Last September, Ohio Republican Senate candidate JD Vance let slip an interesting comment that has been the source of a lot of online debate. While arguing that married couples are too quick to get a divorce instead of sticking through difficult seasons, he made a comment some are interpreting as suggesting that, in some cases, even “violent” marriages should continue.
Vance, whose profile first rose with the success of his Hillbilly Elegy memoir, was speaking to Pacifica Christian High School in Southern California when he started talking about the effects of rising divorce rates on kids. Vice News unearthed the conversation.
“This is one of the great tricks that I think the sexual revolution pulled on the American populace, which is the idea that like, ‘well, OK, these marriages were fundamentally, you know, they were maybe even violent, but certainly they were unhappy. And so getting rid of them and making it easier for people to shift spouses like they change their underwear, that’s going to make people happier in the long term,’” Vance said.
“And maybe it worked out for the moms and dads, though I’m skeptical. But it really didn’t work out for the kids of those marriages,” Vance continued. “And that’s what I think all of us should be honest about, is we’ve run this experiment in real time. And what we have is a lot of very, very real family dysfunction that’s making our kids unhappy.”
Vance has written about his grandparents’ chaotic marriage, which Hillbilly Elegy describes as going through a period of violence before growing stable enough to protect Vance himself while his mother dealt with her own demons. The moderator referenced Vance’s grandparents and asked “what’s causing one generation to give up on fatherhood when the other one was so doggedly determined to stick it out, even in tough times?”
“Culturally, something has clearly shifted,” Vance said. “I think it’s easy but also probably true to blame the sexual revolution of the 1960s. My grandparents had an incredibly chaotic marriage in a lot of ways, but they never got divorced, right? They were together to the end, ’til death do us part. That was a really important thing to my grandmother and my grandfather. That was clearly not true by the 70s or 80s.”
Vance is correct that the divorce rate in the U.S. rocketed up in the 1960s and 70s, peaking in the early 80s — a fact experts attribute to myriad factors like a rise in women’s education, the spread of “no fault” divorce laws and the general normalization of divorce (it was at this time that President Ronald Regan and his second wife moved into the White House, making him the first divorced Commander in Chief). However, divorce has been on a steady decline in the U.S. since the late 80s.
“I think that probably, I was personally and a lot of kids in my community, who grew up in my generation, personally suffered from the fact that a lot of moms and dads saw marriage as a basic contract, right?” Vance mused. “Like any other business deal, once it becomes no longer good for one of the parties or both of the parties, you just dissolve it and go onto a new business relationship. But that recognition that marriage was sacred I think was a really powerful thing that held a lot of families together. And when it disappeared, unfortunately I think a lot of kids suffered.”
The clip was uncovered by VICE News, who reached out to Vance for comment, asking if he thought “it would be better for children if their parents stayed in violent marriages than if they divorced.”
Vance’s response to VICE was furious, but a little hard to decipher. “I reject the premise of your bogus question. As anyone who studies these issues knows: domestic violence has skyrocketed in recent years, and is much higher among non-married couples. That’s the ‘trick’ I reference: that domestic violence would somehow go down if progressives got what they want, when in fact modern society’s war on families has made our domestic violence situation much worse. Any fair person would recognize I was criticizing the progressive frame on this issue, not embracing it.
“But I can see that you are not a fair person,” Vance’s answer continued. “So rather than answer your loaded and baseless question, let me offer the following: I’m an actual victim of domestic violence. In my life, I have seen siblings, wives, daughters, and myself abused by men. It’s disgusting for you to argue that I was defending those men.”
VICE responded, asking again if “he thinks people in violent marriages should generally stay together or get divorced.” According to the publication, one of Vance’s spokespeople responded, saying he had already answered the question.
In Hillbilly Elegy, Vance shares several stories of his family’s history of violence in harrowing detail, including physical fights between his grandfather (“a violent drunk”) and grandmother (“a violent nondrunk”), which subsided after his grandfather became sober. However, he also recounts his own experiences with physical violence at the hands of his mother, who struggled with opiate addiction.
In both his writing and public speaking, Vance has both spoken about the trauma those experiences left on him, his gratitude for his grandparents and his belief that rising divorce rates have contributed to societal upheaval. And while domestic violence reports have been on the decline for the last few decades, they did tick up during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, Vance’s original language at Pacifica Christian and his subsequent responses to Vice just don’t make it entirely clear what he was saying about people in violent marriages. He insists that he wasn’t “defending those men” — presumably referring to abusive husbands — but that wasn’t the question.
The idea of conservative figures suggesting people stay in abusive marriages is unfortunately not unbelievable. Franklin Graham was recently in the news after a woman spoke out about how he advised her to return to her abusive ex-husband.