Thursday, December 13, 2012

An Economic View of Divorce and Mormonism

....Aaaaand we're back.

This blog post has been brewing in my head for months now.  I have shown it to more friends in rough draft form, fretted over it, and bothered my wife with it more than any other idea I can remember.  I guess that sounds like I think what I have to say is a big deal.  Maybe I do.  In reality, I think my thesis is blindingly self-evident; surprising for only about 30 seconds.

I am going to make some observations and analysis on the economics of marital dissatisfaction, divorce, and Mormonism.

Throughout the process of apostasy I have concurrently worked my way through a reconception of happiness, relationships, sex, marriage, and, of course, divorce.  I do not know of anyone who takes the prospect of divorce lightly, especially when it is their own.  One of the hammers that hurt in Oaks' October 2012 talk was the reminder that the Church teaches about the evil of DIVORCE, not the evil of an unhappy marriage.  Coming out of his sermon I found myself concluding that there are essentially two competing perspectives on the interplay of happiness and marriage.

            Being married is important (with or without attendant happiness).
            Being happy is important (with or without attendant marriage).

Let's make a couple of base presumptions. First, I am acutely aware that happiness and marriage are strongly linked.  I don’t want to make an argument of causation or correlation, but rather to acknowledge that marriage has something to do with life satisfaction in either direction.  Second, if you find that the first half of my marriage perspective dichotomy feels right to you, don't worry.  I am not going to assert that you don't prefer happy marriages as the dominant setting.  I won't argue that your prioritization of marriage eclipses your prioritization of well-being.  I am simply observing a hierarchy of preference.  In observing that hierarchy, I feel comfortable making an argument that the Brethren and Church doctrine is more aligned with the first observation and that secularism is more aligned with the second.

Economics is the study of choice amid restraints and frequently we describe those choices with supply and demand curves.

A demand curve is drawn slanting down to the right.  The Y axis represents the price of the good or service, and the X axis represents the quantity of that good or service consumed at any given point.  The curve illustrates that at the highest possible price demand is essentially zero, and that at a price of zero the demand is 100%. 

A supply curve is drawn slanted up to the right.  At a price of zero, no one is willing to supply the good or service, but as the price goes up, more and more providers come into the marketplace until at a certain point, essentially everyone would choose the profession in question over any other.

The intersection of the supply curve with the demand curve is the point at which market equilibrium is achieved and the number of people willing to pay X is exactly equal to the number of suppliers willing to work for that amount.  (Reality is never this clean, as we shall see, but in the aggregate the theory works out pretty well.)

Divorce can be thought of as a supply and demand intersection.  We'll talk about cost here, but only part of the cost is financial.  A large portion of the cost is to be found in other areas.  In divorce, the demand curve describes marital dissatisfaction.  In terms of cost the demand curve says that if divorce costs everything no one will want it and if it costs nothing everyone will choose it.  The supply curve describes the cost of the supply of divorce.  On the supply side, as the cost of divorce increases, fewer and fewer people will choose it.  The intersection of the two curves represents the decision point at which people choose to divorce.  The intersection describes the point where marital dissatisfaction justifies the cost.  It will describe the per capita divorce rate as well as a relative description of the cost.

It turns out that divorce rates have been studied across religions.  The Barna group ran a fairly well known survey of divorce within a number of religious groups and found that divorce was highest among Evangelical Christians, middle in other denominations (including Mormons at 24%) and lowest among the Atheist/Agnostic/Secular crowd (21%). 

Regarding the lower incidence of divorce among Seculars, you may be inclined to point out that fewer Seculars marry, that they marry after more consideration, and so it is reasonable that among the smaller group that marry, there are fewer divorces.  On this point I will agree with you and then there will be a pregnant pause as the implications of this observation sink in.  Mormon family counselor extraordinaire Brent Barlow was also inclined to point out some of these factors in a blog post he wrote responding to the study.  In particular, Dr. Barlow focused on three "non-religious" factors for the higher divorce rates in the Bible Belt and Utah:  Low income, marrying at a younger age, and the (aforementioned) relative percentage of the population married compared to more secular geographic regions.  I am mystified how he feels justified calling those factors non-religious, but, oh well.

Back to the economic modeling. 

In the platonic world imagined thus far, this simple model would describe marital dissatisfaction and the likelihood of divorce in a faceless population devoid of additional factors.  But, of course, additional factors will allow us to segment the population and observe the effects.

Let's imagine that subset 1 represent Seculars and subset 2 represent Mormons.

What are the factors that will cause divergence between these two cultures?  It seems to me that the most obvious is the observation that Mormon doctrine, culture, ritual, covenants, etc. all raise the cost of divorce substantially.  Significantly, according to Mormon doctrine, in order to ENTER HEAVEN, one must be sealed in the Temple.  The incredible emphasis on the family (much lauded by the casual and active Mormon observer alike) in the Church flows from this heavenly imperative.  The sealing covenant is eternal, is the key to exaltation, and is a covenant with God as much as it is a covenant with one's spouse. 

There is simply a much higher cost of divorce for Mormons than for their secular neighbors.

Economically, this would be represented by the Mormon supply curve shifting to the left of the supply curve for secularists who have (at the very least) no conception that earthly marriage is among the prerequisites for eternal reward.  By shifting to the left we see that, at all levels, it costs more to get divorced for Mormons than for Seculars.

The immediate effect of this is to create a new intersection of the supply and demand curves for Mormons which is substantially to the left of the earlier intersection.  The new intersection predicts that because of the higher cost of divorce in Mormon culture there should be a substantially reduced quantity of divorces.  The cost is so high that few would choose it. 

Presented with this analysis, if one believes that it is better to be married (happy or no) than not married, then the Mormon culture and doctrines that underlie this effect have some coherence. 

However, this isn't the end of the story.

However, the Barna survey actually tells a different story than what we predict via the model.  Mormons don't get divorced in reduced quantities than seculars.  They (and their fundamentalist religious cohorts) get divorced at a substantially higher rate. 

Headed back to the model, there are only two alternatives to consider.  One is that instead of being more expensive, the cost of divorce in Mormonism is actually much lower than it is for Seculars.  One would have to argue that the cultural stigma and the metaphysical pain for atheists at the prospect of the dissolution of marriage is substantially higher than it is for Mormons. 

Ummm, yeah.  So...

The other simple alternative to bring up the predicted divorce rate is to shift the demand curve to the right, representing a systemic increase in dissatisfaction.  In other words, if we accept the reasonable premise that divorce has a higher social cost in Mormonism than it does in secularism, then in order to predict the higher quantity of divorces in the Mormon population (that one observes in reality), marital dissatisfaction must be generally higher in Mormonism than in secularism.  With the new intersection, one also observes that the relative cost of those divorces has ratcheted up even more compared to the secular population.

But wait.  Mormons place a huge emphasis on the family and home (Family, isn’t it about time?).  If it is the most important thing in their lives, why would they have systemically worse marriages?

This is the blindingly obvious part; counterintuitive until you see it.

If a sociologist removed the religious identification and simply observed Mormon marriage culture in action they wouldn't be shocked at all to see high levels of marital dysfunction.  According to the sociological predictors of marital success, Mormons do almost the whole thing wrong.  It's as if they are trying to have the most terrible marriages possible. (One thing they do get right, shared faith is a predictor of marital success.  Go Mormons!)

Packer has taught, "True doctrine, understood, changes attitudes and behavior.  A study of the doctrines of the gospel will improve behavior quicker than a study of behavior will improve behavior."

While it may be true that cultural indoctrination can be counted on to produce indoctrinated behavior, this says nothing about the effectiveness of that behavior for producing desirable results.  There are key areas where Mormon doctrine and culture runs counter to predictors of marital happiness.

1.    The brethren encourage young members to get married very early, with very short courtships, having little consideration for long-term compatibility because they have been taught to trust in the compatibility-making power of shared faith.  

2.    Mormons are taught to have many children and to have them early.  For decades leaders have praised young college students who make the decision to not forestall a family while in school

3.    While high levels of education predict marital success, education disparity predicts strife. Mormon men are among the most highly educated population in the United States, but Mormon women frequently drop out of college to take care of young children as stay-at-home mothers.

4.    Mormon sexuality is truly the gift that keeps on giving as both Mormon men and women generally perpetuate sexual thought patterns and behavior that contribute to marital dissatisfaction.  Explicitly, implicitly, and via creative object lessons, girls are taught to fear sex and think of it as their wifely duty, and boys are taught that if they can just make it to marriage they will have access to as much as they need.  This teaching takes place in a larger culture where discomfort about the subject of sex is incredibly high and amid doctrine that teach that sexual sins are next to MURDER in seriousness.  Young people marry quickly out of fear that they may "screw up" and cause irreversible damage to their souls.  As many are taught, the nails can be pulled from the board, but the holes remain.

Entire books about Mormon sexual dysfunction could (and should) be written, but I think among the most illustrative cultural tidbits is the fact that morality, modesty, purity, and virtue are essentially only taught as sexual concepts in the Church.

5.    Mormon culture is also heavily tied to gender roles that, in themselves, create unrealistic expectations for both women and men.  Men are expected to shoulder the burden of providing well for a large family all alone.  Women are told that they will find the greatest life fulfillment as a caretaker and permanent domestic servant.  The working father and the stay-at-home mother is explicitly taught as the ideal

In a societal bubble this would exact its own inevitable damage, but (non-polygamous) Mormons live almost entirely integrated into the secular world.  Consequently, Mormons are constantly present to the conflicting evidence that the narrative they have been taught does not work.  Cognitive dissonance forces the creation of explanatory narratives or cherry picking evidence with religious zeal in order to support the (false) notion that this Leave it to Beaver lifestyle is divinely appointed, as opposed to a relic of, well, the era of Leave it to Beaver.

6.    Finally, echoing Brent Barlow's earlier observation on finances, Mormons across the board have at least 10% less financial resources than their secular neighbors.  Because tithing is usually paid on gross income, its impact on net disposable funds as a percentage is actually much higher.  Luckily, Thomas Monson came to the rescue in the April 2011 Conference and counselled young men to not put off marriage because of concerns about financial stress.  He then went on to talk about how sad it is when he has to handle sealing cancellation requests from divorcves that came about because of financial problems and lack of communication as well as other problems.  Hmmm....

This list could go on and on.  If you are an active, believing member, I could offend you even worse than I'm sure I already have.  But sociologists and psychologists would agree, with this list or a longer one, the ultimate results are damaging to the health and well-being of individuals and marriages.

I wanted to find out what happens to these couples after faith crisis.  Among our circle of friends there is plenty of evidence for divorce coming out of faith crisis.  I've also been impressed with the (apparent) level of marital happiness among my post-crisis friends.  If I take the strong position that Mormonism is damaging to marriages, what happens after a faith crisis?  Not wanting to be subject to my own biases and availability heuristics, I decided to issue a survey to try and get some reliable numbers. 

I suppose I must disclaim that my survey is subject to a number of potential problems.  The sample is self-selecting.  The wording may be (most certainly is, in fact) biased.  And I could have asked for different information; better information.  I also don’t think the results here can be compared with results from other studies.  Divorce statistics are complicated.  I wouldn’t recommend making a comparison of my divorce statistics against baseline from another study.

Nevertheless, in a few days I collected about 600 responses.  The qualifier to take the survey was participation in a marriage in which one or both of the spouses had undergone a Mormon faith crisis.  I asked a few background questions which turned out to be interesting in their consistency.  Almost no one among my respondents joined the church "for" their spouse/spouse to be.  83% of the respondents were born to an active family, and almost 80% of the spouses of respondents were.  82.6% were married in the temple and 88.5% reported that at the peak of faithfulness as a couple both were active, believing members. In 47% of the cases both spouses went through a faith crisis, and in 49% only the respondent went through crisis.  73% of the respondents became atheist/agnostic/secular following faith crisis.  10% still described themselves as Christian (non-Mormon).  Of the spouses that underwent faith crisis 66% became atheist/agnostic/secular, and 15% still claimed Christianity.

But the thing I found particularly fascinating about the survey results were the descriptions of marital status among the two groups.  Among those where only the respondent had disaffected from the faith, 26% reported that they had divorced, were divorcing, or were separated.  An additional 40% reported that they were still married with tension.  In other words, roughly 2/3 of respondents reported less-than-optimal marriage status post faith crisis.  (Actually, I did find these results a little surprising.  It was surprising that the numbers were not higher for both divorces and tension.) 

Among the responses where both spouses experienced faith crisis, however, it was a totally different story.  The divorce rate for this group was only 7% and only an additional 13% reported married with tension.  There was nearly a 4x reduction in divorce and a 3x reduction in marital tension when both spouses had a faith crisis. 

This result blew me away, and I don't want to speculate as to what it all means, but I'm having a hard time not coming to the conclusion that one of the best things you can do for your marriage is for both of you to lose faith. 
And so here we are at the end of this little analysis.  I will admit it makes me sad.  It makes me sad that the cultural framework I grew up with, that advertised itself as being the basis of happy family life, actually produces the opposite in marriage.  It makes me sad that the people who still believe in that framework will almost universally reject this kind of analysis.  It makes me sad that they are (that I was) conditioned to believe uncritically in the inherent good of that system. 

I guess this is my pulpit pounding moment.  People speak generally of the good the Church does in their life all the time, but I believe it less and less.  They claim that for any specific harm, the good vastly outweighs it.  I don't believe it any more.  I don't think the evidence supports it.

Sure, I believe that the Church fills a need for social structure and meaning, but I don't believe that its achievement in that regard is anything more or less than the natural consequence of being a socially binding organization.  As time goes on, I find more and more evidence that the tangible net effect of Mormonism is harm; that where it does good, it provides the kind of generic good that many, many social organizations can fill.  But when it reflects the specific traits that make it "Mormon", harm is usually the result. 

The conclusion of this economic exercise and the follow-up survey were actually both a real surprise to me.  But once I got over the shock, they made me think that there is a real need for more dispassionate analysis of the tangible, measurable effects of Mormonism in people's lives.  If it does good, we need to figure out where the specific good is and do a much better job of rationally and calmly exposing the bad.


  1. Wow. Fascinating read.

    Is there somewhere I can view the full results of your survey?

  2. Great insight, research and analysis. Very well done!

  3. I agree with this. To me it seems that from its inception Mormonism has consistently worked to weaken religion/faith (and the family) overall in the name of strengthening it. Religion practiced the right way does not value the things modern Mormonism values (empty adherence to Pharisaic codes, absolute submission to human authority, literal/historical readings of mythology). It eschews them all as evil (which they are: they tend to make productive faith impossible). The family does not need strict discipline to work better; the imposition of inadequate theories to it (by well-meaning idiots like Boyd Packer) just makes it weak(er) and (more) dysfunctional, in the ways you note neatly.

    Read Taleb's new book (Antifragile). This post could be a part of it. Mormonism began as an experiment in "modernizing" religion, and the last century saw our leaders go extreme with this program. The fruits today are in, and they are not good. We are more fragile than our fathers. Our families are brittle, as brittle as our impossibly weak faith: in the parable credited to Jesus, we have built our house on the sand (myths = univalent narrative revealing the only reality) rather than the rock (myths = polyvalent gateway to grappling with an uncertain reality), and it just keeps sinking.

  4. As a Mormon sociologist who has studied Mormon marriage and divorce, I see your analysis as self-fulfilling prophecy and justification for why the Brethren should be wrong. As you said, your survey is self-selected, not a random sample. Very little objectivity. I understand there are a lot of Mormons and ex-Mormons who are hurting out there and my heart aches for their circumstances. Yet the vast majority of Mormons and non_mormons are very happy in their marriages. Your economic model although thoughtful can also be used to discuss why 76% of Mormons have NOT divorced and are very happy in their marriages.

    Further, may I add that the lifetime divorce rate for active, temple recommend Mormons (in otherwords the Mormons who are highly committed to living their religion) is in the lower teens. (McClendon, R. J. & Chadwick, B. A. (2005). Latter-day Saint families at the dawn of the twenty-first century. In C. Hart, L.D. Newell, E. Walton, and D.C. Dollahite (Eds.), Helping and Healing Families: Principles and practices inspired by “The family: A proclamation to the world” (pp.32-43). Salt Lake City: Deseret Book). Much lower than Barna's seculars. Meantime, the world has bought into the misguided notion that the main purpose of marriage is mostly about happiness, and if a spouse is not happy, it's ok to divorce. Yet we know from research that happiness ebbs and flows in marriage regardless of religious affiliation. In otherwords, perpetual unhappiness is relatively rare in most marriages. And happiness doesn't actually increase after divorce. (Waite, L. J. & Gallagher, M. (2000). The case for marriage. New York: Doubleday.
    Waite, L. J., Browning, D., Doherty, W. J., Gallagher, M., Luo, Y., & Stanley, S. M. (2002). Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings from a Study of Unhappy Marriages, Institute for American Values, New York, NY: Unfortunately, society has abandoned the lasting principle that commitment to the covenant of marriage regardless of circumstances increases the likelihood that spouses can trust each other, which leads them to invest more (using an economic term) in the marriage.

  5. If you build unnecessary lies into your relationships, then they will always be weaker than they would be otherwise. The fact that Bear Stearns looks great right up until the end (the vicious, unforgiving end) means precisely nothing. I don't care how happy I am sitting on a keg of dynamite, even if it doesn't blow for 10, 20, or even 50 years. I don't want to be sitting there, and I sure as hell don't want to tell my kids to sit there (because it worked great for me! I never blew up!). Social science is mostly nonsense, noise that ignores the really important information.

  6. really smart, Greg. Did you see this, from BYU, about how parents "try to delay the onset of adulthood" (i.e., marriage) in their children? Even though supposedly our brains aren't fully developed and mature until about age 24 or 25?

  7. Oh, this from Richard McClendon is choice: "Meantime, the world has bought into the misguided notion that the main purpose of marriage is mostly about happiness."

    Yeah, that's some prime bullshit from someone discussing marriage in a church that teaches that "men are that they might find joy."

    Mormon doctrine teaches us that the main purpose of our entire existence is mostly about happiness. Pretty darn telling that Richard McClendon makes an exception for marriage.

  8. Richard, thank you for engaging. My good friend Matt pointed out that the lack of visibility into divorce statistics in temple marriages vs. non-temple marriages is a serious weak spot in the argument, and indeed, if "faithful" LDS do not divorce at the same rate as less orthodox LDS, then we return to the first observation, that since the cost of divorce in LDS culture is so high, we will see less of them in demand.

    I wouldn't compare the divorce % results from my survey to the Barna results, and I almost certainly wouldn't compare the results from yours with either of those either. I will take a look at the studies you referenced. I am interested in the subject.

    I'm interested in the tangible effects of belief in this paradigm or another. The fact of whether that paradigm conforms more strongly or less strongly to reality is only interesting inasmuch as its effects can be measured. So, if one is going to assert that blessings for obedience exist, one better be able to tangibly back that up.

    "Your economic model although thoughtful can also be used to discuss why 76% of Mormons have NOT divorced and are very happy in their marriages."

    Well, yeah.

    "The vast majority of Mormons and non-mormons are very happy in their marriages."

    Your "very happy" assertions are curious to me. Are you concluding that they are very happy because they haven't divorced? I don't see that as a justified statement.

    There is a lot of space to traverse between being very happy and the decision to divorce. Divorce is complex. It is only when people are painting a caricature that they presume that the decision to divorce is taken lightly.

    But I am interested in your assertion that the notion that marriage should be about happiness is misguided. It seems to flow pretty easily from Joseph Smith's teachings on happiness. The discussion of happiness is fraught with trouble. What does it mean in the first place?

    But more troubling is the idea that there might not be some point where one's unhappiness is not sufficient cause to break off. You seem to be simply reflecting what I pointed out at the beginning: The Church teaches about the evil of divorce not the evil of unhappy marriages.

    The right to divorce is, I believe, kind of an inarguable social good (kind of like the right to declare bankruptcy). I don't expect it to produce happiness necessarily, but it serves a virtuous purpose to keep people from feeling trapped.

    The thing I find fascinating about divorce is that while it doesn't forecast future satisfaction, it seems hard to not consider it a fairly decent gauge of current marital dissatisfaction.

    Are people rational in their self-measurement? Are they accurate? No, I don't think so. But I'm not concerned about that here.

  9. To Richard, cont.

    Even when they do it right, Mormons don't have a corner on the market for taking marital commitments seriously. In fact, the flippant manner in which the Brethren encourage ill-considered marriage (and the immoral manner in which they oppose it for societal segments they oppose) is a pretty good indicator that Mormons could take a few lessons from their secular neighbors that actually take the prospect of conjoining two lives seriously. If Mormons had such wisdom to provide on developing trust, perhaps John Gottman would do his research in Utah instead of Washington. One of the most egregious sins of believers is the idea that they have some special knowledge about "how things work" when the evidence doesn't back that up in any way.

    As a believing Mormon, I can see why you would assert that my analysis is "self-fulfilling prophecy and justification for why the Brethren should be wrong". I see it similarly for you, just from the opposite direction. It's not for nothing that the name of this blog is The Door Swings Both Ways. Metaphysical arguments can usually (always?) be turned back on themselves.

    But I don't need this to prove the brethren are wrong, that train left the station a while ago. I have all evidence, indeed "all of creation testifies" that the Brethren are wrong. You have faith. I'm not too worried about how those stack up against each other. Do I exercise some faith in my paradigm? Yes, I do. But I don't use it as a rhetorical defense.

    1. Yes. Saying that everyone would be happier if nobody divorced is like saying business would be better if nobody went bankrupt. Nobody with any sense is seriously arguing that all businesses should court bankruptcy, but the only thing worse than having it as an option is not having it. Not having it means that businesses that should fail, marriages that should end (or should never have been made), are forced to go on and on, torturing their shareholders (who may be hapless taxpayers or children forced into dysfunctional relationships that didn't have to exist) until the inevitable (we all blow up eventually). We moderns (in and out of Mormonism) have spent the last century creating rhetorical visions of perfection in our minds and then foolishly, naively trying to implement them in reality. "This business (or marriage) is too big to fail." Rubbish. Balderdash. Marriage, like other kinds of business, can make you or break you. You should only enter the game with your eyes wide open, because no magic is going to save you (whether a Nobel prize in economics, a well-meaning chairman of the Fed, or a well-meaning amateur scriptorian with a few aphorisms "defining" the perfect marriage, as though such a chimera existed).

  10. Brilliant and thoughtful analysis. Thank you.

  11. Interesting comment thread. I'm glad that Richard engaged, and I think I can synthisize greg and richards points (of course making the door swing both ways):

    mormon leadership uses tons of eternity-weighted rhetoric to get people to marry and stay married. that stuff works if you drink the kool aid and are sealed in the temple. however, if one spouse subsequently stops drinking the kool aid and the other doesn't--pain results and the marriage is high risk (even if it wasn't just 6 months ago).

    given the strong rhetoric by mormon leaders on the modern interpretation of celestial marriage and that fact that mormons often believe that eternity hangs in the balance of this life changing or even eternity changing decision--you'd expect there to be fewer divorces in mormonism. but there is not. in the end--marrying too early, marrying for sex, marrying to check the celestial box, and having as many kids as possible while still in school, and moderately avoiding birth control (even when coupled with eternity rhetoric and blessings from heaven)--aren't enough to slow the divorce rate.

    there is ample evidence, as greg lays out, to suggest that mormon teachings do not actually result in stronger families (if stronger means perpetuated as an intact unite).

    yet the faithful have a tried and true response to this...the teachings are perfect the listeners aren't. if they'd just drink more kool aid, they'll be fine.

    they're right. Just make sure that you spouse always says, "i'll have what he's having." or you'll be in trouble.

  12. I have felt for a long time that Mormon teachings really set people up for unhealthy and unhappy relationships. The people that figure out how to have happy, healthy and lasting marriages do it despite the teachings of the church, not because of.

    I know many people that stay married despite being miserable. I was one of them for a while. My faith crisis gave me the freedom to make the choice I really wanted to make.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts and your research. I would like to see more done on the subject.

  13. Very great post, it is informative. The subject you handled is awesome - Salt Lake City Divorce Mediation

  14. Assuming that the 76% who aren't divorced are very happy in their marriages is absolute bullshit and ignores the reasonable assertion that the high cost of divorce will inhibit some from pursuing it. It is, however, reasonable to assume that the 79% of secularists who remain married are in aggregate happier than the 76% of LDS given that their cost of divorce is lower.

  15. Thanks for this insightful post. I agree with Richard that one should be extremely guarded in any inferences one draws about the larger Mormon world from a survey of only disaffected members, and that your theory must be squared against the lower divorce rates for temple-married members, but I still feel that there is a wealth of valuable insight here. Thanks!

  16. Holy Cats! Where have I been? Greg!!! This is wonderful! What a post. I chewed on all these comments too! Such a pleasure!