Marriages in US lasting longer, but why?

This Washington Post piece was published last month, which, in cyber-terms now means it’s covered by the cobwebs of antiquity. But on the premise that history matters, perhaps we can still learn from this report. The Census Bureau did a report on the longevity of contemporary marriage and found some positive results: the number of longer-lasting marriages in the U.S. has risen.

Three in four couples who married after 1990 celebrated a 10-year anniversary, according to census statistics reported Wednesday. That was a rise of three percentage points compared with couples who married in the early 1980s, when the nation’s divorce rate was at its highest.

I suppose that makes my husband and me survivors, since we married in the mid-80s and will celebrate our 25th anniversary this autumn. But I know only too well how many of our friends and relatives made their way to the divorce court. So it’s heartening to see this report, even if I don’t always agree with some of their findings. For example:

“People seem to be finding a new marriage bargain that works for 21st-century couples,” said Andrew Cherlin, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist who studies families. “It’s based on pooling two incomes, replacing the old breadwinner-homemaker bargain that worked well in the ’50s.”

Sorry, but some of the happiest, longest lasting marriages I’ve seen (including mine) are still based on the breadwinner dad, home-maker mom paradigm. Except that in our case, and that of many couples I know, this lifestyle choice was a mutual decision, not the default mode—and certainly not a “bargain.” (Though you do have to be willing to shop for them when you raise a family on one income.)

I found this assertion a bit amusing:

“Marriage has become a much more selective institution in today’s society,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

Perhaps in some respects this is true, but when it comes to finding an ideal mate, men and women may not necessarily be in a better position today than they were, for example, in the early 19th century “marriage market” as described by Jane Austen. Today it’s not economic desperation impinging on women’s freedom in marital choice; it’s finding a mature male willing to commit in a “Guys vs. Men” cultural milieu. In the 19th century, the average man had his choice of virtuous women willing to bear his children. Today, not so much.

However, it’s heartening that the number of longer-lasting marriages is on the rise. These were listed as some of the relevant factors:

“People who are college-educated, more affluent or more religious are more likely to get married and stay married. People who are not are less likely to get married in the first place, and if they do marry, they’re more likely to divorce.”

The Marriage Project has found that people without a college degree are three times as likely to divorce in the first 10 years as those with a college degree.

It also helps to see successful marriages modeled, especially in one’s own family circle (parents, aunts and uncles).

“That model really does have an impact,” said Ruggieri, the head of the employee assistance program at the University of Maryland who often counsels couples in his private practice. “I think people who come from a divorced family haven’t always seen parents work stuff out. Their model is, if people fight and they can’t agree, the marriage ends. So they’re afraid to fight and disagree. You can’t have a marriage without disagreement.”

This report is not a one-size-fits-all-Americans, however; it found that both marriage and divorce rates varied widely among different races and ethnicities.

Among black women, half of first marriages end in divorce, a rate that is far greater those for white, Hispanic and Asian women. […] Seven out of 10 black women in their 20s have never married, a dramatic increase from the mid-1980s.

“The differences between blacks and whites and Hispanics are changing the landscape of marriage,” said Renee Ellis, a Census Bureau demographer who worked on the report.

I imagine that the advent of widespread same-sex marriage will change the landscape even more. The bureau’s next report on this topic ought to be interesting.


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