Judith Erwin embodies most people's definition of an accomplished woman, but she's not so sure. She's a successful family law attorney. She recently published her first novel, Shadow of Secrets, about a woman who desperately works to keep her marriage together after the worst violation imaginable. She teaches a memoir-writing class at University of North Florida's Department of Continuing Education. She writes a blog called The Death of Marriage.
Erwin has been a student of marriage for three decades — since she started her life over in the wake of her divorce. She's got a library full of books on the subject — along with a head full of doubts and fears and one big sorrow.
She still regrets that her grown children can't see Mom and Dad under the same roof for "the events of life": holidays, birthdays, graduations. "It's not just the loss of companionship and love of a mate," says Erwin, 75. "It's the unity of the family. Divorce fragments the family."
Erwin fears that by the year 2100, "marriage" won't even be in our vocabulary. "For better and for worse, in sickness and in health, it's all going out the window."
And in Florida, Erwin argues, lawmakers are helping to push matrimony over the ledge. Along with her cohorts in The Florida Bar, Erwin vocally opposed the alimony "reform" bill passed last year by the Florida Legislature, but vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott. That bill would have ended permanent alimony — in which the higher-earning spouse has to write the lower-earner a check every month for the rest of his or her life — and made it more difficult to collect alimony following marriages lasting 11 years or fewer.
Ending permanent alimony, Erwin says, chills a partner's willingness to sacrifice vocational pursuits for the good of the family. In an interview with Folio Weekly, Erwin also had a few things to say about the economics of teamwork, and how feminism has affected marriage — for better or worse.
"If we destroy the family," Erwin says, "we destroy how our children grow up, and what they learn about values."
By the Numbers
Marriage rates have declined, especially among young people. In 2012, only 31 of 1,000 previously unmarried women tied the knot, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research, down from 92 in 1920 and the lowest rate in at least a century. Since 1960, the marriage rate has dropped by 60 percent, as societal constraints have loosened and more young couples opted for cohabitation. Divorce rates, meanwhile, have shot up, and those who divorce are less likely to remarry.
This has not escaped the attention of politicians. Conservatives are latching onto these statistics as the scapegoat for stagnating social mobility. Meanwhile, liberals prefer to talk about poverty in terms of policies that exacerbate economic inequality.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., caught flack from women's groups last month for highlighting the correlation between unmarried, single-parent families and childhood poverty. In a speech at a conference sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute, Rubio argued that being unmarried causes poverty. "The greatest tool to lift people," Rubio said, "to lift children and families from poverty, is one that decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent. But it isn't a government program. It's called marriage."
The actual number, as the PolitiFact website pointed out, is closer to 71 percent. Even so, there's evidence that Rubio is conflating correlation and causation, and that the causal relationship between marital status and economic status may in fact be the exact opposite: The research tells us that more educated, wealthier individuals are more likely to get married in the first place. In other words, higher socioeconomic status leads to marriage, which in turn enables a couple to build more wealth.
Perhaps the more accurate version of Rubio's assertion is that low earning power causes unmarried parenthood. Single parenthood, rather than causing poverty, tends to sustain the lower earning potential that prevents individuals from marrying in the first place.
As evolved Americans, we bristle at the idea that marriage is today so closely associated with economics, but, as the studies tell us, it's still true: Men wait to marry until they're financially ready, and women see it "as a sign of having arrived rather than a way to get there," as The New York Times reported in a 2012 piece on children born out of wedlock.
Marriage has become something many individuals work to "afford," and in turn, its benefits ease the road to building more wealth. Combining salaries and sharing costs provide economy-of-scale advantages. That is, it's cheaper for two adults to support one household than two. In addition, marriage enables the division of household and child-rearing duties, as well.
And unmarried, cohabitating couples don't necessarily reap the same benefits. Marriage, Erwin points out, affords individuals the security to take risks that unmarried individuals might not take.
The experts agree. Ohio State University researcher Jay Zagorsky has studied wealth and marital status, and argues that many cohabitating couples are "living together as a sort of trial." Essentially, they're holding back on a lifetime commitment, which curbs their willingness to fully combine resources.
It's what Erwin calls the "everyone looks out for himself" phenomenon.
"I was taught that you have to sacrifice — everyone has to compromise and give up certain things," Erwin says. "You're dooming it if you don't have teamwork."
She gives the example of a military family with two working spouses that relocated to advance the husband's career. To make the move, the wife chose a pay cut and a relatively stagnant career path. Twenty-five years pass, and the wife now faces a very different career outlook. "After 25 years, you can't possibly think she can jump back in," Erwin says.
What's more, the average marriage lasts only 10 to 15 years. "How can anyone sacrifice for that?"
In Erwin's view, the Florida Legislature's reappearing proposal on alimony "reform" would further curtail a partner's willingness to go all-in for marriage. Instead of looking out for the marriage, partners will look out for their own interests.
Last year, lawmakers passed a reform bill, but Gov. Scott vetoed it, calling it disruptive to already existing post-divorce arrangements.
Women's rights advocates cheered. But the reformers haven't given up. They've now created a group called Family Law Reform, and have re-emerged with a documentary in tow, Divorce Corp., a self-described "shocking exposé of the inner workings of the $50 billion a year U.S. family law industry." State Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, is on record saying that the revamped legislation wouldn't end permanent alimony per se, but might include language that warns both spouses to expect a standard-of-living decline after their divorce.
Women's groups are skeptical, and have vowed to fight any legislation that would hurt women and children. Since wives have historically made more sacrifices for the family unit than husbands, women arguably have more at stake in this fight.
There is a school of thought that says women — particularly feminists — are responsible for the breakdown of the traditional family, and so, in a way, have brought the problem that alimony reformers want to address upon themselves.
Phyllis Schlafly, the 1970s-era antifeminist icon, has reentered the news in conservative circles. On Jan. 14, the right-wing online outlet WorldNetDaily captured Schlafly saying that feminism is "the main reason why we have broken families, high divorce rate, illegitimacy. They are the biggest enemy of the family," she said of feminists, in an article about how the (never-ratified) Equal Rights Amendment ushered in conservatives' second enemy, gay marriage. "I think the feminists have been responsible for destroying the family," Schlafly said.
Even a liberal member of the British Parliament, the Labour Party's Diane Abbott, has said that feminism failed to address the breakdown of two-parent, married, stable families.
Abbott told the Telegraph on Jan. 26, "As a feminist, perhaps we have been ambivalent about families. … Those of us who came of age at the height of feminism had very mixed views about the family, since it seemed to be defined as a heterosexual thing with a certificate, children and mum at home."
Not so fast, says Erwin. Just because feminism hasn't yet tackled how to value work shouldered mostly by unpaid or underpaid women, that doesn't mean we can blame women for the impending death of marriage. Indeed, Erwin argues that feminism has been largely good for women.
"Women stopped depending on men. Women don't accept maltreatment anymore," she says. "They can say, ‘I don't have to put up with you.' " Moreover, women are no longer shackled to domestic enterprises where men were — without question — absolute CEOs.
"Women should have options," Erwin says, noting that they are freer now than ever before to pursue the careers that suit them.
More often than not, though, as Anne-Marie Slaughter has written in an oft-cited Atlantic piece, desirable and well-paying career choices don't include caring for the vulnerable, including children. Feminists, in their rush to pursue a plethora of new work choices for women and make headway for all of us, have not yet tackled an important question: How should society recognize and compensate the undervalued — but critical — work of caring?
Slaughter, a politics and international affairs professor at Princeton, argues that caring for others has been devalued in the American economy. In order for a society to survive, she writes, it needs to balance competition with caring. The U.S. excels at the former, less so at the latter.
But even as early feminists may have inadvertently contributed to the economic devaluation that Slaughter describes, a new breed is changing the family-values landscape. Stay-at-home husbands, at least in some upper-middle-class households, are helping the cause of equality.
In marriages where men have taken on primary household or parenting duties, enabling their wives to pursue high-powered careers, the wives readily admit the value of their partners' unpaid work. And their employers do, too. In a New York Times piece titled "Wall Street Mothers, Stay-Home Fathers," a Wells Fargo executive acknowledged that women whose husbands stay home are some of the "top performers."
Their husbands speak for legions of women who have postponed or altered their career plans to benefit the couple or family: questioning what has come of their education, and wondering how on earth they'll ever pick up again in the workforce once the children are grown.
"It goes both ways," Erwin says, steering the conversation back to alimony reform. Fixing limits on alimony, she says, will punish either partner who decides to trade career time for child-rearing time. Without the opportunity for a judge to weigh the sacrifices of the lesser-earning spouse if the marriage ends, giving up a potential career path becomes dangerous business.
"Marriage comes with disillusionments," Erwin says. "But then you realize, it's give and take."
Unless, that is, it ceases to exist. o