The death of “till death us do part”: the transformation of pair-bonding in the 20th century

The death of “till death us do part”: the transformation of pair-bonding in the 20th century

William M. Pinsof

During the last half of the 20th century within Western civilization, for the first time in human history, divorce replaced death as the most common endpoint of marriage. In this article I explore the history of this death-to-divorce transition, the forces associated with the transition, and what the transition may have revealed about the human capacity for monogamous, lifelong pair-bonding. The impact and consequences of the transition for the generations that came of age during it and immediately afterwards are examined, with particular attention to the emergence of new, alternative pair-bonding structures such as cohabitation and nonmarital co-parenting. The article highlights the inability of the dichotomous marriage-versus-being-single paradigm to encompass the new pair-bonding structures and the normalizing of divorce. Precepts for a new, more encompassing, veridical and humane pair-bonding paradigm are presented, and some of their implications for social policy, family law, social science, and couple and family therapy are elaborated.


To have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer

or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us

do part.

Solemnization of Matrimony The Book of Common Prayer (p. 301)

During the 20th century, human life was transformed in a number of substantial ways. These transformations pertained primarily to human life in the West, but also to certain industrially developed parts of Asia, South America, and Africa. In regard to the family, perhaps the most fundamental transformation concerned marriage. Prior to the 20th century, the most common endpoint of marriage was death. During the 20th century, the most common endpoint of marriage became divorce. In 1900, two-thirds of all marriages ended as a result of partner death within 40 years; by 1976 that figure had gone down to just over one-third (Uhlenberg, 1980). Nineteen seventy-four marked the point at which more marriages ended as a result of divorce rather than death (Hagestad, 1988). In 1867, less than 10% of all marriages in the U.S. ended in divorce; by 1985 that figure had grown to over 50% (Cherlin, 1992). By the end of the 20th century in the West, divorce replaced death as the “normal” (1) endpoint of most marriages.

This transformation in the way the majority of marriages end has had numerous consequences for families and society. Two consequences, or at least correlates of this transition, were that during the last half of the 20th century marriage became an object of therapeutic intervention (Gurman & Fraenkel, 2002) and scientific inquiry (Gottman & Notarius, 2002). Additionally, in the last 30 years, divorce became a major topic of social and political discourse. In almost all of these contexts, and with few exceptions (Ahrons, 1994; Goldsmith, 1982), divorce has been defined as an undesirable end to marriage. Many studies have documented the deleterious short- and long-term effects of divorce on children and adults (Bray & Hetherington, 1993), and divorce has been viewed as a “social disorder” whose frequency approaches “epidemic” proportions and urgently needs to be reduced.

At the beginning of the 21st century, when divorce has become the statistically, if not culturally “normal” endpoint of marriage, the time has come to examine the shift from death-to-divorce from a more historical, evolutionary, and ethological perspective. It is time to move beyond thinking about the divorce rate as an indicator of a social disorder that must be reduced, to thinking about it more neutrally and inquisitively. The trend, initiated with Goldsmith’s (1982) pioneering efforts to define the postdivorce family as a “normal unit,” needs to be intensified and expanded.

New questions need to be asked, such as, what does this death-to-divorce shift mean? What may it reveal about human beings’ capacities and inclinations for permanent pair-bonding? What does it imply for expectations about the permanence of marriage and the theories that are needed to encompass these expectations? What are the implications of this shift in regard to the kind of social and legal structures and procedures that could and should be created to support couples living the new “marital reality?” From a clinical perspective, what does this shift imply for the kinds of theories and practices that should be developed by mental health practitioners to deal with the new realities of human pair-bonding? What kind of research questions need to be asked and pursued in light of this shift. Lastly, and most fundamentally, does this shift require a new paradigm for marriage in the 21st century and beyond? This article represents an initial attempt to address these questions.


This article conceptualizes, contextualizes, and defines marriage in specific ways. Marriage is conceptualized from an interspecies perspective as a form of pair-bonding. Pair-bonding is a concept from ethology (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1989) that refers to a species’ establishment and maintenance of mutually exclusive and enduring dyadic relationships. Pair-bonding typically implies the existence of a sexual relationship between the partners, which defines the couple as potentially procreative. Pair-bonding has been typically thought of as a heterosexual phenomenon, although heterosexuality is not a necessary or inherent part of the concept as used in this article. Some species apparently pair-bond for life, whereas others pair-bond more flexibly (Barash & Lipton, 2001).

From an intraspecies or human perspective, this article locates marriage within a specific systemic context–“Western civilization.” (2) It includes Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand and is essentially European-American civilization. The concept of marriage targeted in this article does not include marriage as generally defined and practiced within the non-Western civilizations–the Islamic, Hindu, Sinic (Chinese), African, Japanese, and Latin American. (3) This is not to deny that there may be certain Westernized groups within these civilizations to which this definition of marriage applies.

In addition to contextualizing, permanent pair-bonding within Western civilization, this article addresses marriage as a relationship that is predicated on a mutual and voluntary commitment to a lifelong, monogamous partnership. “Monogamy” refers to sexual exclusivity (Laumann, Gagnon, Michael, & Michaels, 1994) and means that the partners in a marriage pledge sexual fidelity as part of their commitment. Additionally, they commit to stay married for life–“till-death-us do part.” That many partners fail to honor these pledges and commitments does not deny their role in defining the type of relationship to which the partners originally committed themselves.

In conclusion, the type of marriage addressed in this article can be thought of as romantic or love-based marriage: from this perspective, marriage is primarily love-driven. Secondarily it may be economically, politically, or socially-driven. This type of marriage primarily expresses the desires, goals, and interests of the partners, as opposed to their families or others. In this kind of Western marriage, the partners marry primarily because they want to, and they do it primarily for love and for life.


To contextualize the death-to-divorce transition adequately, it is necessary to understand what marriage was like historically, when the endpoint of death predominated.

Pre-Modern Marital Experience

Beatrice Gottlieb, the historian, has written extensively about the family in the Western world from 1400 to 1800–from the end of the Black Death Plague to the dawn of industrialization. During this period,

most marriages broke up after about ten or twenty years, not because of

desertion or legal action, but because of death … The fragility of life

was something no one could be unaware of … The fragility of marriage was

also something deeply embedded in the consciousness of all, not least

because hardly anyone grew up with a full set of parents or grandparents.

From the point of view of the married couple, this meant that however fond

they were of each other they were likely to feel it necessary to make

provisions for a future without each other. Marriage contracts were

primarily provisions for widowhood. For couples who were not particularly

fond of each other, it was not unrealistic to dream of deliverance by

death. [1993, p. 108]

Marriages were viewed as permanent, but relatively unstable and short-lived. “In the past when a couple got married they could not help but have ambivalent expectations about the durability of their relationship. They were tightly locked into it and could not easily get out of it by legal means, but they knew very well that the time was probably not far off when death was going to part them” (p. 105).

Along the same lines, writing about pre-industrial, Catholic Poland, Kuklo (1990) reports 15 years as the average duration of marriage in most towns. Once again, most of these marriages ended as a result of death. Furthermore, in normal years in pre-industrial Warsaw, two-thirds of all marriages were first marriages. However, in years of natural calamities, spousal mortality decreased this proportion to 50%.

The Modern Marital Experience

Some form of divorce or formal marital dissolution has always been part of the human species. The divorce rate has varied depending on the era and restrictions placed on divorce; but even under the most divorce-restricting regimes (e.g., the Catholic Church in Europe before the Reformation) people found ingenious and even bizarre ways to annul marriages and essentially divorce (Gies and Gies, 1987). Prior to the dawn of industrialization, in the middle of the 19th century, the probability that a marriage would end in divorce (or annulment) hovered below 10% (Cherlin, 1992). In the U.S., the proportion of marriages begun in each year that will end in divorce has steadily increased from less than 10% for 1867 to over 55% for 1985 (Cherlin, 1992). The statistics for Western Europe have shown a similar trend. However, by the mid-1980s that 115 year trend stopped. The divorce rate in the U.S. and Europe leveled off and even decreased slightly through the rest of the 20th century.

The divorce rate is a complex and somewhat contentious statistic that can be defined and derived in a variety of ways (Peck, 1999). A very crude measure is to look at the number of marriages and divorces occurring within a particular locale annually. For instance, according to the Centers for Disease Control, in the United States in 1994, 2,362,000 couples married and 1,191,000 divorced. Another method considers the number of divorces in a given year for a certain number of people. A standard statistic is the divorce rate per year per 1000 people, which in modern times has ranged from a high of 5.3 in 1981 to a low of 2.0 in 1940. It has generally hovered around 5.0 since 1981 (Peck, 1999).

Another common statistic that is used to characterize marital duration is the divorce median–the number of years by which half of all divorces will occur. Numerous studies have revealed that half of all divorces occur within the first seven years of marriage and that the rate of divorce slows down after that point. The implication of this seven-year median, is that, if half of all contemporary marriages will eventually end in divorce, one-quarter of all marriages last less than seven years.

A related statistic that is linked to what is called life-table analysis is the cumulative proportion of marriages disrupted through divorce or formal separation by a specified point in time, typically some number of years. Using this statistic and the derivative probability of disruption statistic, Bramlett and Mosher (2001) present preliminary conclusions from a very large, federally planned and funded, national U.S. survey that was conducted in 1995. (4) Consistent with Gottlieb’s (1993) historical observation that “most marriages broke up after ten or twenty years … because of death,” Bramlett and Masher report that, for first marriages, the probability that the marriage will end in divorce or separation by its 20th year is .48 for whites; .63 for blacks; and .52 for Hispanics. This means that for these three groups, more than half of their marriages (.54 specifically) will end in divorce or separation by their 20th year.

Bramlett and Mosher’s data for second marriages are more limited (they only go out to ten years as opposed to 20 for first marriages), but reflect an accelerated trend for whites: .39 of second marriages will divorce, versus .32 for first marriages, by the ten-year point. This means that almost 40% of white second marriages will end in separation or divorce within ten years. Extrapolating from this finding, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the proportion of white marriages (first, second, and beyond) dissolving before their 20th year will be greater than 50%.

Recent state statistics reflect similar trends. In New York in 1995, 1996, and 1997, 83% of all divorces occurred before the 20th year of marriage. In the state of Florida, in 1998, 87% of all divorces occurred before the 20th year. These statistics are conservative estimates of the rate of marital dissolution based exclusively on legal marriage and divorce records. They do not include separations or annulments.

Integrating the data that have emerged in the last quarter of the 20th century about the divorce rate and the longevity of marriages, it is reasonable to conclude that one-quarter of all marriages will dissolve by their seventh year, and approximately half of all marriages will end before their 20th year as a result of divorce or separation. The remaining 50% of marriages will end primarily as a result of death over the next 40 to 50 years.


The shift from death-to-divorce as the most common endpoint of marriage in the 20th century was associated with and perhaps driven by three major factors: the increased lifespan in Western civilization; the shift in the biopsychosocial roles of women; and legal and social value changes. The extent to which these factors can be viewed as causally related to the death-to-divorce transition varies across the factors and different studies.

Increased Lifespan

A fundamental and unprecedented transformation in the lives of people in the West in the 20th century was the increase in the human lifespan. From 1900 to 2000, the average human lifespan for white Americans increased over 25 years (for men from 48 to 74; for women from 51 to 80); for non-white Americans, who started with a shorter average lifespan in 1900, it increased over 30 years (Caplow, Hicks, & Wittenberg, 2001). Western Europeans experienced a similar lifespan increase (Hall, 1993). “The mortality decline in this century is greater than the total mortality decline that occurred during the 250 years preceding 1900” (Uhlenberg, 1980).

If the most common endpoint of marriage is death, an increased lifespan should result in longer marriages. The assumption is that as people live longer, they will stay married longer. However, this has not been the case. As people in the West came to live longer, it appears that the average duration of their marriages did not substantially increase. Instead, people dramatically increased their use of divorce. The average or median duration of marriage did not change but, rather, the factors that maintain that average or median changed. Along these lines, Robinson and McVey (1985), citing Davis (1972), write:

… for over a century (1860-1970) the overall marital dissolution rate in

the United States remained relatively unchanged. Although some short-term

and minor variations were apparent, no sizeable or significant differences

had occurred in the yearly rate and therefore, it was concluded that

marital stability was maintained over the general time period. The relative

contributions of death and divorce to marital dissolution, however, had

changed. Specifically, the proportional contribution of divorce had

increased “drastically.” Death still dissolved more marriages each year

than did divorce throughout the entire time period. [p. 98]

Biopsychosocial Roles of Women

Michael (1988), an economist and disciple of Gary Becker (1981), the first economist to focus primarily on family systems, used statistics systematically to examine the contributions of various factors to the doubling of the divorce rate in the U.S. between 1960 and 1980. Michael ruled out U.S.-specific phenomena because of the comparable (if slightly smaller) rise in the divorce rate in Western Europe. Furthermore, his analyses led him to dismiss arguments attributing the rise to the increased aging of the U.S. population, the increasing rate of second and third marriages, and geographical location within the U.S.

Employing a complex regression analysis, Michael found evidence to support the impact of the reduced fertility rate in the U.S. (which decreased from 3.42 in 1961 to 1.63, below replacement, in 1974) and Western Europe on the divorce rate. In his and Becker’s analyses, having one child reduced the likelihood of divorce approximately 30% between the fifth and fifteenth year of marriage; having two children reduced the rate another 30%. The reduced fertility rate directly links to Michael’s finding that the diffusion of modern contraceptive technology accounts for approximately 50% of the variance in the rise in the divorce rate into the late 1970s. Additionally, Michael unequivocally concludes that “the rise in women’s income is a dominant force affecting the divorce rate” (1988, p. 392). The power of the findings on women’s income in almost all analyses of the rise of divorce from the early 1960s to 1978 is particularly intriguing because it emerges in the face of the rise in men’s income during this period, a variable that has been consistently associated with a diminished likelihood of divorce.

The two variables that account most consistently for the rise of the divorce rate in Michael’s analysis are women’s income and the diffusion of contraceptive technology. (5) The impact of the latter variable was further substantiated, in Michael’s opinion, by the much slower rise in the divorce rate in Japan during the same period, and Japan’s reluctance to adopt the contraceptive pill through the early 1970s. What is most striking about these two variables is that they greatly increased women’s choice. The income variable provided women with economic opportunity and choice. It reduced women’s economic dependence on men and provided them with opportunities to support themselves that had not existed prior to the last half of the 20th century. The contraceptive variable provided women with choice about when and if to become pregnant. It opened biological options that did not exist heretofore. The radically reduced fertility rate in the entire Western world reflects the impact of this contraceptive breakthrough and the elective options it offered women (and men).

Social Value and Legal Changes

Undoubtedly, one of the most debated factors in the effort to explain and account for the increase in divorce in the 20th century is the transformation of divorce laws, specifically the implementation of no-fault divorce laws. Michael dismissed the often-cited explanation tying the rate rise from 1960 to 1980 to the easing of divorce laws within the U.S. “Many states exhibited rising divorce rates several years before a change in the law occurred” (Michael, 1988, p. 369). Going beyond Michael’s analysis, Marvell (1989) studied the impact of different types of divorce laws on divorce rates in 38 states to challenge the results of at least ten studies which “explored the impact of no-fault divorce laws on divorce rates, with most concluding that there is none” (p. 546). He found that different types of laws had different effects, some of which were significant. However, he concluded that his “findings only mildly contradict the earlier studies finding no such impact” (p. 564).

The extent to which changes in divorce laws drove or were driven by the rising divorce rate up to 1980 is probably impossible to determine. However, it is clear that the change in divorce laws in the last half of the 20th century reflected a change in social values–a change that simultaneously attempted to: 1) make divorces easier to obtain; 2) reduce the social and legal stigma associated with divorce; and 3) reduce the psychosocial trauma (blame and character assassination) associated with divorce.

It is impossible to understand the transition to divorce in the last half of the 20th century without considering the value shift associated with the rise of feminism. As cited above, the role of women changed dramatically in the course of the 20th century, economically and reproductively. However, these changes were closely associated with dramatic and profound shifts in the roles women took on in the family, in marriage, and in society in general. These shifts also began a transformation in men’s roles within the family and marriage, as well as a general reduction in patriarchy within the broader society. They also led to a sustained series of critiques of marriage as an institution. Rampage (2002) explores the impact of this feminist and ultimately gender-role revolution in the 20th century on marriage and divorce.


In general, African Americans experienced the same trends as white and Hispanic Americans, but only more so. The divorce rate per 1000 women in the African American community increased from 78 in 1960 to 358 in 1990, whereas the rate for whites changed from 38 to 153 (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). However, the greatest change in the African American community during this period was in the marriage rate. As of 1992, “fewer than three of four black women overall can expect to marry compared to nine of ten white women” (1995, p. 12).

The increasing divorce rate and the huge reduction in the marriage rate in the African American community can be partially attributed to the factors that have influenced these rates in the white community (lifespan; women’s economic and reproductive choice; and social/legal values), but there are significant additional factors. The two primary additional factors that have emerged in the analysis of these trends in the African American community are changes in the demographic sex ratio and male employment.

In regard to sex ratios, over the last half of the 20th century the male/female sex ratio has changed dramatically, such that there are substantially more women than men in the appropriate age cohorts. This gender disparity has been attributed to relatively high (compared to white) adolescent homicide/suicide rates (gang violence and drug overdoses), and the high rate of adolescent and young adult incarceration. Secondly, the disappearance of blue-collar jobs in the industrial Northeast and Midwest had a devastating impact on male employment and income in African American communities (Wilson, 1996). Simply stated, in the last 20 years of the 20th century, in the African American community, there have not been enough men for the available women, and many of the men who have been available as potential marriage partners, have been unattractive as providers because of unemployment or relative (to female) underemployment (Patterson, 1998). Pinderhughes (2002) explores the African American marital experience in the 20th century in greater detail.


Along with the skyrocketing divorce rate between 1960 and 1980, many social demographers have noted another dramatic trend: the divorce rate dropped slightly after its 1981-high and stayed around 22 divorces per 1000 married women (50% lifetime probability of divorce) through the rest of the 20th century (Caplow et al., 2001). The same leveling of the divorce rate also occurred in Western Europe after the early 1980s (Hall, 1993).

Goldstein (1999) statistically examined various predictors to test their capacity to explain this leveling off in the United States. First of all, his analysis suggests that the leveling trend is sufficiently robust that it can be viewed as a “real” phenomenon as opposed to a temporary depression in the century-long increase. Secondly his compositional analysis failed to explain the leveling as a result of any of the following variables: age structure of the population, age at marriage, marriage order (first, second, etc.), educational attainment, number of children, and the timing of childbearing. Lastly, his analysis suggests that “any increased selectivity of marriage linked to cohabitation appears to be only a small part of the story behind the leveling of marital instability” (p. 414). He concludes that the current divorce rate will continue at its present level and that “new theories are needed to explain the determinants of divorce rates at the population level” (p. 409).

A possible explanation may reside in the hypothesis that the overall level of marital stability has not changed, but rather the means by which that level is maintained have changed. If this is true, that the level of marital stability has remained the same, it may well be that, from a population perspective, the increasing divorce rate over the last century maintained the 20-year average or median duration of marriage in the face of the largest human lifespan increase in recorded history. The divorce rate increased until the median duration of marriage returned to the 20-year level and then it stopped.

It is puzzling that the divorce rate stopped growing after 1980, despite the continuing increase in women’s income and employment, the primary statistical predictors (and correlates) of the rise in divorce rates between 1960 and 1980. From 1980 to 1997 the percentage of married women in the work force in the U.S. increased from 50% to 65% and women’s earnings as a percentage of men’s earnings increased from 60% to 74% (Caplow et al., 2001). In other words, the primary “drivers” of the rise in divorce rates continued increasing after the rise in the divorce rate stopped, a finding that is statistically counterintuitive. Based on these data, it is not unreasonable to hypothesize that as long as the increased lifespan, the increase in women’s income and employment, the availability of effective and cheap contraceptive technology, and divorce-friendly laws and values remain facts of life, the 50% divorce rate is here to stay. It fits the evolved human level of monogamous marital stability.


The data on the death-to-divorce transition raise important questions about the extent to which human beings, at least human beings in the West, have evolved to be permanent, monogamous pair-bonders. In the context of a 50-year lifespan, no economic independence or reproductive choice for women, and divorce-hostile social and legal values, marrying till death us do part was realistic. However, these changes in the 20th century have created a new context in which the majority of couples will not sustain marriage until death. Why? What, if anything, have the increased lifespan and the other biopsychosocial changes associated with death-to-divorce transition revealed about the human capacity and inclination to pair-bond permanently and monogamously?

Capacity to Pair-bond as a Set of Individual Factors

A major issue that emerges from this question is whether it would be useful to view the capacity for permanent, monogamous pair-bonding as a complex set of factors located within an individual? This individual capacity may be normally distributed, with certain individuals having a lot of it, others (the majority) having a moderate amount, and others having very little. This capacity might include the following set of factors: the ability to select an appropriate partner; the ability to commit to an intimate relationship; the ability to attach to another human being; the ability to maintain a certain level of personal integrity, morality, and responsibility; the ability to regulate emotion (particularly anger) and impulses (particularly sexuality); the ability to get along with another person over an extended period of time; and the ability to love another person.

Undoubtedly, like all individual abilities, the capacity to pair-bond permanently and monogamously would be influenced by genetic and environmental factors. Viewed as an individual capacity, a substantial amount of the variance in this set of factors could be accounted for by personality variables. McAdams (1995) has proposed a three-level model of personality that goes from the deepest and most genetically influenced trait level to the highest and most environmentally impacted “narrative” level. The deepest level of personality embodies dispositional traits–“relatively nonconditional, relatively decontextualized, generally linear, and implicitly comparative dimensions of personality” (p. 371).

Over the last 20 years, personality researchers (Digman, 1990; McCrae & Costa, 1996) have settled on a set of traits called the Five-Factor Model of Personality. The “Big Five” are Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. The Big Five are influenced by heredity, with Extraversion generally considered the most genetically determined. It may well be that individuals with high scores on Neuroticism and low scores on Agreeableness and Conscientiousness have higher rates of divorce than individuals low on Neuroticism and high on Agreeableness and Conscientiousness. To state the obvious–people who are highly anxious, contentious, and unreliable probably do not make very good mates.

Within McAdams’ model of personality, the second level of personality is a psychological smorgasbord that contains personal concerns–motives, values, defense mechanisms, coping styles, developmental issues and concerns, personal strivings, attachment styles, and strategies and tactics for getting what one wants and avoiding what one does not want in particular contexts (1995, p. 376). Personal concerns are less influenced by genetics than dispositional traits, and more influenced by individuals’ early experience in their families of origin.

The second level encompasses what psychopathologists refer to as personality disorders, the Axis-II disorders of DSM-IV. On this level, it makes sense that individuals with major personality disorders and substantial psychopathology within their families of origin are more likely to have troubled marriages and higher rates of divorce. To state the obvious, adults with interpersonally disruptive personality disorders, such as paranoid, antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic, tend to have troubled social relations in general and probably have difficulty sustaining marital relationships over long periods of time.

The third and top level of personality pertains to identity, which McAdams defines as “an internalized and evolving life story, or personal myth” (1995, p. 382). These stories or narratives are primarily determined by environmental factors, with family-of-origin and general life experience playing the major role. These personal narratives give meaning, purpose, and coherence to people’s lives. They are the primary psychological vehicle for integrating one’s sense of self (who one is) from the past to the present and into the future. Sternberg (1998) has taken narrative theory into the domain of couple and marital relations, theorizing that people in relationships have at least three multilevel domains of narratives–mine, yours, and ours. He has hypothesized that “relationships are more likely to succeed when common stories generate shared worldviews, assumptions about relationships, and interpretation of events…” (p. 10). It is the compatibility of couple’s stories, their fit, that predicts marital success.

Capacity to Pair-Bond as a Set of Couple Factors

Sternberg’s theory begins to bridge individual and systemic perspectives. It is not sufficient to think about the capacity for pair-bonding as solely a set of individual factors. It denies the systemic nature of marriage. From a systemic perspective, it is less the characteristics of the individuals in the marriage that predict whether or not they will get divorced, but rather the characteristics of the couple, including the characteristics of the individuals in relationship to each other. A step in this direction is the homophily hypothesis, which states that individuals who are more alike demographically (age, religion, socioeconomic status, etc.) and attitudinally (beliefs and values) have a higher probability of staying married than individuals who differ on these dimensions (Laumann et al., 1994). The homophilic couple characteristic is demographic similarity, whereas the narrative couple characteristic is compatibility.

However, systems theorists would argue that the homophilic and narrative approaches are still additive–for them, the whole never becomes greater than the sum of the parts. To do that, theorists need to move to a level of description of the couple that is not based on individual attributes. In four studies over 25 years, Gottman (1993; Gottman & Notarius, 2002) found that married couples with a set of specific interactional characteristics have almost a 100% probability of getting divorced within four years. The characteristics of these couples, which emerge in a relatively brief face-to-face interaction in Gottman’s laboratory, are criticism, defensiveness, contempt, and stonewalling–a quartet of factors called the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

The identification of this highly at-risk group of couples constitutes a major step forward in the study of divorce. However, family psychology is still far away from being able to predict over longer (than four years) periods of time which couples will and which couples will not divorce. What is clear at this point, however, is that the capacity to pair-bond is a product of capacities of the individuals in a relationship as well as capacities of the couple. There is emerging evidence that suggests that whether or not a couple will divorce is not just a function of their individual upbringing or their history and current functioning as a couple, but also of their genetic heritages (McGue & Lykken, 1992; Reiss, Neiderhiser, Hetherington & Plomin, 2000). Thus, the capacity to pair-bond monogamously for life is a complex set of biopsychosocial factors that science has just begun to differentiate and study (Gottman & Notarius, 2002).

Inclination to Stay Married/Capacity to Divorce

In the preceding examination of the psychosocial factors that influence whether or not a couple will stay married, staying married is viewed as a capacity. The capacity perspective on marriage typically assumes that the capacity to stay married is a good thing and that having more of it is better than having less of it. This perspective takes a deficit view of divorce. However, it is possible to take a different perspective that considers the capacity to divorce as a characteristic of an individual and/or a couple. This perspective does not just view divorce as a failure of the capacity to stay married, but as a potential positive event or outcome. Any marital therapist who has treated a wide variety of couples over a number of years, knows that in certain circumstances, getting a divorce is a courageous and positive act. In such circumstances, staying married may reflect an inability to pursue what may be in the best interests of oneself, one’s partner, and even one’s children.

In this regard, Becker’s (1981) and Michael’s (1988) economically based theory views individuals as decision-makers who are constantly evaluating the benefits and costs of marriage. The decision to divorce, from their perspective, derives from one or both individuals in a couple concluding that the benefits of divorce outweigh the benefits of staying married. In essence, they define people as rational decision makers, and the decision to divorce as a rational act that is perceived by the individual making that decision as a beneficial step in his or her life.

No discussion of marital stability would be complete however without considering the inclination of a person to get divorced. The inclination to divorce is another complex phenomenon that contains a variety of individually anchored factors that collectively determine the extent to which an individual is disposed or inclined to consider divorce as a realistic and positive option. Although linked to factors like reproductive choice and socioeconomic opportunity, the inclination to divorce is distinct. It targets what might be thought as a person’s unencumbered attitude toward divorce. Some of the factors that comprise this phenomenon are an individual’s: degree of religious conviction; beliefs about the sacrosanctity of marriage and relational commitment; sense of entitlement to relational happiness; family history of divorce; social context; and perception of the damage that a divorce will inflict on loved ones.

Adult Development and Marital Stability

Another factor behind the death-to-divorce transition is the human capacity for growth over the life course. It is not coincidental that developmental psychology expanded beyond childhood and adolescence in the second half of the 20th century as the human lifespan lengthened and a healthy and vigorous life became a reality for many people into their eighties. The capacity for adult development in the context of an expanded lifespan means that people are changing and evolving values, goals, and beliefs as they age. People are not the same people at 40 that they were at 20, nor will they be the same at 60 and 80. Since most people now marry between 25 and 35, in all probability, they will have changed (grown) substantially by the time they reach 40.

The findings that half of all divorces occur by the seventh year of marriage and that the vast majority of divorces will have occurred by the 20th year of marriage do not support the idea that as people age and differentiate the likelihood increases that they will become incompatible and divorce. (6) An alternative life-course explanation is that people’s sense of their relational future at 35 and 40 is very different now than the sense of the future 35- and 40-year-olds had before the 20th century. The prospect of another forty to fifty years with decent health and possibilities for individual growth in an unhappy relationship is very different than the prospect of another 10 to 15 years under the same conditions.

Evolution of the Capacity to Pair-bond Flexibly

The capacity to divorce and remarry may also derive in part from human beings’ evolutionary heritage. The human capacity for serial monogamy and pair-bonding is an essential characteristic of the human species. With death as the primary terminator of marriage, human beings were left with basically two options after the loss of a spouse–remain single the rest of one’s life or remarry. The capacity to bond, lose a spouse, and bond again is critical to the survival of the human species, particularly after events like the Black Plague, famines, and wars. Natural selection favored the survival of people with the capacity for flexible and serial pair-bonding. The result of this selection process over millennia is that human beings have the capacity to lose a spouse through divorce or death and to find another partner to marry. If human beings did not have this capacity, it would make marriage more secure, but it might jeopardize the survival of the species.


A secondary hypothesis of this article is that the death-to-divorce transition in the last half of the 20th century, and in particular the doubling of the divorce rate between 1960 and 1980 had a profound, if not traumatic impact on the children of parents who divorced during the rate rise (up to 1980). Furthermore, that impact resulted in a variety of new pair-bonding patterns that clearly emerged in the last 25 years of the 20th century and that will probably endure as long as men and women enjoy an increased lifespan, have economic and contraceptive choice, and live in a society that defines divorce as an acceptable option.

Approximately half of the children born after 1960 in the Western world experienced parental divorce. This experience occurred within societies in North American and Europe that were not equipped legally, socially, and emotionally to deal with this experience. In fact, divorce did not become an object of serious scientific study until the last quarter of the 20th century (Goldsmith, 1982; Gottman & Notarius, 2002). These children felt shame, isolation (despite their numbers), and a lack of social and emotional support. They were told that their families were “broken,” and many of these children felt emotionally responsible for the breakdown. There were no models for bi-nuclear families (Ahrons, 1994). Only after this period did research begin to reveal the critical role of a good co-parental relationship between divorced ex-spouses and the importance of sustained and significant involvement by the nonresidential parent. In other words, these children experienced divorce at a time when there were no psychosocial road maps, social facilitators, or societal supports. Traumatology since the Vietnam War has revealed that negative posttraumatic sequelae are greater when the, traumatized individual feels socially isolated, lacks social support, and feels ashamed and/or embarrassed about the trauma. These children of the escalating divorce rate, were a psychologically traumatized generation, traumatized by their parents’ divorces and their own sense of social isolation and shame.

This traumatic experience created great suspicion about marriage. If half of that generation’s parents made life-long commitments to each other which they eventually abrogated, what did that say about marriage? Was it really forever, if the majority of people who pledged forever did not stick to the agreement? This suspicion has led that generation, and to a significant extent following generations, to question the meaning of marriage and the pathways that historically led to it. In doing so, they began experimenting with a variety of pair-bonding alternatives and alternative perspectives on pair-bonding that were in full bloom by the dawn of the 21st century.

However, it would be a mistake to reduce the new perspectives on pair-bonding that emerged from the generation that came of age after 1970 to the traumatic effects of their parents’ divorces and society’s failure to support and integrate them and their experience. The changes in values, beliefs, and behavior in regard to marriage, divorce, and pair-bonding alternatives that occurred in the last forty years of the 20th century also derived from broader and nontraumatic factors like the rise of feminist values (Rampage, 2002), beliefs about individuals’ right to personal happiness and fulfillment, and heightened expectations for intimate relationships.


As the divorce rate soared after 1960, three other major trends started to emerge that were part of the 20th century’s transformation in pair-bonding in the Western world: the rate of marriage decreased, while the rates of cohabitation without marriage and nonmarital births increased. In the U.S., the marriage rate (per 1000 unmarried women per year) decreased from approximately 80 in 1970 to a low of 50 in 1996. “The marriage rate generally rose and fell with the business cycle. The 1990s, with conspicuously low marriage rates in years of unprecedented prosperity, were exceptional” (Caplow et al., 2001, p. 68). A slightly greater drop occurred in the marriage rate in Western Europe. The percentage of cohabiting, unmarried couples in the U.S. increased from less than one percent in 1960 to over seven percent of all couples by 1998. The rates for Western Europe were higher, e.g., 19% in the U.K. (Hall, 1993). In the U.S., the percentage of nonmarital births for white women increased from around 2% in 1960 to 26% by 1997, and from 24% to 69% for black women over the same period (Caplow et al., 2001). Across Europe, the nonmarital birthrate in 1960 was 5% or less, depending on the country. In 1988, over 25% of the births in the U.K. and France were nonmarital, whereas in Denmark and Sweden the rates were 48% and 52% respectively (Hall, 1993). This nonmarital birthrate increase is particularly impressive because it occurred at the same time that women in the West had more contraceptive choice than ever before in the history of the human species.

These three trends represent what might be thought of as a collective deconstruction of marriage by the generations that came of age in the last quarter of the 20th century. Historically, cohabitation, marriage, and childbearing were all part of one inseparable package. Marriage and cohabitation were usually co-occurring, and both were typically followed by the birth of children. These three trends reflect an unprecedented separation of cohabitation, marriage, and childbearing.

Data from the National Survey of Family Growth in 1995 found that over half of the women between the ages of thirty to thirty-four were either cohabiting at the time of the survey or had cohabited before they got married (Caplow et al., 2001). These data suggest that for most of the women in this age cohort, cohabitation and marriage were distinct events. However, distinct does not mean unrelated. For many, if not most cohabiting couples, cohabitation represented a major step toward marriage, as opposed to an end in itself.

The fact that in 1997, over one-quarter of the Caucasian babies and over two-thirds of the African American babies in the U.S., and almost half of the babies in Scandinavia were born to unmarried women suggests that for many women (and couples), the decision to have a baby had become distinct from the decision to marry. Once again, being distinct does not mean unrelated. Caplow et al. noted that the white “parents of a considerable number of these infants eventually married” (2001, p. 86).

These trends reflect the emergence of a new, nondeviant pair-bonding sequence in the last twenty years of the 20th century. This sequence typically began with cohabitation. For the majority of couples this was followed by marriage, but for a very substantial minority in the white community and for many in the African American community, cohabitation was followed by the birth of children. Subsequently, many of these couples married. What emerged was a pattern in which the three events began to represent three somewhat independent choices. Initially, a couple committed to live together–to share property, expenses, and space. Then many couples decided to have children–to commit to being co-parents. A substantial number of these couples then decided to marry–to commit to being life partners. For many couples that followed this pattern, cohabitation represented an opportunity to check each other out, to get to know the other person and the relationship better before making the decision to have children and/or marry.

Many African American families did not follow this alternative pattern. For many families, cohabitation did not precede or follow nonmarital childbirth. Due to the paucity of good statistical data and the flexibility and unofficial nature of many cohabitating arrangements, it is hard to estimate the exact numbers of families in which the unmarried parents did not live together before or after the birth of their child. Official statistics report that in 1998, 57% of black families with children under 18 were headed by a single female parent (Caplow et al., 2001). This distinct trend of nonmarital and noncohabiting childbirth and childrearing within the African American community still supports the hypothesis that African Americans, along with white North Americans and Europeans, in the last half of the 20th century, engaged in a process of disaggregating cohabitation, childbirth, and marriage.

It will be very interesting in the coming years to see whether the marriages that occur after cohabitation and childbearing are more enduring than those that are not preceded by cohabitation and/or childbearing. There is currently a widespread debate (addressed below) as to the meaning of recent findings that couples that cohabit before marriage appear to have a higher incidence of divorce than couples that do not cohabit before marriage (Axinn & Thornton, 1992; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989). It will also be interesting to see the extent to which the trends of the last twenty years of the 20th century continue into the 21st. Were the decrease in the rate of marriage and the increase in the rates of nonmarital cohabitation and childbearing primarily characteristics of a psychologically traumatized generation that came of age between 1960 and 1980, or in the case of the African American community, characteristics of an economically and socially traumatized generation, or will these trends characterize subsequent generations that experienced divorce in a more normalized and supportive context?


The emergence of the death-to-divorce transition and many people’s subsequent redefinition of pair-bonding in the latter half of the 20th century, present numerous challenges to social policy and law makers, social scientists, and mental health practitioners. Despite the fact that the death-to-divorce transition was apparent for at least the last twenty-five years of the 20th century, the currently predominant social policies, laws, research practices, and clinical intervention models pertaining to marriage are predicated upon the life-long, till-death-us-do-part traditional model of marriage. As a result, they are and will continue to be unsynchronized with the new emerging normal realities of pair-bonding in the West. They have been tweaked somewhat in order to accommodate the increase in divorce and the realities of single-parent and bi-nuclear families, but by and large they are still based on a normative and traditional life-long marriage model.

Toward a New Pair-bonding Paradigm for Western Civilization

For social policies, laws, research practices, and clinical interventions to incorporate the new marital realities of the 21st century in Western civilization, they need to be based on a new pair-bonding paradigm that integrates the implications of the death-to-divorce transition. It is probably presumptuous to attempt to articulate a new pair-bonding paradigm at this early stage, before it is possible to determine the enduring nature of the pair-bond changes that occurred in the 20th century. Instead, the following represent an initial set of precepts that could constitute part of the foundation of a new pair-bonding paradigm.

1. Marital theory needs to become pair-bonding theory: The theory of intimate relations that has guided most policies, research, and intervention in the 20th century has been a dichotomous model that looks at people as married or unmarried: the only serious pair-bonding state is marriage. Many couples in the last half of the 20th century defined four serious pair-bonding states–cohabitation without children, cohabitation with children, marriage, and a relatively new phenomenon that might be called elder pair-bonding. (7) Replacing dichotomous marital theory with a pluralistic theory of human pair-bonding lays a theoretical foundation for identifying, acknowledging, and addressing the multiplicity of serious pair-bonding structures that have evolved over the last 30 years.

2. The existence and viability of a multiplicity of pair-bonding arrangements need to be acknowledged and addressed: This precept derives from and extends the first. At a minimum, the four arrangements listed above need to be recognized as legitimate pair-bond structures that fulfill important functions for their participants.

3. Entering into any particular pair-bond structure entails a distinct and legitimate decision-making process: This precept disaggregates the one-decision model of traditional marriage in which the commitment to cohabit, have children, and marry, are all part of the same package.

4. Young adults, contemplating pair-bonding, need to be able to consider a variety of pair-bond options that fit their cultural beliefs, personal preferences, and relational goals: As young adults consider pair-bonding, they need to be freely able to choose the pair-bond that best fits who they are and where they want to go. They also need to be able to understand that there is a multiplicity of structures that can be entered into sequentially, as their needs and objectives change.

5. Marriage should continue to be defined as the lifelong, monogamous pair-bond: Marriage should continue to function as an objective for those who desire such a bond, representing the most committed and enduring pair-bond.

6. Marriage, as a life-long, monogamous committed relationship, should be available to all mentally competent adults who desire to enter into such a legal and formal relationship. This precept pertains particularly to gays and lesbians, but also potentially to other groups whose right to marry has been or could be restricted.

7. Co-parenting without marriage needs to be recognized as a legitimate and lifelong, nonmonogamous pair-bond: Once couples who are not married have children, they are co-parents for the rest of their lives. Their commitment as co-parents needs to be recognized and legitimated.

8. Co-habitation without children or marriage needs to be viewed not only as a legitimate end-state in itself, but also as a legitimate form of pre-marriage: Premarital cohabitation is clearly being used by many couples in the West to determine compatibility and the potential for co-parenting and marriage. In 1981-82, in a national survey or 18-34 year olds in Australia, “55% of females and 62% of males agreed that “it is good to have a trial marriage,” by which they meant cohabitation (Carmichael, 1985, pp. 98-100). These findings clearly reflect the way in which many Western young adults use and view premarital cohabitation. As of 1988, approximately 60% of all first cohabitations in the U.S. ended in marriage (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989).

9. Divorce and relational dissolution need to be viewed and treated as normal social events in the life course of modern families: Public societal discourses on divorce, and relational dissolution in general, need to acknowledge the normality of these events in the life course of families.

10. The decision to divorce needs to be viewed with greater complexity, thoughtfulness, and neutrality: Rather than viewing divorce as a failure, it needs to be treated as a complex relational process that; can have good and poor outcomes. It is not inherently good or bad (Hetherington & Kelly, 2002). In fact, under certain circumstances, it can be a positive and even courageous act.

These ten precepts represent an initial foray into the task of articulating a new pair-bonding paradigm. That paradigm remains to be fully articulated. Nevertheless, these ten precepts offer a pre-paradigmatic foundation that can inform subsequent examinations of the implications of the death-to-divorce transition for social policy, law, social science research, and intervention.

Social Policy

In the last half of the 20th century, people in the Western world began to make new choices about how they wanted to live with each other and create families. Specifically, in about half of the married couples at least one of the partners decided that he or she wanted to divorce. Subsequently, over half of all couples in certain age cohorts decided that they wanted to live together, particularly as a prelude to marriage. Lastly, despite available contraceptive and abortive technology, about a quarter of white women and over two-thirds of black women in the U.S., and almost half of the women in Scandinavia decided to have children out of wedlock.

These new choices and behaviors confronted social policy makers with a core dilemma. They could either attempt to direct human behavior in the direction of favored political and moral agendas or support the choices that people make to improve their lives and express their values. They could define nonmarital cohabitation as “the enemy of marriage” (Popenoe & Dafoe Whitehead, 1999) and encourage social policies that would discourage nonmarital cohabitation. Alternatively, they could attempt to create policies to support and help people in what ever type of social structures they create, giving equal credence and respect to divorced and married people, cohabiting and married couples, to children born out of wedlock and children born to married couples, and to married and unmarried parents.

From a psychological perspective, it is hard to imagine the value of defining any major social group that is not physically or emotionally harming itself or others as deviant or undesirable. In Scandinavia, the general trend has been to develop and implement social policies that support the choices people make, as opposed to using such policies as tools to shape those choices. In contrast, the U.S. has been far more ambivalent about supporting choices that deviate from the standard script of get married, live together, and have children. The implications of the emerging pair-bonding paradigm for social policy makers is that social policies need to support people as they enter into, reside within, and move to whatever pair-bond structures fit their needs and goals. People living in a particular pair-bond structure should not be advantaged, nor should their offspring. Social policies must be based on respect for people’s right to choose–to live alone or to live within any particular pair-bond structure.


Law pertaining to marriage and family has struggled to catch up with the new realities of human pair-bonding at the beginning of the 21st century. Attempts have been made to determine and enforce the rights and mutual obligations of nonmarital partners, the legal obligations and rights of unmarried fathers to their children, the access rights of the parents and siblings of divorced or never-married parents to their grandchildren and nieces or nephews, and the rights of gays and lesbians to marry (Morrissey, 2002). The courts increasingly came to understand the value of the divorced co-parental relationship in regard to healthy child development as well as the value of divorce mediation as an alternative to the normal adversarial divorce procedure. However, the legal system is still out of step with the new marital realities and the emerging pair-bonding paradigm. The legal community has responded to the new pair-bonding structures with ambivalence. “These new family structures are reshaping traditional views and reweaving the fundamental fabric of society, prompting some legal experts to call for sweeping change … But rethinking domestic relations law is likely to be a lengthy, contentious process” (Morrissey, 2002, p. 38).

At the core of this process is a basic redefinition of family from a unit defined exclusively by blood and procreation, to a unit increasingly defined by intentionality–what the participants intend. Family rights, particularly the right to marry, for gay and lesbian couples, has become the central and to some extent polarizing issue. Currently, Vermont is the only state that allows gay and lesbian civil unions–almost marriages. However, it is hopefully just a matter of time before society and the legal system recognize the legitimacy of homosexual marriages. Consistent with the sixth pre-paradigmatic precept, partners, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be able to marry–to make a public, legal, and life-long monogamous commitment to each other.

A new system of laws needs to be created that recognizes the appropriate rights and responsibilities of partners, their families of origin, and their offspring in all of the four major pair-bond structures (married, divorced, unmarried cohabiting, unmarried co-parents), their major permutations, and gay-lesbian marriage. This system must transcend the dichotomous marriage versus everything else model by legally recognizing and appropriately protecting nonmarital cohabiting, nonmarital childbearing and childrearing, as well as marriage. A key word in this regard is “appropriately,” which refers to the fact that the rights and obligations of people in the different pair-bonding structures need not and in all probability will not be the same. The challenge is to determine what set of rights and obligations makes the most sense for each of the structures in regard to the mental health and socioeconomic well-being of the participants, their children, and their families.

Despite the improvements that have occurred in many jurisdictions to diminish the trauma of the divorce process to the participants, their children, and their families, the adversarial legal process is still traumatic and humiliating for most participants. A major challenge that is central to the destigmatization and cultural normalization of divorce is the creation of nontraumatic legal processes that do not become party to and inflame the acrimony and alienation that most families bring to the divorce process.

Social Science

Social science, particularly research on marriage (Gottman, 1993; Gottman & Notarius, 2002), has tended to view divorce as an undesirable outcome whose probability needs to be reduced. Premarital training programs like PREP (Markman, Resnick, Floyd et al., 1993) treat the reduction of the probability of divorce for people going through the program as a primary outcome criterion. Gottman’s research on the predictors of divorce is predicated on reducing its incidence. Most social science research on divorce and couples at-risk of divorce conceptualizes divorce as a bad outcome.

Social scientists need to confront the implications of the death-to-divorce transition and the emerging new pair-bonding paradigm. Divorce is here to stay, and about half of all people who marry will probably experience it at some point in their lives. Social science researchers need to move beyond a judgmental attitude toward divorce. Divorce needs to be viewed as a normal outcome that may be desirable or undesirable. Researchers need to stop comparing children of divorce to children of happy marriages, determining through such research that divorce is emotionally and physically bad for children. That is the wrong comparison.

Children of divorce, if they are to be compared to anyone, should be compared to Children in families with unhappy and deeply troubled marriages. People who divorce do not divorce because they are happy with each other. A substantial number of couples who divorce had miserable marriages with high rates of addiction, depression, and/or conflict. It is the rare social scientist who would assert that such deeply troubled family contexts are better for childrearing than a divorced couple that can co-parent collaboratively. The emerging data will probably confirm the hypothesis that, in most situations, a good divorce is better for all concerned than a bad marriage.

Similarly, gross, simplistic, and politically driven characterizations of nonmarital cohabitation as the enemy of marriage (Popenoe & Dafoe Whitehead, 1999) obscure the complexity of nonmarital cohabitation. Research indicates that people who elect to live together before marriage have a higher eventual divorce rate than those who elect to marry without prior cohabitation. As Axinn and Thornton (1992) have pointed out, the problem with this research is that it does not adequately account for selection–people who chose to live together before marriage are not the same people who chose to marry directly. They comprise at least two groups with different attitudes toward marriage, religion, and relationships in general. Furthermore, nonmarital cohabitors contain various subgroups that need to be differentiated. More importantly, the attitudes, beliefs, values, and life histories of the couples in these groups need to be understood in much greater detail before causal conclusions can be drawn about cohabitation. To attribute premarital cohabitors’ higher subsequent divorce rate and non-premarital-cohabitors’ lower subsequent divorce rate to the fact that they did and did not cohabit before they married is unwarranted and bad science.

The sequential pathways of different couples need to be investigated, along with their outcomes. For instance, how many couples follow each of the four following pathways: 1) marriage, simultaneous cohabitation, subsequent childbearing; 2) cohabitation, marriage, and subsequent childbearing; 3) cohabitation, childbearing, and subsequent marriage; 4) cohabitation and subsequent childbearing without marriage? Are there healthy and pathological variants within each type, and, if so, what factors determine which outcomes? What are the effects of each pathway on the adults and the children? Other pathways that involve additional steps and decisions after a divorce, like remarriage, or cohabitation, and/or nonmarital childbearing, also need to be investigated.

Similarly, returning to the overall distribution of marital duration discussed above, what are the different subgroups that make up that distribution? Who are the people who divorce a lot? Who are the people who never divorce, and what do their marriages look like over the life course? Who are the early divorcers and who are the late life divorcers? Are there personality differences between the groups? Are there couples at high risk for divorce, but who might be helped by intervention? Are there couples for whom intervention would not and/or should not help them stay together?

Just as plane-based radar and satellites can help see over the horizon to better predict weather and other events, social science needs to develop better technologies and knowledge to predict the future behavior of partners and relationships. Research has just started to look at the early relational behaviors that predict what couples will be like after ten to fifteen years (Gottman, Coan, Carrere, & Swanson, 1998). Answers to these questions can help couples make better choices in selecting partners and in responding to relational behaviors that might be risk-markers for later problems (Pinsof & Hambright, 2001).

Mental Health Services

The treatment of marriages and couples has emerged as a distinct form of mental health intervention in the 20th century (Gurman & Fraenkel, 2002). The development of this treatment initiative has coincided, by and large, with the death-to-divorce transition in the last half of the 20th century. Now is the time for mental health practitioners consciously to integrate the implications of the death-to-divorce transition and the emerging pair-bonding paradigm into their theories and interventions. How can modern societies provide appropriate mental health services that are consistent with the pre-paradigmatic precepts?

Family and marital therapists help couples stay together and dissolve their marriages every day. However, most if not all forms of couple therapy are designed to strengthen marriage. Given that 50% of all couples in the Western world will probably divorce, it seems appropriate that mental health professionals develop services to help couples divorce as well as to help couples stay together. Most family and marital therapy training programs do not teach therapists when and how to help couples dissolve their marriages. In medicine, this would be equivalent to not training obstetricians to do nonvaginal deliveries, or not training oncologists how to treat patients who do not respond to chemotherapy. To do so in medicine would be irresponsible and unethical. The time has arrived to develop more explicit theories and practices to help couples exit from their existing pair-bond structures with minimal damage to both parties (and their children). Concomitantly, these theories and practices need to be formally integrated into couple and family therapy training programs so that subsequent generations of therapists can help people enter into, enjoy, and if necessary leave the multiplicity of family structures in which they actually live.

Since most couples in certain age cohorts appear to use cohabitation as an opportunity to check out and get to know their partner better before making a lifelong commitment, what has prevented mental health practitioners from helping couples learn to use cohabitation more consciously and constructively to that end? At least one answer is the lack of scientific knowledge about what to look for as reliable predictors of future behavior. However, most marital and family therapists have some fairly strong ideas about what these couples should look for in order to decide whether to marry or not. In general, these ideas have not been explicitly formulated, published, and/or put into educational curricula.

Mental health practitioners in all probability will become the primary social educators about the various types of pair-bond structures derived from the new paradigm. Increasingly they will need to think about themselves as offering a set of services to couples and potential couples that will range from educating them about alternative pair-bond structures and helping them select the one that is most appropriate for them at this particular point in their lives, to intervening therapeutically to repair damaged relationships, or to facilitate their constructive dissolution.

Despite the fact that so many white and even more black children in the U.S. will be born to unmarried parents, what has prevented mental health practitioners from developing programs to support and help these children feel normal and just as valuable to society as children born to married parents? Only recently, have practitioners begun to develop programs to support children of divorce. We must develop services to help all children and families in times of need.


The lengthening of the human lifespan; the biological, psychological, social, and economic improvement of women’s lives; and the emergence of new relationship or family values and laws within Western civilization in the 20th century have been associated with, and perhaps have driven, a fundamental transformation in pair-bonding. Divorce has replaced death as the primary terminator of marriage. It has become a “normal” marital endpoint. This death-to-divorce transition reveals heretofore obscured aspects or potentials of the human capacity and inclination to pair-bond. The implications of these revelations and the transition warrant the elaboration of a new pair-bonding paradigrm This paradigm needs more fully to inform emerging social policies, family laws, social science research, and last but not least, the mental health services offered to families and couples. This article begins to articulate this new paradigm and to illuminate some of its implications.

Beyond presenting a set of findings, conclusions, and recommendations, the purpose of this article is to stimulate family science and practice to integrate what can be learned about human pair-bonding from the events of the 20th century into a new paradigm and set of practices for the 21st century. The twin hopes of this article are that the paradigm and set of practices will better fit the new pair-bond structures that have evolved and will help facilitate the development of healthy human beings within those structures.

* I thank the following friends, colleagues, and relatives for their editorial feedback on this article: Carol Anderson, Douglas Breunlin, Lindsay Chase-Landsdale, James Feldman, John Gottman, Jay Lebow, Penny and Michael Mesic, Arthur C. Nielsen III, Suzan Pinsof, Laura Pinsof, Cheryl Rampage, and Rick Zinbarg. I particularly thank Catherine Barcy for her enthusiasm and energy in helping me find the facts, and Jean Goldsmith for helping me develop many of the ideas in this article.

(1) I am using “normal” in this specific context in the statistical sense–meaning “most common” or the highest (most frequent) point in a normal distribution. For a comprehensive examination of normality and families see Froma Walsh’s Normal Family Processes (1982, 1993).

(2) For a detailed discussion and definition of the term “civilization,” see Huntington, S. (1996, pp. 40-44).

(3) Whether or not Latin American civilization actually differs sufficiently from Western civilization to warrant designation as a separate civilization is a legitimately debatable subject and beyond the scope of this article.

(4) The conclusions from the Bramlett and Mosher (2001) study are based on data from the 1995 National Survey of Family Growth, Cycle 5, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. It involved in-home computer-assisted interviews with 10,847 women–1553 were Hispanic, 6483 were white non-Hispanic, 2446 were black non-Hispanic, and 365 were of other races/ethnicity.

(5) He also identifies two other strong predictors of divorce–the rise in public assistance payments (linked to women’s income), and the coming of age of the postwar baby-boom generation (the percentage of women in their twenties, compared to in their thirties, forties, and fifties, increased from one-third in 1960 to one-half by 1975). The coming-of-age variable placed a disproportionately large number of people in the early years of marriage, the time of greatest risk for divorce.

(6) These findings and the lack of a resurgence of divorce in later life may be artifacts of the relatively early state of divorce research. It will be interesting to see the extent to which these findings hold up as the generations that married in the last quarter of the 20th century move into the later years of their marriages in the first quarter of the 21st century.

(7) A number of elderly, usually widowed individuals live together as intimate couples without formally marrying. In all likelihood this phenomenon will become more common as the baby-boom generation comes of age.


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Manuscript received September 4, 2001; final revision submitted and accepted March 19, 2002.

WILLIAM M. PINSOF, President of the Family Institute at Northwestern University and Director of Northwestern’s Center for Applied Psychological and Family Studies, 618 Library Place, Evanston IL 60201; e-mail:

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