Ingram Publishing, Getty Images/Ingram Publishing
Council on Contemporary Families briefing reports track instability trends, highlighting differences based on finance and age. "Gray" divorce is up, children's situations depend largely on parental education, and recovery may prompt more marriages.

The headlines surrounding marriage and family stability make family life in America appear less complex than it is, according to a series of reports on family trends presented Wednesday by researchers for the Council on Contemporary Families.

A trio of reports by five researchers highlight divorce and marriage trends and found more "gray” divorce but lower divorce rates among others, although it may be creeping back up. Also, well-educated parents enjoy more stable families while those with less education may be plagued by instability. Each trend, taken alone, is "a small bite of the elephant," said council co-chair Stephanie Coontz, but American family life is contradictory, perhaps best summarized by the phrase, "It depends."

The reports are presented as the CCF Online Symposium on New Inequalities, examining how education, income and aging impact stability.

The reports found, among other things, that divorce and unwed childbearing, both factors in instability, have increased. And while college-educated couples are more likely to marry than less-educated couples, they are only about equally as likely to stay married once the children are grown. Any advantage in terms of fewer divorces disappears as they get older.

Marriage rates have also fallen during the recent recession, "but it is also possible, though less certain, that some postponed marriages may be taking place during the recovery," according to the CCF reports. In 2012 there was an increase in the absolute number of marriages, and in the marriage rate per 1,000 unmarried women. Meanwhile, the birthrate fell for both married and unmarried women, especially single women under 35. It has increased for unmarried women 35 and older.

Gray divorce

Gray divorce — dissolution of marriages by those 50 and older — has doubled, while divorce rates overall have stabilized in the past two decades, according to researchers and sociologists Susan L. Brown and I-Fen Lin, of Bowling Green State University.

Brown, professor and chairwoman of sociology, said the doubling of the divorce rate among older couples raises many questions about the consequences. "I think new evidence we are pulling together on wealth and Social Security benefits associated with different marital status is troubling because we're seeing that individuals who experience a gray divorce tend to have modest levels of assets compared to those who stay married or even those who are widowed later in life," she said.

In 1980, only 20 percent of older Americans were single, but that number has increased by 50 percent, Brown said. "You factor in the rise in gray divorce and I think it means even more adults are going to be facing old age alone. That's concerning because they're not going to have either the social or the economic resources that our typical continuously-married couple enjoys."

People widowed after age 50 are better off financially than those who divorce after 50, according to the report. One reason could be that those getting divorced may be "disproportionately in remarriages. Remarriages are disadvantaged compared to first marriages, whereas those being widowed are more often in long-term first, continuous marriages,” Brown said.

What holds true for Baby Boomers who are older may not be the same for Generation X or Millennials when they get older, she said.

Gray divorces are also growing among older people in first marriages. And more than half of gray divorce involves couples married at least 20 years.

The two researchers found that so-called "gray divorceds" have one-fifth the wealth of older married couples.

Brown points out big questions affected by seniors getting divorced: Since America has typically relied heavily on a spouse as the primary caregiver when someone elderly becomes ill or frail, what happens when fewer old people have spouses? Will children be able and willing to step in? Coontz adds a complication to that notion, observing that for current older folks, many men have not formed tight relationships with their children, but have related through their relationship with the mother.

"The break up of the family coupled with the relatively modest economic resources paint this picture that is rather grim," Brown told the Deseret News.

Recession and divorce

The recent economic meltdown appears to have caused some divorces, but it probably prevented more, according to an analysis by Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at University of Maryland, College Park.

“I would not read this as good news for marriage and families, however,” he wrote, “because there may be negative consequences for people who want to part but cannot divorce because of economic constraints.”

He warned a “forced wait” could prolong or make worse marital stress and family conflict, instead of “saving or restoring a happy marriage.”

He said the divorce rate fell from 20.9 per 1,000 married women in 2008 to 19.5 in 2009, then rebounded to 19.8 the next two years. It might not be a direct response to the recession, he noted, because divorce rates had already been falling for a few years.

But he calculated that there were about 150,000 or 4 percent fewer divorces than would have been expected in those three years, possibly due to the recession. On the other hand, he added, “I found some evidence of a partial counter-trend, with divorce rates increasing in states with higher home foreclosure rates.”

Births and marriages

Another report looked at how socio-economics, the job market and attitudes all change how families live.

“Growing instability in American families, reflected not just in divorce rates, but in falling rates of marriage and high rates of unwed motherhood, is not just caused by people abandoning traditional concerns for children’s well-being,” wrote June Carbone, University of Minnesota, and Naomi Cahn, George Washington University Law School. “It is a class issue caused by the growing gap between the job options, resources, economic stability and personal safety nets available to college-educated Americans and less-educated workers.”

Racial disparities have shrunk, they explained, while economic differences have increased.

“Our children experience a far more unequal world than we did and our grandchildren will have even more of their futures determined by the circumstances of their birth,” the two wrote.

Among the differences they noted are the broader pool of men who are “good catches” for college graduate women, compared to the options for women of lesser academic achievement. That translates into big differences in the earning potential of a married couple and even impacts the likelihood a woman will marry at all.

Coontz said class contributes to non-marriage and out-of-wedlock birth trends. Young women who can look into a future and see potential may be more likely to wait to marry or have kids. When they look into the future and see less job security and fewer men who are making it economically, some decide there's no point in waiting if they want children. And that's "particularly strong" for women who are not well-educated and don't have a career, she said.

"It is important that we understand this is not just a values issue. Marriage and divorce rates and non-marital births are all hugely affected by whether or not people believe they are in a situation where making sacrifices and deferring gratification will pay off or whether they think, 'I have to grab whatever I can, right now,' " she said.

Email: [email protected], Twitter: Loisco

You may also be interested in these stories:

How your premarital experiences can affect your future marriage

The fascinating difference between liberal and conservative parents