The nation's divorce rate declined slightly in the 1980s -- yet the U.S. remains one of the world's most divorce-prone societies. Roughly one marriage in two now breaks up, with profound consequences in the home and in the workplace.
Barring a major shift in values or a 1930s type of economic depression, social scientists and family therapists say they do not expect to see any significant decrease in the divorce rate in the 1990s.
"In the future, a minority of Americans will both come from intact families and have their own intact family," said Edward W. Beal, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine who has studied the effects of divorce on adult children.
The 10 percent decline in the divorce rate over the past decade, after a doubling of the rate between 1960 and 1980, reflects several trends. For some couples, cohabitation has replaced marriage. About half of all young people now live with a partner before they marry, according to Andrew J. Cherlin, professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University. If the relationship does not work out, the couple breaks up without a legal divorce.
In addition, the post-World War II baby boom is now reaching its forties. "Most divorces occur within 10 years of marriage," said Cherlin. "We're aging out of the divorce-prone years."
Most important, the economic and emotional costs of divorce are more visible. The notion that ending a marriage is a quick and easy cure for unhappiness has given way to a more realistic appraisal of the trauma of divorce.
Women who divorce experience a 15 to 30 percent decline in living standard; men, a 10 to 15 percent rise, Cherlin said. This economic gap may begin to close, now that child support payments can be automatically deducted from parents' paychecks.
Meanwhile, divorce has contributed to the "feminization" of poverty in the U.S., where one quarter of children live in homes without a father and nearly half of these families fall below the official poverty line.
The psychological consequences of divorce -- particularly on children -- have proved far-reaching. Most children adjust to a divorce but go through a difficult transition period and may as adults be more wary of relationships. "Is divorce inherited?" a 9-year-old boy asked Beal -- a question that shows the depth of anxiety felt by a lot of children.
Mental health experts note that children also can learn from successful divorces in which parents change and stop the destructive family patterns that led to the divorce.
It's not the divorce that's the big issue -- it's the problem in family relationships," Beal said. "Like the anti-smoking campaign, we have to target teenagers and make kids aware of the complexities of relationships."