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2. Theories and Determinants of marital dissolution
2.1. Microeconomic theory of marital dissolution
2.2. Macrostructural opportunity model
2.3. Theory of (Re-) Framing
The aim of this paper is to describe different theories that try to explain, why indi- viduals respectively couples decide to dissolve their marriage. These theories try to detect determinants and processes, which are responsible for the stability or insta- bility of a marriage. Divorce has become an important topic in sociological research, because over the last decades, there has been a huge increase in the number of di- vorces.
As Wagner & Weiß (2003) state in their paper of a Meta research on German di- vorce research, there are various existing theories concerning marital dissolution. Apart from the exchange theory, they mention the microeconomic theory of marital dissolution, to be the most used theory in German research. Therefore I decided to give a detailed description of Gary Becker´s microeconomic theory and compare it with Esser´s theory of Reframing and South´s macrostructural opportunity model, we discussed in class.
In the next part of this paper, I will first describe each theories essentials and their predictions concerning divorce risk. Whereas in the second part, I will discuss the theories concerning similarities and differences and use additional literature on marital dissolution, to give recommendation for further research.
One of the most important theories explaining divorce with economic means, is the microeconomic theory by Gary Becker. In general, his theory of marriage is based on the assumption that households produce nonmarket commodities, with each in- dividual trying to find a partner, who maximizes wealth and utility from these com- modities. Commodities in this context refer to a variety of assets like children, house property, love, companionship and market respectively nonmarket skills (Becker et al.1977; Hill/Kopp 1990).These assumptions connote that individuals marry, if the expected utility from marriage is higher than the utility gained by re- maining single. Consequently, the risk of divorce is higher, the smaller the gains the individual can expect from marriage (Becker et al. 1977). Nevertheless, it has to be acknowledged that the previously described assumptions only consider the judge- ments about marriage gains of one partner, but these judgement can differ between partners. Hence a couple will dissolve their marriage only, if their combined wealth when being separated, will be greater than the combined marital wealth (Becker et al. 1977).
In general, the search of a partner maximizing marriage utility, is a search for right traits, whereby the microeconomic theory distinguishes between complement and substitutive traits. Complement traits are those kind of traits that, if they are posi- tively correlated, have a positive effect on the production of the commodities (Hill/Kopp 1990). Strictly speaking, complement traits should be similar between the partners, in order to produce a high marriage gain. In contrast substitutes, are traits that are negatively related, and have a positive effect on marriage gain, if they differ between individuals. An example for a substitute trait is the income of the partners, because a high deviation in the income level between the partners, offers the possibility of a specialisation on market respectively non-market work (Becker, 1977; Hill/Kopp, 1990).
As already mentioned, each individual tries to find a spouse on the marriage market that maximizes its utility of marriage, but this search process is always concerned with costs and uncertainty. In this point, Becker´s theory deviates from the typical neoclassical model of a perfectly balanced market, in which none of the partners would improve his or hers situation by changing the current partner, but assumes an imbalanced market. Especially individuals with rare traits have high searching costs, which might lead them to accept a non-optimal mate, in order to reduce these costs. Consequently, a high deviation of the current mate’s traits from the traits in the optimal sorting, implies a higher risk for divorce, because the gains of marriage are decreased (Becker et al. 1977).
Apart from a high match between the partners, the investment in marriage specific capital reduces the risk of marital dissolution, because this kind of capital would be less worthy in another relationship or when being single. An example of such mar- riage specific capital are children. These investments also lower the chance of re- marriage and decrease the stability of these marriages, because they lower the mar- riage gain. Becker´s theory also incorporates the possibility that the effect of mar- riage specific capital runs in the opposite direction. Meaning that individuals with high search costs, who have a greater dissolution risk, invest less in marriage spe- cific capital and in turn increase their divorce risk even further.
Finally, the microeconomic theory acknowledges the connection between dissolu- tion and the possibility of remarriage. In marriage markets, where apart from living single after divorce, remarriage is possible, the marriage gain with the current part- ner has to be compared with both, the expected utility as single and the expected utility with an alternative partner. Therefore, the opportunity of remarriage increases the risk of marriage dissolution, if the expected gain in an alternative marriage will be higher than in the current (Becker et al. 1977).
The macrostructural-opportunity model proposed by South et al (2001) belongs into the group of macrostructural determinants of marital dissolution (White 1990), be- cause it is concerned with the effect social interaction with other spouses have on the risk to divorce. In particular they stress the importance of the neighbourhood and working context as driving force in increasing divorce risk. Two premises are central to explain, why spousal alternative have an impact on the risk of divorce. The first one is that many marriages dissolve, because one of the partners encoun- ters a new, more attractive spouse, whereas the second stresses the importance of the social structure. This second premise is essentially, because the social structure is concerned with the distribution of men and women in a society and that way influences the perceived opportunities to form post marital relationships (South, 2001). Consequently, South et al. (2001) assume that imbalance sex ratios increase an individual’s divorce risk, even when other risk factors are controlled for. Further they claim that it is sufficient, if one partner faces a high number of alternatives to significantly increase divorce risk.
Closely connected to the previously described model of South et al. (2001), is the study of Yvonne Aberg (2009), because it is also concerned with a macro perspec- tive on divorce, analysing the connection between an individual´s social context and its risk of divorce. The focus of her theoretical model to explain divorce, espe- cially lies on the types of mechanisms, which are of importance, when one tries to explain, why divorce becomes an option in the individuals mind. She distinguishes four kinds of mechanisms, namely opportunity-based mechanisms, desire-based mechanisms, belief-based mechanisms and trigger mechanisms, which can underlie the decision process of divorce. I decided to describe these mechanisms more closely, because they are important for the proposed model of South et al. (2001), since they explain the connection between the availability of alternative spouses and the individuals decision to dissolve their marriage (Aberg, 2009) .
Opportunity-based mechanisms are those aspects influencing the desirability of a divorce, like the opportunity to meet a new partner or meet new respectively main- tain friends after a divorce. These mechanisms imply that divorce risk should be higher, the more the individual is surrounded by single friends and spouses of the opposite sex (Aberg, 2009). Further desire-based mechanisms account for the in- fluence marriage norms have on the attitude towards divorce. These norms get weaken, if the individual is surrounded by a high number of divorced people, which makes divorce a more desirable option. Thirdly, belief-based mechanisms account for the fact that divorce is a decision under uncertainty. Therefore individuals search for information from divorced friends or family members and the likeliness of di- vorce increases with the number of divorced network members. In addition, the observation of many divorces can raise the belief that marriages are not ever lasting, and in turn lead to a decrease of investment in marriage specific capital. Finally trigger mechanisms see an effect of events, which might change the status of di- vorce, from just being one action alternatives, into a consciously reflected one, which in turn increases the risk of marital dissolution (Aberg 2009).
Another important theory in marital dissolution research is the one proposed by Hartmut Esser (2002a, 2002b), applying a model of Frame-Selection on marital dissolution. In general the Model of Frame-selection (MFS) tries to establish a connection between normative and rational aspects of action. Esser claims that the model of frame selection offers the possibility to incorporate all approaches concerning marital dissolution, and overcome differences between economic and sociological approaches trying to explain divorce. He states that his model incorporates the popular microeconomic theory of Gary Becker, but adds a normative perspective, the microeconomic view neglects (Esser 2002b).
According to the MFS, there are always two alternative frames, the most probable and a substitutive one, in each decision situation, with two modes, an automatically
(ac) and a reflective (rc) one. It is assumed that each frame is provided with different valuations, stored in memory and gets activated, if particular symbols are present. The framing of the marriage at the initialisation is constituted by five different pa- rameters. The match (m), the costs (C), the opportunities (p), the marriage gain (U(mr)) and the expected gain in case of divorce (U(dr)) determine the marriage frame. Depending on a strong respectively weak marriage frame, the pathways of marriage development differ over time. Still, it has to be remarked that these determinants and the following framing process are influenced by each person’s social and individual background factors.
While a strong framing implies that a marriage is non-sensitive against crises, leads to investments in marriage specific capital and therefore strengthens the frame, a weak framing is concerned with a different development of marriage. This doesn´t necessary mean that all weakly framed marriages switch into the reflexion mode, but as a consequence, the importance of costs and opportunities increases. Depend- ing on the availability of alternatives and the costs of search and divorce, there can occur a Reframing. Nevertheless, even marriages with a weak framing at the ini- tialisation, won´t dissolve, if the reflexion threshold C/p is too high (Esser 2002a). Esser tested his theory including different variables that have been identified by other researchers as important factors influencing divorce risk. His theory included variables about the couples social background (e.g. divorce of parents), sociodem- ographic factors (e.g. education) and social context (e.g. area of living). He proved the major importance marriage framing has on marriage stability, even when one controls for other variables.
Further his Framing theory demonstrates the meaning of crises, functioning as an indicator for the beginning of marriage reframing. Through these crises, the start frame loses its importance and a change from the ac into the rc mode occurs. Afterwards, the means of Becker´s economic theory shift to the foreground and marriage gains, as well as alternatives to marriage, become the only determinants affecting the further marriage development (Esser 2002a).
Therefore, the Reframing model explains the increase in divorce rates, to be a result of decreasing divorce costs respectively facilitation in search of alternatives. Still, this only holds for marriages with a weak frame, because no such development can be observed for marriages with a strong frame.
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