An article published in the University of Virginia Magazine entitled The Marriage Crisis summarizes the problem.
“Only about half of Americans are married now, down from 72 percent in 1960, according to census data. The age at which one first gets married has risen by six years since 1960, and now only 20 percent of Americans get married before the age of 30. The number of new marriages each year is declining at a slow but steady rate. Put simply, if you are an unmarried adult today, you face a lower chance of ever getting married, a longer wait and higher divorce rates if you do get married. The Pew Research Center recently found that about 40 percent of unmarried adults believe that marriage is becoming obsolete. While marriage is in decline, unmarried cohabitation is on the rise. Fifteen times the number of couples today live together outside of marriage than in 1960. Almost half of cohabiting households include children.”
Despite those statistics, marriage is still a very good deal. Other than the social elites, the rest of America still believes that's true. Why then are so many avoiding this once great social institution? The The answer in one word - Divorce.
But before we continue any further let's clarify something really important.
When someone says that half of all marriage end in divorce that is not entirely correct. The 52% divorce rate we hear about all the time includes second, third and fourth marriages. If you took out all of the Hollywood divorces it probably wouldn't look so bad. I jest of course but it does make a point. First time marriages have much lower divorce rates. Multiple divorces, a phenomenon also known as serial polygamy, artificially inflates those numbers.
Of course, first time marriage do end as well. And marriages end for lots of reasons. The bottom line causes, however, have remained the same across time and culture: satisfaction and durability. First lets talk about the role satisfaction, or really the lack thereof, plays in divorce.
Couples ultimately divorce because one or both individuals become unhappy with the relationship. Their unhappiness, their dissatisfaction, eventually rises to a level that the pain and the trouble associated with divorce is less than the pain and the trouble associated with the marriage. In other words, the incentive to break up becomes greater than the incentive to stay together.
No-fault divorces helped increase the incentive to divorce by decreasing the pain threshold for ending a marriage. It is a sad truth of history that a conservative icon is primarily responsible for this. No-fault divorce became more common in the United States after the California Family Law Act of 1969, which was signed into law by divorced-and-remarried Governor Ronald Reagan on September 4, 1969, and became effective January 1, 1970.
Even with no-fault divorces lowering the effort required to divorce, the causes for marriages ending is still found with the level of satisfaction in the marriage. But it seems evident that a simple satisfaction majority of 51% is not enough to keep a marriage together. The ratio of satisfaction over unhappiness must be significantly higher than we might imagine.
Robert Manis, author of What Makes Love Last, proposes that a couple must maintain a 5 to 1 positive to negative moments. For every one negative moments or negative cause of unhappiness there must be at least five positive moments or positive causes of gratification. If this be this case, then what we are seeing in the high divorce rate is that more than half of the marriages in America today are in “satisfaction debt.”
Couples are spending more good will in the relationship than they are earning, they are withdrawing from their partners emotional bank more than they are depositing. This is really easy to do since it's not a simple one to one equation. At some point couples eventually reach “emotional bankruptcy” and the only way out, in their minds, is to break the sacred bond of matrimony.
It seems to me, however, that an unhappy couple married in 2014 is now more likely to divorce than an unhappy couple in 1964. Why is that?
Couples today are choosing to divorce for far less dissatisfaction than their parents did. There are many social and cultural reasons for this. There are at least four cultural blocks that keep couples from working together sacrificially in their marriage. These four cultural blocks really apply to any and all types of relationships.
1. Busyness - I think we would all agree that the pace of life is quicker now that it was five decades ago when the divorce rate was much lower. There are more demands on our time and those demands are actively competing with the time necessary to maintain strong, healthy relationships.
2. Entitlement - The fact that our busyness can so easily overcome our marital commitments speaks to a change in our relational priorities. We live in a culture of entitlement. It is in the “social air” that we breath and sometimes, without even knowing it, we get caught up with the things we think we deserve. That can keep us from getting caught up with the things our spouses needs.
Plus our sense of entitlement causes us to think we deserve happiness more than we really actually do. The aura of entitlement that surrounds us and often engulfs our marriages leads to the third cultural block.
3. General dissatisfaction with everything - Prosperity, like the kind we have in the United States, can actually cause people to be less happy. Materialism can cause a culture to turn relationships into commodities. When we get tired of our things we upgrade them for the newest model. Unfortunately, that happens in our relationships as well.
When we make people commodities we begin judging them like material things. “I don’t understand what you are doing.” “I don’t like who you are.” “I’m tired of this not working.” “I hate this stupid thing.”
Of course, the first three cultural blocks are really just the natural result of the fourth cultural block: self-centeredness.
4. Narcissism - the feeling and belief that its all about us. We have become a nation of narcissists. Me, me, me, me. It’s all about me. As soon as you hear anyone in a relationship starting using the word “me” more than the word “us”, you know that relationship is in trouble.
As the Word of God has lost influence in the church, the church has lost influence in the world. Christian couples divorce at nearly the same rates as non-Christians. So there is clearly something wrong in our churches and it is effecting our culture. A dead church produces a dead culture.
For me the best explanation for the differences in the generational rates of divorce from the 1960’s and today is the changes in the durability of marriages even more so than the satisfaction of marriages.
What do I mean by the durability of marriages?
Have you ever held a broken product in your hands and said, “they just don’t make them like they use to.”? Probably all the time.
Well, they just don’t make marriage like they use to either. Modern marriages are not built to last and just like many of the products we buy today, they are actually designed to wear out, break, or fail.
I have always thought it fascinating that in times past or even in cultures today that practice arranged marriages or have strict courtship practices, they have marriages that last. Some would say, “sure but they probably aren't happy.”
My response is they are probably happier than we think and isn't that idea the problem? When we think happiness, or satisfaction in marriage, is more important than the institution of marriage then we have created marriages with a design major flaw, a flaw that will eventually cause the destruction of that marriage.
In America we began destroying the durability of marriage and the future of it as a bedrock social institution when we began changing they way we built marriages. The invention of dating, for example, is relatively new in history and it corresponds with the decline in the health and stability of marriages.
Cohabitation, the common practice of living together before marriage, is another example of a premarital practice that is more responsible for the decline of marriage than any other cultural phenomenon. The thing that stinks about cohabitation is it is a vicious cycle - a catch 22. The higher the rate of divorce the more people are cohabiting. The more people are choosing cohabitation the higher the rate of divorce. You see .. built to fail.
In addition to the changes in courtship and premarital relations, feminism, the sexual revolution, and abortion on demand, welfare advocates, and playboy philosophers have had equally devastating consequences on the durability of individual marriage and of the institution of marriage.
There are seven C’s to a successful marriage (and by successful I mean they are sufficiently satisfying and durable). Three of them should occur before marriage and the other four must happen in marriage.
1. Courtship - I won’t try to define for each person what that looks like but I will encourage everyone to seriously consider what they are doing to find the person they want to spend the rest of their lives with.
Imagine there is a continuum. On one end is the hook-up, the casual sexual relationship without any commitments. On the other end is the prearranged marriage with very strict practices and very few choices. Somewhere in between is dating and courtship. Some forms of dating are closer to the hookup end of the spectrum and some types of courtship is closer the prearranged end of the continuum.
The hook up and loose-dating-without-boundaries have proven to be huge failures when it comes to building a lasting marriage. Dating with firm boundaries and practices like the old form of courtship have proven, on the other hand, to have much better results.
Also the romantic notion of “falling in love” is a risky idea. If you can fall in love then it stands to reason that you can fall out of love. When it comes to the most important decision a person will ever make in their life, it should involve the head as much as the heart.
2. Counseling - I recommend that all couples thinking of marriage to get premarital counseling. Any false notions about marriage can be uncovered there. Any unhealthy practices in relationship can be pointed out. And any wrong feelings can be revealed.
The evidence is clear. Premarital counseling helps couples build stronger marriages and stronger marriage have a better chance of lasting.
3. Commitment - In my mind, it’s all about commitment. Commitment covers a multitude of sins. Commitment can overcome deficits that may exist in the other areas. Without commitment, marriage is exposed to the random chances of luck and misfortune.
Many people today are going into their marriage with an attitude known as the Divorce Assumption. That is the idea that if things don’t work out I can always get a divorce. And of course the easier divorce becomes and the more common they become, the more Divorce Assumption grows in the minds of those getting married.
If couples go into the relationship with anything other than total commitment then they can and will walk away from the marriage at the first signs of trouble or when they are no longer satisfied.
There are two guarantees in marriage - trouble will come and it won’t always be satisfying. But commitment is the glue that holds a marriage together during those times.
4. Communication - communication is key to any relationship but especially in marriage. Couples must be open about their thoughts and their feelings. If there is commitment to one another it makes it safer to share our innermost thoughts and feelings.
Couples should never make assumptions about what the other one is thinking or feeling. Ask. Explore. When we try to understand the other person, the other person is much more likely to try to understand us.
5. Commonality - There is a saying out there, opposites attract. That may be true but opposites generally don’t spend six decades together. They either had many things in common before marriage or they choose to have more things in common in order to have a better marriage.
Some of the basic things that couples should have in common: religious beliefs, child rearing philosophy, and same ideas about money.
6. Community - Durable and satisfying marriages are more often found existing within a community of other strong marriages. All married couples, especially young couples, need healthy role models and support from others who have some experience. I don’t think life is meant to live in isolation and neither were marriages.
The need for good community is particularly important for couples who are living away from family.
7. Clear Roles - This is the probably most controversial point. It is not politically correct in modern Western Society to suggest that husbands and wives have distinctly different roles in marriage.
There are two competing visions of marriage. The first is the traditional view that marriage is the doorway to happiness and is necessary for a healthy society. The second has only come on the cultural scene more recently. It is considered progressive and views marriage as an obstacle to individual growth and not necessary for society.
I believe that marriage itself has a clear role in society and I also believe that individual marriages that are built on clearly established roles each each partner will be more happy and durable.
Why does building durable marriages even matters?
Each year over one million children will suffer the divorce of their parents. Half of all children born this year to parents who are married will see their parents divorce before they turn 18.
Statistics demonstrate that divorce has lasting negative consequences on children. As the Executive Director of a ministry servicing children, I see the evidence everyday. Here is just some of the evidence.
Physical consequences - children of divorce have a greater chance of being victims of abuse and neglect. They exhibit more health, behavioral, and emotional problems. They are more frequently involved in crime and drug abuse and have higher rates of suicide.
Educational consequences - they perform more poorly in school and are more likely to repeat a grade and to have higher dropout rates. They will also have lower rates of college educations.
Economic consequences - families with children that were not poor before divorce see their income drop as much as 50%. Almost half of parents with children that go through divorce move into poverty after divorce.
Spiritual consequences - religious worship (which has been linked to better health, longer marriages and better family life) drops significantly after the parents divorce.
As a nation we spend 150 billion per year subsidizing and sustaining single-parent families. By contrast only 150 million to strengthen marriage. In other words, we spend $1,000 to clean up the consequences of divorce but only spend $1 to prevent it in the first place.
Now, I’m not an economist by any measure but I know a good deal when I see one. Changing the way we build marriages is the kind of prevention that will save our nation billions of dollars and our children a whole lot of needless pain and suffering.