Great new books on modern marriage and divorce

Quick, true or false: Half or more of the couples getting married this year will eventually divorce. We hear that statistic over and over and over again. It’s wrong. The divorce rate has been in significant decline since the 1970s. By the tenth year of marriage, by which time we know that more than half of those who will ever divorce have already done so, only 16% of college-educated women who married in the 1990s had divorced. That represents a drop of almost a third since the 1970s; 23% of college-educated women married in that decade had divorced by the tenth year of marriage. (The trend runs parallel for those without a college education, whose divorce rates are consistently just a few points higher.)

Marriage is changing in the US — and in many ways for the better. The divorce rate is definitely declining. Young people are putting off marriage, for a variety of reasons (some of which are likely economic). And therapists’ knowledge of how to strengthen weak marriages grows stronger by the day. This research, on marriage itself as well as how to improve it, is the focus of Tara Parker-Pope’s excellent For Better. Parker-Pope, who writes the Well blog for the New York Times, condenses current family-studies and family-therapy data into a well-paced, eminently readable and optimistic portrait of modern American marriage. Simply put, the book is fascinating. Parker-Pope is certainly a gifted writer; she is able to accurately communicate the finer points of research with a light touch, never coming across as wonky or technical. She also includes a number of self-tests researchers have designed to assess marriages, which makes the book even more valuable on a therapist’s shelf.

For those couples who do divorce, they should know that modern divorce is changing, too. When Americans divorce, they are more likely than people anywhere else to remarry, and they tend to do so more quickly. Even those who do not marry are more likely to bounce from one relationship to another in the US, forming the framework for Andrew Cherlin’s book, The Marriage-Go-Round. Cherlin makes a compelling case that the US is different from the rest of the world in how we think about marriage and divorce. Even better, he offers a compelling explanation, rooted in our nation’s social and religious history. It too is a great read. (It also can be occasionally frustrating; Cherlin briefly dissects the half-of-all-marriages-end-in-divorce myth early in the book, only to repeatedly reinforce it later. Parker-Pope does a much more detailed job of demolishing that myth.)

Ultimately the two books are both worthwhile on their own, but they are even better in combination. For therapists wanting a comprehensive and digestible understanding of the choices Americans make in marriage, divorce and the spaces in between — and how we can improve those choices — read them both.