Like it or not, our society is undergoing major shifts as you read these words. Among them is increased questioning about marriage – whether to enter one to begin with; stay in it regardless of what happens over time; or adopt alternatives to it. Unfortunately, some recent attempts to interpret these shifts contribute more confusion than clarity.
First, some facts:
• The divorce rate continues to hover at around 50%, regardless of increased sensitivity to the potential emotional and financial impact of divorce upon couples and their children.
• Polls find that about 60% of those surveyed accept affairs; and about 30% actually admit to having had one.
• The marriage rate has dropped by 37% in the last four decades.
In 1960, 430,000 unmarried couples were living together. By 2000, that number had soared 12-fold to 5 million. Today, only 2.3 million couples marry in a year. Cohabitation may be headed towards being the dominant form of male-female unions. Clearly, people are thinking and behaving differently about marriage than previous generations did. Today, many question how necessary or desirable marriage is compared with other forms of intimate partnership.
What’s the best way to understand these shifts? And what do they signify for the decades ahead?
Some answers have been offered by socially conservative organizations, such as the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values. The problem is their answers are skewed by an ideological agenda, rooted in two convictions: First, that divorce and cohabitation are social evils, to begin with, and should be curtailed through legislative action, whenever possible. And secondly, that the best social arrangement is the traditional marriage (heterosexual only, of course) in which the wife is a dutiful subordinate; an unequal partner. Such self-described “pro-marriage” groups appear especially annoyed by such facts as these:
- People do divorce
- Many others choose to live together without marriage
- Same-sex couples exist, and many are raising children
- Both men and women want more equality in their relationships than previous generations did – although they don’t know how to achieve it.
Ironically, denial of and opposition to these realities actually undermine the overt goal of these organizations: stronger, positive marriages. That becomes clear when you look at how these groups interpret some of their own data.
First, consider the rise of cohabitation and the decline of marriage. Anti-divorce groups argue that this trend is bad, by definition. They claim that cohabitation is the result of behavior by “irresponsible” men, and is the source of decline in marriage rates. For example, the National Marriage Project, headed by sociologist David Popenoe, concluded that the steady rise of cohabitation and the continued several-decade decline of the marriage rate is evidence that men “want sex without the responsibility of marriage.”
Based on a survey it conducted, the Project claims that men are more inflexible and less able to make the compromises needed in marriage and family life. And therefore, they want to avoid it. In short, it argues, cohabitation is their free ride because men can “have sex” easily without “having a wife” to go with it.
Of course, that’s a pretty cynical view of men’s motives. But what’s it saying about women? That they don’t want sex without marrying? Or, if they do, they’re harlots? Perhaps the authors of the report need to catch up with reality – maybe rent a few DVDs of the old TV show “Sex and the City.”
Interestingly, no mention is made of the many couples who are fully committed and responsible to each other but not legally married, either by choice, or – if gay or lesbian – by legal barriers that remain in most states. The claim that men “delay” marriage because of their “irresponsibility” raises the question of what they mean by “delay?” The median age for first marriage for men is about 27; for women, about 25. You could say with equal logic that women are prone to marry “prematurely.” Yet the authors appear to believe not only that early marriage is good, per se; but also that men are the perpetrators of this alleged “delay.”
When you look at the actual reasons men give for not marrying, a different picture emerges. Their reasons include:
- Wanting to enjoy single life;
- Hoping to avoid the risk of divorce if the marriage doesn’t work out;
- Waiting until they own a house or are more financially stable before marrying;
- Waiting until they are older before having children. Many saw children as responsibility they were not yet ready to deal with.
Now pardon me, but those reasons sound pretty mature, not irresponsible.
I think it’s commendable for a young man to say that he wants to hold off marriage until he feels more solidly established, emotionally and economically. That shows patience and planning. It’s certainly more responsible than a premature plunge into a legal contract, with all its financial and emotional consequences. Does anyone really think that you’re better equipped for undertaking that in your early 20s?
Such groups as the National Marriage Project and others with similar ideologies can’t allow themselves to interpret social change through any lens but their own. What doesn’t fit gets filtered out. For example, they ignore the fact that 70 percent of those who live together for at least five years do marry. Moreover, two surveys conducted by the American Sociological Association several years ago found that women are much more likely than men to spend longer periods of time in single status. Both men and women are now likely to spend about half of the years between 18 and 59 with either no sexual partner at all, or a non-co-residential dating relationship. So much for the notion that it’s men who are “delaying” marriage.
“Happiness” and Divorce
Another set of findings, this one from the Institute of American Values, conveys a similar ideology-driven slant. It’s a survey of people in unhappy marriages who either stayed or left. It reports that people who left troubled marriages were not much happier five years later than people who stayed in their unhappy marriages. Their conclusion? That people should stay in unhappy marriages, because things might get better…later on.
There are a couple of problems with this line of reasoning — aside from the fact that it doesn’t make much sense. First, it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the research literature. For example, the University of Virginia marriage researcher E. Mavis Hetherington has found that 60% of divorced people eventually end up with new partners, in positive relationships.
Another problem is that the research tangled together several factors. For example, it included within the same category people who were separated and those who had divorced, in it’s assessment of “happiness.” It doesn’t take a mental health professional to tell you that people in the midst of separation are the most distressed of all, emotionally and financially. That period of transition is hardly the best time to assess “happiness.”
Finally, the data show that the majority of people who stayed within their troubled marriages believed that divorce was wrong to begin with. In my view, the only clear fact emerging from this survey is that not many people are truly happy with their relationships – married or divorced.
So What Do Women…And Men Really Want?
I think a better read of these data and the social shifts underlying them is that the steady rise of cohabitation is not the cause of the decades-long decline of marriage. It’s the product. Divorce and cohabitation are not the problem. Bad marriages are.
One reason is that the downside of traditional marriage is the quality of the relationship itself: Often low-level emotional intimacy, inequality regarding power, and unsatisfying sexuality. A good portrayal of traditional marriage is found in Virginia Wolf’s novel, To The Lighthouse. It conveys the sadness of the sexual and emotional constraints of the traditional but “successful” marriage. It’s not all that dated, either, nearly 85 years later.
Current polls and surveys show that most men and women don’t want old-style marriages, especially when they devolve into what I’ve called a “Functional Relationship” – one that “works,” but mostly in a transactional way, with steadily diminishing levels of vitality and emotional connection. As I wrote in a previous post, that occurs because men and women learn to engage in relationships that are versions of adolescent romance — struggling for control, hiding out regarding their emotional needs or vulnerabilities, and equating excitement with newness. All of this builds in decline and boredom over the long run.
Most would be less prone to use divorce as a conflict-resolution device if they could learn how to make their long-term relationships better serve adult life and needs with today’s world — one of increased longevity, greater health, lengthier careers, and a search for life purpose in our interconnected, unpredictable environment.
When you have several decades of midlife and old age to look forward to, that makes you think long and hard about the relationship you have with the person you’re living with, day-in and day-out. Until men and women find ways to build more sustainable relationships, divorce or serial relationships will remain a desirable option for many.
Even better, of course, is avoiding early marriage. As one man joked, marrying for the first time at 45, “I decided to save a lot of emotional pain and money by ‘skipping’ my first marriage.”
Douglas LaBier, Ph.D., is a business psychologist and psychoanalytic psychotherapist. He is the Director of the Center for Progressive Development in Washington, DC.