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Americans think divorce is less acceptable than they did a decade ago


You only need to look at popular TV shows to see how the American family is changing. From (virgin) mothers who have children out of wedlock to same-sex couples becoming commonplace, America is less conservative than ever about what it calls a family.

But there is one specific way our views on marriage have become more conservative: New government data shows we are significantly less accepting of divorce than we were a decade ago.

This is according to a survey the government runs every few years called the National Survey of Family Growth. And since 2002, it has asked thousands of people whether they agree with this statement: "Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems."

In 2002, 46.7 percent of women and 44.3 percent of men agreed with this statement.

But in the most recent survey, conducted from 2011 to 2013, those figures fell to 38 and 39.9 percent, respectively.

That same survey simultaneously shows increasingly liberal views on having children outside of marriage and cohabitation before marriage, confirming our reflections of what we see on TV. Among women, for example, the number who agreed that "it is okay for an unmarried female to have and raise a child" increased 12.7 percent between the survey in 2000 and the one conducted between 2011 and 2013.

The data shows a shifting view about the role marriage ought to play for couples. Historically, marriage was seen as a prerequisite for having a family. Now that belief is less prevalent.

We now see marriage as an optional step before having kids — we are more accepting, for example, of children born to single moms or unmarried couples. At the same time, there is more of a belief that if one does decide to get married, it's a commitment to be taken seriously.

"The growing belief seems to be that there are several acceptable ways to have and raise children, but you should really only get married if you think you're in a relationship that is permanent," says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University who studies families.

The most-educated Americans have changed their attitudes about divorce a lot — and they're becoming more negative

The shift toward Americans becoming less accepting of divorce is especially pronounced among Americans with college degrees. These more educated Americans are increasingly less likely to divorce than their less educated counterparts. And that might explain why more-educated Americans have become more judgmental about divorce: They're seeing it a lot less.

This pattern emerged in Vox's analysis when my colleague Soo Oh extracted data from the National Survey on Family Growth's complete database about education level and Americans' views on divorce. This information was not available in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis released Thursday, and it gave us a more granular view of how Americans' opinions have changed.

In 2002, 42.6 percent of women surveyed with bachelor's or associates degrees agreed with the statement, "Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems." In the most recent survey, conducted between 2011 and 2013, that fell to 31 percent.

Among men surveyed with graduate degrees, there was a similar pattern. In 2002, 48 percent of that group thought divorce was the best solution for couples who couldn't resolve problems. In the latest survey, it was 38.4 percent.

It's true that the least-educated Americans still have the most accepting views of divorce. Those without a high school diploma have, since 2002, been the most positive on divorce compared with Americans at any other education level. But when you look at whose views are changing fastest, the data shows that it is clearly the most educated.

"Because the divorce rate is dropping for college-educated couples, they may be more conservative on the topic," Cherlin says. "When they look at themselves and their friends, they see less of a need to resort to it."

A new view of the American family: fewer marriages, but longer ones

By nearly every measure the federal government can think of, it finds that Americans are more accepting of family arrangements that don't involve a married couple.

For example: The same questionnaire asks respondents whether they agreed with the statement, "A young couple should not live together unless they are married." In 2002, 32 percent of men agreed with this statement. In the 2011-'13 survey, 24.8 percent did.

Another statement in the survey reads, "It is okay for an unmarried female to have and raise a child." The percentage of women who agree with that statement has risen from 69.5 percent in 2002 to 78.3 percent in the 2011 to 2013 data.

In Cherlin's view, it seems like the status of marriage has been elevated to a relationship only available for those ready to commit for the long term.

"It’s held out as the gold standard, something we should aspire to, something you shouldn't do unless you're sure it will work," he says. "We're more accepting of a lot of alternatives — but among the alternatives, we put this one first."