both spouses. In a place like SF Bay, the difference in lifestyle between a household income of $200k and $400k is massive — in many cases, it will drop one or both spouses out of the upper middle set, because in these larger metros (where these kinds of couples are concentrated to begin with), the income bar is higher for entry into the UMC housing areas and the like.
For a couple with lower household income, the financial pain of divorce is also significant, but for the most part they remain in the same general SES category, whereas for the UMC, in the expensive places where they tend to congregate, a divorce can move them down from UMC to MC simply due to the fact that the UMC is mostly comprised, in such places, of married couples with twice their income. This kind of drop in lifestyle (and status) is particularly traumatic for people who, after all, have constructed their entire approach to life around being upwardly-mobile strivers. It’s therefore an outcome that many of these couples will actively bend over backwards to avoid, even when the marriages are of average or below average satisfaction.
A related factor is the impact on children. As noted above, a key part of the secular life script for the upwardly mobile is their focus on setting up their kids. As noted, this is one of the main reasons they avoid having children prior to marrying. Once married, they similarly tend to avoid getting divorced, for similar reasons — to do so, even in a so/so or somewhat unsatisfying marriage, blows up the entire life approach that these people have pursued for a decade or more, of setting up their own lives so that they can set up their kids to outcompete the kids of other people. Divorce generally undermines that goal substantially, especially when the painful income depleting effect on this class in divorce is taken into account.
Overall, then, the particular income level of these couples, in the context of the hyper-expensive places they tend to congregate, and their heavy emphasis on setting up their kids for similar secular/external/material successes, tends to make divorce much less common among this group. It would appear that the overall happiness of upper level income families depends more on lifestyle and economic status, and therefore, marital happiness is less of an issue in the stability of these marriages compared to other population demographics.
In the end, of course, secular outcomes are of this world, and as Christians, we are to be in the world, and not of the world. It therefore stands to reason that when the world’s criteria and requirements for “successful” marriages, seen in the worldly sense of family formation, family stability, divorce avoidance, and secular success for children, are at odds with Christian moral orthodoxy, the lives of Christians, in a worldly sense, will suffer if they adhere to moral orthodoxy for themselves.
That is, we should expect Christians to fail in these areas if the standards for success in them are established by the secular culture in a way that is at odds with Christian morals. We may very well live in an odd time in which it is possible for people who are highly immoral (the UMC/+) to have the external trappings of what those of a previous era would have associated with a moral family life, whereas Christians will struggle mightily to do so because both parties to the marriage are free to act as they wish, and outside that immoral group, the incentives are not the same to avoid out of wedlock births and divorces. The key for Christians is not whether they are marrying, or whether they manage to stay together in marriages where upwardly mobile secular people would, but whether they obey God themselves, in what they do in their own lives, in terms of the things that are in their own individual control.