Is it wise to get married? Don’t nearly half end in divorce? Does marrying just set you up for probable disappointment?
To marry or not is an age-old question, one the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates answered to young men thusly: “My advice to you is to get married. If you find a good wife, you’ll be happy. If not, you’ll be a philosopher.” We don’t know what, if anything, he told young women.
Despite what you might think, marriage is not quite passé. The recent vigorous controversy over legalizing same-sex marriages shows that many Americans–on both sides of that issue–still view marriage as an important institution, more important than our shockingly high out-of-wedlock birth statistics might indicate. [These unwed births statistics are lowest for Asian Americans, by the way.] Where there are offspring to be considered, Catholic theologian Theodore Hesburgh declared, “The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.” That should include marrying her and staying married.
Divorce rates matter. The higher the divorce rate, the less special the tradition of marriage, as compared with simply “shacking up,” and perhaps the less it makes sense to try to support marriage as an institution.
I have read, and I have written, that about half of marriages in America end in divorce, as do half of second marriages. It turns out that such discouraging estimates are mistakenly high, as Harvard-trained social scientist and best-selling author Shaunti Feldhahn demonstrates in her recent book, The Good News about Marriage.
Feldhahn and her research assistant, Tally Whitehead, analyzed many studies that have attempted to determine the fraction of first marriages that end in divorce and the fraction of subsequent marriages that do likewise. Getting this right is a statistical challenge, akin to the medical specialty of epidemiology. Simple approaches are often wrong.
Correctly estimating the fraction that fail is important, however. A large likelihood of divorce makes marriage less attractive and makes those in shaky marriages more likely to give up than try to save the union, a major concern of these analysts. Feldhahn and Whitehead argue persuasively that only about one-fourth of all first marriages end in divorce as do about one-third of second marriages, results more encouraging than the one-half fraction often cited. Marriages among church-goers do even somewhat better. [Readers interested in the details will want to refer to the book.]
Going beyond the divorce percentages, these researchers encouragingly note: “In multiple surveys, 91 to 97 percent of respondents say their marriages are happy….In another poll, 93 percent said they would marry their spouse all over again…. Most marriage problems are not caused by big-ticket issues, and simple changes can make a big difference.” Even in troubled marriages, almost all the spouses involved claimed to care about their partner’s well-being. “…in 82 percent of struggling couples, one partner is simply unaware of the other spouse’s unhappiness,” a problem much easier to solve than “addressing major systemic issues, such as addiction….”
Let’s repeat that: “…in 82 percent of struggling couples, one partner is simply unaware of the other spouse’s unhappiness.” Speak up! Make yourself heard. Listen up! Pay attention. Divorce is so traumatic that it pays to invest in your marriage before you are in trouble. Henry Ford wrote, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” Author Mignon McLaughlin wrote, “A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person.”
Although we are often told that “opposites attract,” I think these differences lead to misunderstandings and disagreements on values and expectations. “Birds of a feather,” being similar, “flock together.” I have joked that a “mixed marriage” is one with a male and a female. That’s plenty of difference right there. Issues of class, ethnicity, and religion add more complications.
Be willing to wait. Delaying marriage, being somewhat older rather than younger, should help one make the right choice of spouse. Anecdotal evidence: I waited until I was nearly thirty, and my choice was wrong; my youngest brother waited until he was forty…and chose very wisely. Age sometimes brings wisdom.
Of course, deciding whether and when to marry someone you love is rarely done by relying heavily on rationality. Still, when we think about tying the knot, we may have occasional attacks of reason, and it is encouraging to know that the odds against marital success are not as high as media stories would indicate. Belief often influences results: believing marriage is likely to fail can make failure more probable.
Clearly, marriage as an institution is here to stay. The negative reports have been exaggerated. To paraphrase nineteenth-century American author and humorist Mark Twain’s comments about an erroneous obituary written about him, reports of the death of marriage are greatly exaggerated.
On a personal note, in our marriage–a second for both of us–Tina Su and I have been very happy for thirty years. When marriage succeeds, and many do, it definitely beats being single!
Dr. Cooper is a retired scientist, now a writer, author and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011 and is available from Outskirts Press, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble, in paperback and ebook formats, as are a memoir he co-authored, The Shield of Gold, and a memoir he edited, High Shoes and Bloomers. On Twitter, he is @douglaswcooper. His blog is http://douglaswinslowcooper.blogspot.com. Ms. Feldhahn’s book can be obtained at, for example, amazon.com. Many of my quotations are from Stan Dubin’s excellent upbeat web site about marriage, marriagesuccess.com.