JD Vance said people need to be more willing to stay in unhappy marriages for the sake of their kids—and seemed to suggest that in some cases, “even violent” marriages should continue.
The Ohio Republican Senate nominee, talking to Pacifica Christian High School in Southern California last September, gave an extended answer that claimed that people now “shift spouses like they change their underwear,” and that it had done long-term damage to a generation of children.
“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 was responding to a moderator who referenced his grandparents’ relationship before asking, “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?" And those comments came immediately after he brought up his grandparents’ relationship and how it differed from his parents’ generation. He described their marriage as “violent” in his best-selling book “Hillbilly Elegy,” though they’d reconciled by the time he came along and helped raise him, giving him a sense of safety and stability his mother was unable to provide.
“Culturally, something has clearly shifted. 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,” he said.
“And 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? 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,” Vance said.
His full comments on divorce, in footage obtained by VICE News, can be viewed below. The comments on violence begin around the 3:10 mark. The full event can be viewed here.
VICE News asked Vance’s campaign why he thought “it would be better for children if their parents stayed in violent marriages than if they divorced,” as well as whether he wanted local or federal law changed to make it harder for couples to divorce.
Vance sent the following statement in response, via a campaign staffer:
“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, 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.”
Vance’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview to clarify his comments. When asked follow-up question of whether “he thinks people in violent marriages should generally stay together or get divorced," a Vance spokesperson said they felt Vance's statement already answered this question.
The rate of reported domestic violence in the U.S. has actually significantly declined in recent decades, decreasing from 15.5 per 1,000 women and 2.8 per 1,000 men to 5.4 per 1,000 women and 0.5 per 1,000 men between 1995 through 2015, according to data from the Center for Disease Control and U.S. Department of Justice. Tragically, however, there are indications that domestic violence significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, partly due to stay-at-home orders keeping people stuck with their violent partners. Some academic studies have also found higher domestic violence rates among unmarried partners than married couples.
Vance recounted his own tragic experiences with domestic violence in his best-selling memoir Hillbilly Elegy, including details of his grandparents’ sometimes “violent marriage,'' describing his grandfather as a “violent drunk” before he got sober and his grandmother as a “violent nondrunk.” In one instance before he was born, his grandmother warned his grandfather that she’d kill him if he ever came home drunk again. When he did, she went to make good on that threat.
“Mamaw, never one to tell a lie, calmly retrieved a gasoline canister from the garage, poured it all over her husband, lit a match, and dropped it on his chest. When Papaw burst into flames, their 11-year-old daughter jumped into action to put out the fire and save his life,” Vance writes.
But Vance’s grandparents’ relationship had improved by the time he was a child—and he writes that they were by far the most stable in his life as he was growing up, offering him a refuge from the chaos created by his mother as she struggled with opiate addiction and cycled through multiple partners.
Vance wrote that when he was 12, his enraged mother pulled the car over “to beat the shit out of” him, and he ran for his life, taking refuge in a stranger’s house. His mother broke down the door and physically dragged him out. The cops came and charged her with domestic violence; he lied to a judge and said she hadn’t threatened him to help keep her out of jail.
The toxic lessons he said he learned from his mother’s failed relationships: “Never speak at a reasonable volume when screaming will do; if the fight gets a little too intense, it’s OK to slap and punch, so long as the man doesn’t hit first; always express your feelings in a way that ’s insulting and hurtful to your partner; if all else fails, take the kids and the dog to a local motel, and don’t tell your spouse where to find you.”
He wrote that all that chaos has scarred him.
“The never-ending conflict took its toll. Even thinking about it today makes me nervous. My heart begins to race, and my stomach leaps into my throat,” he wrote.
This isn’t the only time Vance has tied divorce rates to societal instability.
When he was asked about gay marriage at a March candidate forum hosted by Toledo Right to Life, Vance said that he doesn’t like the “cafeteria Christianity” of people selecting their own beliefs and said he believed that “marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman,” before pivoting into a criticism of how divorce has become more societally acceptable.
“The entire idea that you can discard your husband or your wife like a piece of clothing is one of the most dangerous assaults that we've ever seen on the family in this country,” he said. “If we want children to grow up with healthy, happy lives, we should be reminding them that the most important thing that we can do for our kids is make sure they grow up with a mom and dad at home. The assault on the institution of marriage has been a profound evil. It hasn't just affected our adults, it's affected our children in big ways.”
Divorce rates did spike for a while after the “sexual revolution” of the late 1960s that Vance derides, driven in part by greater social acceptance as well as a major shift in law across the country as states legalized no-fault divorce.
But divorce rates are actually at a 50-year low right now. According to Census data, just 14.9 out of 1,000 marriages ended in divorce in 2020, the latest in a steady decline since divorce rates hit their peak in 1980. Both nationally and in Vance’s home state of Ohio, divorce rates have fallen by almost half since 1990. An analysis by the conservative Institute for Family Studies found that to be the lowest rate in the U.S. since before 1970.
A Vance campaign spokesperson said that Vance does not support changes to current law with regard to divorce.
Vance does want to see new federal policy to encourage people to stay married, however, which he discussed at that September event. He said he was “a very big fan” of a law that Hungary’s right-wing nationalist government instituted giving newly married couples a low-interest loan which he said they only have to pay back if they don’t stay together. (The actual policy stipulates that couples don’t have to pay back the loans of more than $30,000 if they have three children, not whether they stay married).
“I think there is real opportunity to send a message through public policy that this is a sacred institution, and we should continue to build it,” he said.
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