Martin and Parashar measured responses from 1974 to 2002 on the nationally representative General Social Survey. The GSS asked, “Should divorce in this country be easier or more difficult to obtain than it is now?” College graduates once were more likely than high-school educated Americans to say yes; now they are more likely to say no. This crossover is more pronounced among women than among men.
At the first explosion of women’s economic opportunities in the 1970s, the big spike in divorce in that era was explained by women’s economic independence from men, as well as a general liberalizing of all attitudes. The standard expectation then, and probably the norm still today, is that marriage will continue to decline because women are free to live as individuals. Today, though, women are even more economically independent, but it is the most financially secure women who most favor tightening divorce laws.
The key variable that Martin and Parashar identify is that female college graduates were less likely to be married in the 1970s than their less-educated peers, and now they are significantly more likely to be married than the high-school-only group. Even the not-yet-married college women want and expect to marry, more than their unmarried and less-educated peers. And it is the unmarried college graduates who most clearly want divorce to be tougher, so it is not the experience of marriage itself that makes the difference. Martin and Parashar’s bottom line:
Our best answer is that across the time period 1974 to 2002, conservative attitudes and values gradually became a less important predictor of attitudes toward divorce, while family structure variables became, if anything, more important predictors of attitudes toward divorce.
Martin and Parashar think that divorce costs college graduates more, especially in lost family income. Moreover, as I noted previously, collegians are more likely to know the new social science research showing the great advantages of marriage, and the huge costs of divorce.
I think there is another possible explanation of why liberals, as well as conservatives, would want tougher divorce laws. This would explain why political values don’t predict divorce attitudes as well as they used to, without making them irrelevant to the question.
Martin and Parashar found that in the 1970s, people who were personally conservative were more likely to favor more restrictive divorce laws. Today, people who are conservative and many people who are liberal favor more divorce restrictions. This might mean that values matter less. Or it might mean that values matter just as much as ever in how people approach their own marriages and their own ideas about divorce. It is the facts in the rest of the world that have changed. Divorce is much easier to get now than in 1974, so favoring divorce restriction now is not as conservative a position as it was then. Educated opinion then was very optimistic that easy divorce would mean happier marriages and happier kids. Today, educated people know that the social effect of an easy divorce culture has been just the opposite. This might make liberals join conservatives in wanting to reduce divorce in society, even if their personal approach to their own marriages is as liberal as that of their 1970s counterparts. Values still matter, but the facts have changed. And educated people know the facts better.