Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Blaming Intermarriage for Divorce

Did you know that people are still getting divorced? I know, I'm shocked, too. And the fact that on average more interfaith-marriages end in divorce than... outer...faith(?) ones-- according to this article, almost three times as likely.

You can tell that the author, Naomi Riley, intends on giving a nuanced and thoughtful treatment to the issue by starting her column reliving those glorious few days last November when everyone found out way too much about this little family meltdown in Illinois:
The Reyes-Shapiro divorce is about as ugly as the end of a marriage can get. Some of the sparring is an example of the bad ways people act when a union unravels. But the fight over Ela's religion illustrates the particular hardships and poor track record of interfaith marriages: They fail at higher rates than same-faith marriages. But couples don't want to hear that, and no one really wants to tell them.
Yeah, so you see, it's the couples' fault for not basing their life choices on statistics. Or their parents or grandparents for not being big enough jerks about it.

It's not that Riley is personally "against" interfaith marriages. It's just that they're doomed:

In some ways, more interfaith marriage is good for civic life. Such unions bring extended families from diverse backgrounds into close contact. There is nothing like marriage between different groups to make society more integrated and more tolerant.

...But the effects on the marriages themselves can be tragic -- it is an open secret among academics that tsk-tsking grandmothers may be right. According to calculations based on the American Religious Identification Survey of 2001, people who had been in mixed-religion marriages were three times more likely to be divorced or separated than those who were in same-religion marriages.

Of course, as with all arguments from statistics, the fact that something is more likely to happen does not really mean it is going to, particularly since the study doesn't give any information about the level of commitment of the respective partners to their religions, whether they are trying to practice two religions at once, whether there are kids involved, etc. Add to this the fact (pointed out here) that the study doesn't actually ask this question-- forcing Riley to apply some mysterious "calculations" based on some arcane logarithm I'm apparently too dense to figure out, and I become supremely unimpressed.
In a paper published in 1993, Evelyn Lehrer, a professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago, found that if members of two mainline Christian denominations marry, they have a one in five chance of being divorced in five years. A Catholic and a member of an evangelical denomination have a one in three chance. And a Jew and a Christian who marry have a greater than 40 percent chance of being divorced in five years.
Again, what's missing here is any useful information that would contextualize these findings. Most importantly, I would think, would be how religious/exclusivist the partners are or identify with their faiths. How often do they go to church/synagogue, how important is their sect/religious identity to them, etc.? According to the ARIS, only half of all the Jews polled in it (who self-identified as "Jews by religion", not just by descent) even belonged to a synagogue.

...The interesting thing about this, as I think about it, is that presumably almost all of the Jews in these studies are non-Orthodox, given that they married non-Jews-- and, the fact that they married them in the first place also suggests that, at least at the time, they weren't coming from a "I must marry Jewish" mindset. This makes me curious about what the big factor in ending the marriages were. Then again, looking for a single explanation is the kind of simplistic mental sinkhole that brought us this bit of "journalism" in the first place.
More recent research concludes that even differing degrees of religious belief and observance can cause trouble. For instance, in a 2009 paper, scholars Margaret Vaaler, Christopher Ellison and Daniel Powers of the University of Texas at Austin found higher rates of divorce when a husband attends religious services more frequently than his wife, as well as when a wife is more theologically conservative than her husband.
Why would this be surprising, exactly? No one likes being told what to do or what to think, or feeling like they're being looked down on by their partner. If anything, this has more to do with personality and needing to spend lots of time making sure you're compatible rather than needing to make sure you're in theological lockstep. And, as Susan Katz Miller so deftly points out, that study actually concludes that religion has very little effect on divorce. But why read the conclusions when you can just cherry-pick some stats?

...a religiously tolerant society does not a happy marriage make. As Lehrer points out, a strong or even moderate religious faith will influence "many activities that husband and wife perform jointly." Religion isn't just church on Sunday, Lehrer notes, but also ideas about raising children, how to spend time and money, friendships, professional networks -- it can even influence where to live. The disagreements between husband and wife start to add up.

Hang on, you mean in a marriage, disagreements lead to conflict? Stop the presses. I guess you'd better work on limiting your disagreements, then, no?

Remember the famous counsel, the family that prays together, stays together? It's not just a come-on from preachers looking to fill pews. There is sociological research to back it up.

Oh my God. Stop, please. Next you'll be telling me that a penny saved is a penny earned, but that it can only go in one charity box, so you'd damn better choose which pushke you have in your house, or you kids will be hopelessly confused.

Riley keeps going on, and on, and on. Young people are apparently "blind" to the risks of intermarriage, they ignore religious issues before they get married, they underestimate how important they will be later, etc. She even suggests that young folks are verging on being brainwashed by the PC idea that they shouldn't discount whole groups of people as potential spouses just because of religion.

It's not that Riley doesn't have a point (somewhere). But the way she chooses to make it is lazy and catty. It's like she decided to take on the role of everybody's "tsk-tsking grandmother." The fact that intermarriages have a higher likelihood of divorce can be linked to a whole number of factors, not the least of which is that they are HARD. A much more interesting article would have focused on what the biggest trends are within interfaith marriages and how families work on addressing those problems-- successfully or unsuccessfully. Instead we get hand-wringing, sob stories, and a deluge of trash talking against naive, frivolous, mostly young, intermarried couples. I suppose it's a lot less work to beat the same drum of "Young people are so dumb... I mean, how can they not realize that Jews are DIFFERENT from Mormons?" Apparently the idea that individual people might be capable of making serious choices based on some actual soul-searching is just not as sexy as dog-piling on "those dumb kids."

Look, intermarriage isn't for everyone. For that matter, marriage isn't for everyone. Religion IN marriage isn't for everyone. But the fact that lots of intermarriages don't work out shouldn't be used as a sociological club to condescendingly play wack-a-mole with millions of people's family choices.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this. I'm happily intermarried and am tired of hearing these self righteous know-it-alls screaming "oh my gawd - intermarriage is a scourge". Nobody tells these know-it-alls how to live. They shouldn't tell me.