An Open Letter to Patrick Deneen about the Family

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Background: on May 13, 2022, the self-described “post-liberal” conservative Patrick Deneen appeared on Ezra Klein’s podcast. He got some things wrong about the family and the academy, so I emailed him (and cc’ed Ezra Klein). Deneen didn’t answer my email, so I’m posting it after some light edits.

Dear Patrick Deneen:

Let me start with some bona fides. In 2016 I coauthored Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans with W. Bradford Wilcox, a name I’m sure you know. I’ve also published several articles in National Review and one in First Things. I tell you this so you don’t think my email to you is motivated purely by my ideological commitments.

Starting at about 20 minutes in, you repeat the conservative canard that no-fault divorce laws caused the divorce boom that occurred between 1965 and 1980.


Ronald Reagan signed the first modern no-fault divorce law into effect on January 1, 1970 because fault-based divorce cases were clogging the courts. How do we know the move to no-fault didn’t raise the divorce rate? The divorce rate was already rising in states that adopted no-fault laws early, in the first few years of the 1970s. Afterwards divorce rates continued to rise at the same rate. In contrast, divorce rates were already falling in states that adopted no-fault laws later, in the 1980s. After their adoption divorce rates continued to fall. These trends were documented by the late sociologist Norval Glenn (1997), who was no fan of easy divorce laws. The economist Justin Wolfers (2006) arrived at a similar finding. You can find a contrary finding in Gruber (2004), but Glenn will always be more convincing. He didn’t use a fancy statistical model subject to finicky statistical assumptions, but merely looked at trends in divorce rates in different states.

I abhor the old regime of fault-based divorce for many reasons, but we can start with the fact that it suborned perjury. When one spouse was suing another for adultery, every single person in court from the judge on down knew there was no adultery, but all of them accepted the perjury with a wink and a nudge. That’s appalling to me, but these phony adultery cases were commonplace in the old days. My late mother appeared as a “witness” at one in New York in the 1950s.

Ultimately the old laws failed to improve family well-being. Here’s why, in a colorful example from my 2005 book Understanding the Divorce Cycle:

South Carolina stands out as an extreme example of the folly of prohibiting divorce. Having no divorce laws until fairly recently, it fostered peculiar conditions for marriage. In the mid-19th century, laws had to be passed limiting the amount of money a man could bequeath to his mistress, given the popularity of engaging in extramarital relations in lieu of divorce (Bishop 1881, cited in Blake 1962). Moreover, such arrangements offered no solution for the female half in such loveless marriages. By demonstrating one limit of legislating morality, these 19th century laws are instructive to those who object to divorce on moral grounds.

Your allegations that academia is anti-family or anti-marriage are over forty years out of date. In the 1960s and 1970s, ill-founded objection to the Moynihan report and broader social ferment did lead some academics astray. By the 1980s and 1990s, social scientists were establishing—and for the first time with nationally representative data and modern statistical methods—that family structure mattered for child well-being. As this generation of social scientists became senior academics, they repeatedly reaffirmed this conventional wisdom, in articles by Douglas Massey and Robert Sampson (Princeton and Harvard respectively), the late Sara McLanahan and Sandy Jenks (again, Princeton and Harvard), William Julius Wilson (Harvard), and Andrew Cherlin (Johns Hopkins). Wilson is perhaps the most eminent sociologist of the past half century; Cherlin, in my opinion, is the foremost family scholar alive.

Of course, you can find scholars who doubt the truth. You can find law professors offering crazy theories about the family. But at least in my notoriously left-leaning discipline, they’re not leading voices. Moreover, I welcome the plurality of voices, whether they represent bad scholarship coming from the left (e.g., Cohen 2018, reviewed by me in 2019) or the right (e.g., Regnerus 2012).

No-fault divorce laws aren’t responsible for the 1965-1980 divorce boom, and I’m not aware of any significant movement in the academy seeking to destroy the family.

Addendum: just as I was finishing this long email, progressive blogger Matt Yglesias wrote a post about how kids do better in two-parent families.


Bishop, Joel P. 1881. Commentaries on the Law of Marriage and Divorce, 6th edition. Boston, MA: Little, Brown & Company.

Blake, Nelson Manfred. 1962. The Road to Reno: A History of Divorce in the United States. New York: Macmillan.

Cherlin, Andrew J. 2020. David Brooks Is Urging Us To Go Forward, Not Backward. The Family Studies Blog. (February 12, 2020.) https://ifstudies.org/blog/david-brooks-is-urging-us-to-go-forward-not-backward

Cohen, Philip N. 2018. Enduring bonds: Inequality, marriage, parenting, and everything else that makes families great and terrible. Univ of California Press.

Glenn, Norval D. 1997. A Reconsideration of the Effect of No-Fault Divorce on Divorce Rates. Journal of Marriage and the Family 59: 1026-1030

Gruber, Jonathan. 2004. Is Making Divorce Easier Bad for Children? The Long-Run Implications of Unilateral Divorce. Journal of Labor Economics 22: 799-833.

Massey, Douglas S., and Robert J. Sampson. 2009. “Moynihan redux: Legacies and lessons.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621: 6-27.

McLanahan, Sara and Christopher Jenks. 2015. “Was Moynihan Right?” Education Next 15: 14-21.

Regnerus, Mark. 2012. “How different are the adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships? Findings from the New Family Structures Study.” Social Science Research 41: 752-770.

Wilson, William Julius. 2009. “The Moynihan Report and research on the black community.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 621: 34-46.

Wilcox, W. Bradford, and Nicholas Wolfinger. 2016. Soul mates: Religion, sex, love, and marriage among African Americans and Latinos. Oxford University Press.

Wolfers, Justin. 2006. Did Unilateral Divorce Laws Raise Divorce Rates? A Reconciliation and New Results. American Economic Review 96 (No. 5): 1802-1820

Wolfinger, Nicholas H. 2005. Understanding the divorce cycle: The children of divorce in their own marriages. Cambridge University Press, 2005.

________. 2019. “Enduring Bonds: Inequality, Marriage, Parenting, and Everything Else That Makes Families Great and Terrible by Philip N. Cohen.” Social Forces 98: e6-e6.

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