- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 19, 2009

Been dumped by a lover lately? Or are you way past that nastiness and out trolling for the next “The One”?

Are you happily snuggled into a relationship that looks like it will last for a while, although maybe not all the way to Social Security?

Americans are exceptionally hyperactive couplers, a new book says.

They have “more marriages and remarriages, more divorces, and more short-term cohabiting (living together) relationships” than people in Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, writes respected sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin in his new book, “The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today.”

Moreover, the turnovers happen fairly quickly.

“We step on and off the carousel of marriages and partnerships faster than anywhere else,” said Mr. Cherlin, who teaches sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University and presented his findings at the Council on Contemporary Families conference in Chicago this weekend.

Mr. Cherlin sees several reasons for why Americans change partners like Imelda Marcos changed shoes. He also offers a warning and a policy solution.

First the “why” of the marriage-go-round.

“Marriage matters more here, and it probably always has — it’s been sort of the center of American civil society since Colonial days,” Mr. Cherlin told me.

But Americans also love the idea of a life that is lived happily ever after.

“So we marry in large numbers … but we evaluate our marriages according to how personally fulfilling we find them,” he said. When the thrill is gone, couples break up. And then, “because it’s so important to be partnered, we move in with someone else, and the cycle starts again.”

Mr. Cherlin’s warning is that some American children cannot thrive in such unstable homes — they can develop serious problems at school and in their personal and social lives.

Moreover, having a parent move out of the home is only half the shock for children. When Mom’s new boyfriend moves in, it means Mom’s attention is divided, plus the boyfriend may not invest much time and effort in caring for the child, Mr. Cherlin said.

One would think having two adults in the home would benefit children, regardless of their relationship. But research shows that children who live with a parent who has remarried do not have a higher level of well-being than children in single-parent families, Mr. Cherlin said.

“And children residing with a parent who is just cohabiting with a partner may have the lowest well-being of all,” he said.

Mr. Cherlin’s advice to the Obama administration is to continue spending money to promote marriage, but mix in some advice to “slow down.”

“Marriage is important,” he said, “but ‘get married’ should not be our sole message.

“We should spend less time promoting marriage and more time supporting stable caregiving in children’s lives. The two are not the same,” he said.

This is especially important for single mothers, he added.

It makes sense to encourage marriage with a young couple with a child “if that is their goal,” he said. But it makes less sense to encourage a young, single mother — who has broken up with the baby’s father — to rush into marriage with another man.

Be more cautious, he said. Don’t rush into having children with a new live-in partner. Single mothers should choose their next romantic partner carefully, and introduce him to the children gradually — “don’t try to make him an instant parent.”

I agree with Mr. Cherlin’s point about taking things slow. “Serial dads” don’t seem to be the answers to any kid’s dream, and having unrelated men living in the home actually raises the risks for domestic violence and even sexual abuse of the children.

Since hope springs eternal, especially for Americans seeking love, it seems that a renewed appreciation for relationship education can’t happen fast enough.

Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at [email protected]



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