Marital Morals: Different Standards in U.S., Canada, Britain

by Heather Mason and Steve Crabtree

Americans' views on most moral issues tend to be more conservative than either Canadians' or Britons', and their views on marriage-related issues are no exception. According to recent Gallup surveys conducted in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain*, Americans are significantly less likely than Canadians or Britons to condone sex between an unmarried man and woman, divorce, having a baby outside of marriage, or extramarital affairs.

Sex Between Unmarried Men and Women

Sex between unmarried men and women is probably quite common in the United States -- but that doesn't mean all Americans approve. Although a majority of Americans -- 60% -- think sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable, a sizable minority -- 36% -- believes that this practice is morally wrong.

On the other hand, nearly 8 in 10 Canadians (78%) say sex between an unmarried man and woman is morally acceptable, and only 2 in 10 (20%) say it is morally wrong. Britons are even more likely to deem sex between an unmarried man and woman morally acceptable, at 85%, while just 13% think it is morally wrong.

Divorce

As with sex between unmarried men and women, a majority of adults in all three countries think that divorce is morally acceptable. But again, Americans express a less accepting moral view than either Canadians or Britons do. Two-thirds (66%) of Americans say divorce is morally acceptable, as do 78% of Canadians and 82% of Britons. About one in four Americans (26%) feel divorce is morally wrong, compared with 18% of Canadians and 11% of Britons.

Despite a slightly more antagonistic view of divorce in the United States than in Canada or Britain, the divorce rates are similar in the three countries. In each country, there has been about one divorce for every two marriages in recent years. According to government estimates, the United States had .51 divorces for every marriage in 2002. Canada's divorce rate was slightly lower, at .48 divorces for every marriage, and the United Kingdom's was a bit higher, at .56.

Having a Baby Outside of Marriage

The question about having a baby outside of marriage shows the most striking difference of opinion between the United States and its allies to the north and across the Atlantic. Almost half (49%) of Americans say that having a baby outside of marriage is morally acceptable. But approximately three-fourths of those in Canada (73%) and Great Britain (74%) say it is acceptable to have a baby out of wedlock. Forty-five percent of Americans feel it's morally wrong, as do just 25% of Canadians and 22% of Britons.

Ironically, there tend to be more out-of-wedlock births in the United States than there are in Canada or the United Kingdom. In 2002, there were 43.7 live births for every 1,000 unmarried women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States. That number was only 38.8 in the United Kingdom** and 28.9 in Canada***.

Married Men and Women Having Affairs

Few residents in any of the three countries are willing to say that a married man and woman having an affair is morally acceptable. But the pattern of greater disapproval among Americans still holds true; a scant 7% of Americans say that having an affair is morally acceptable, compared with 16% of Canadians and 19% of Britons. Ninety-one percent of Americans, 82% of Canadians, and 76% of Britons feel that having affairs is morally wrong.

*Results in the United States are based on telephone interviews 1,000 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 2-4, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup USA.

Results in Canada are based on telephone interviews with 1,005 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 30-Sept. 6, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup Canada.

Results in Great Britain are based on telephone interviews with 1,009 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 25-Sept. 7, 2004. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points .The survey was conducted by Gallup UK.

**Office for National Statistics

***Statistics Canada

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