What do young liberals and conservatives think about marriage and family structures?

16 Sep

The Politics of Marriage and Divorce among Young Americans

August 18, 2013

wedding cake - CopyLost amid all the hubbub about the study of adult children of parents who’ve had same-sex relationships (Social Science Research, July 2012) has been the very many other survey questions of value and interest in the New Family Structures Study (NFSS). In particular are a series of 14 statements regarding relationships, marriage, and sex about which respondents were asked to denote their level of dis/agreement. While 14 is a few too many to handle in one short document, the associations between several—indeed many—of them and the political orientation of respondents is simply worth detailing here. Sociologists have historically paid close attention to race, class, and gender, but when it comes to modern family forms, those three cleavages are nothing compared with politics and religion. To be sure, there are indirect effects of race, class, and gender on political orientations, but for today, we’ll stick to politics and family—direct associations. Table 1 displays agreement with the statement “Marriage is an outdated institution,” sorted by how politically conservative or liberal respondents ages 18-39 asserted they are. For starters, marriage is not outdated—disagreement with the statement is clearly the norm. But marriage and political conservatism are tightly connected, far more so than among political liberals, many of whom are unsure about what they think of the statement. Of course suggesting marriage is not outdated is a fairly mild assertion, hardly the stuff of culture wars.

Table 1 NFSS

What about adding children, moms, and dads into the mix? Here the cleavage between political orientations widens. While conservatives are darn sure that it’s better to be raised by a married mother and father, liberals are much more ambivalent. Indeed, the very left-skewed distribution of the most conservative respondents stands in stark contrast to the nearly-normal distribution of the most liberal, 38 percent of whom are genuinely unsure whether it’s better for kids to be raised in a household with a married mom and dad. Nearly as many of them disagree as agree to the statement. Among those who call themselves simply “liberal,” the skew begins toward agreement with the statement, and continues in linear fashion all the way across to the deeply conservative, 89 percent of whom report agreement with the statement that yes, the kids fare best with a married mom and dad.

Table 2 for NFSS

Keep in mind, however, that only about five—yes, five—percent of American adults ages 18-39 consider themselves “very conservative” politically, and the same is true of the other end of the spectrum, the “very liberal” pack. It really is a normal curve distribution, with “middle of the road” forming the largest segment of the population, about 53 percent. So too it makes sense to pay more attention to the middle bar graph in each of these tables—they are a glimpse of what “average” Americans are thinking and saying when it comes to family matters.

Table 3 discusses couples and divorce under the guise of a scenario intended to gauge the conditions under which respondents would consider leaving an unhappy marriage. As with the first two tables, here too personal politics shapes their response about divorce, but the results are more nuanced. To be sure, “very conservative” respondents—63 percent of them—are most apt to think that any marriage-with-children should endure unless there is physical or emotional abuse, a figure well in advance of regular conservatives, who agree at a rate of 47 percent. Moderates display a seemingly normal curve, while liberals trend in the other direction: 55 percent of them and 52 percent of the most liberal disagree that married couples with kids ought to stay together unless there is physical or emotional abuse. While the question wording did not explore motivations to stay or to leave, suffice it to say that staying together (while presumptively unhappy) is not the default response for the average American, general conservatives included.


Finally, Table 4 evaluates divorce law at a more general level, asking respondents whether they think “society would be better off if divorces were hard to get.” In reality, state-level family laws here vary widely, with some requiring a formal separation period, or more time-until-divorce, while others require very little waiting period at all. There is obvious variation by political orientation, but as with Table 3 there is considerable ambivalence. Here only 57 percent of the most conservative young Americans agree that divorce ought to be harder to get. An equal number of the most liberal disagree. While agreement shrinks in linear fashion with more political liberalism, it’s worth noting how many fence-sitters there are here.


Indeed, the first two tables suggest Americans haven’t given up on the institution of marriage, and a majority still think it’s best for kids to be raised by a married mom and dad, but when it comes to “Splitsville,” lots of uncertainty reveals itself, even among conservatives. Indeed, only 38 percent of regular “conservatives” agree that society would be better off if divorces were hard to get. Some of the generalized ambivalence about divorce law is certainly about personal experience—17 percent of “very conservative” respondents in the NFSS said they had ever been divorced, a rate exceeding that of all other groups, which ranged from six to nine percent.

By contrast, liberal young Americans are fairly consistent here. Most of them are still on board with marriage as an institution, but beyond that they don’t wish to get specific.

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