Understanding The ‘Marriage Gap’

American society is undergoing some major shifts in how men and women think about marriage –whether to enter it, stay within it, or consider alternatives to it.  But some recent explanations about what these shifts mean contribute more confusion than clarity.

First, some facts:

• The divorce rate continues to hover at around 50%, regardless of greater awareness of 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

• Cohabitation has risen dramatically during the same period

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.  It’s possible that cohabitation is on its way to becoming the dominant form of  male-female unions.

Clearly, people are thinking and behaving differently about marriage than previous generations — especially how necessary or desirable they think it is compared with other forms of intimate partnership.  This raises questions about how best to understand these shifts, and what they portend for the decades ahead.

Some answers have been provided by socially conservative organizations, such as the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values.  But these answers are shaped 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 seem especially annoyed by the facts that people do divorce; that many others choose to live together without marriage; and that both men and women want more equality in their relationships than previous generations  — even though they don’t know how to achieve it.  Ironically, opposition to these realities actually undermines the overt goal of these organizations: to support stronger, positive marriages.

Let’s look at two findings that these groups have interpreted, and then consider a very different way of understanding them.

Together….Without Marriage

First, the rise of cohabitation and the decline of marriage.  The allegation by anti-divorce groups is that this trend is bad, by definition.  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, reports that the steady rise of cohabitation and the continued several-decade decline of the marriage rate provides “evidence” that men “want sex without the responsibility of marriage.”

Based on a survey it conducted a few years ago, 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, cohabitation is their free ride, because men can “have sex” easily without “having a wife” to go with it.

This is a pretty cynical view of men.  But the report conveys a distorted view of women, as well, by implying that it’s only men who want sex without necessarily marrying.  Perhaps its authors never watched “Sex and the City.”

And no mention is made of the many couples who are fully committed and responsible to each other, but who are not legally married.  Either by choice, or — if gay or lesbian — by legal barriers that. fortunately, are on the decline.

The Project concludes that men “delay” marriage because of their “irresponsibility.”  But what do they mean by “delay?”  The median age for first marriage for men is 27; for women, 25.   You could say — with equal logic — that women are prone to marry “prematurely.”  Yet the Project appears to believe not only that early marriage is good, per se; but that men are the perpetrators of this alleged “delay.”

When you look at the actual reasons men gave for not marrying, the Project’s slant is even clearer.

Reasons include:  wanting to enjoy single life; wanting to avoid the risk of divorce if the marriage doesn’t work out; waiting until they own a house before marriage; and 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.  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?

Groups like the National Marriage Project and others with similar ideologies can’t allow themselves to understand 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.   And two surveys presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in 2002 found that women are much more likely than men to spend longer periods of time in single status.  Moreover, 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.

None of this sits well with those who push getting and staying married, no matter what; and who despise social trends that expose dissatisfaction with or rejection of traditional marriage roles and relationships.

“Happiness” and Divorce

A second set of findings, reported by the Institute of American Values, conveys a similar ideology-driven “read.”  It’s a survey of people in unhappy marriages who either stayed or left.

The Institute 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 it’s not making much sense.  One is that it doesn’t mesh with the rest of the research literature.  For example, the well-known University of Virginia marriage researcher E. Mavis Hetherington has found that 60% of divorced people eventually end up with new partners, in positive relationships.

Moreover, women, especially, tend to do better after divorce, on their own.  For example, a survey from Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that  women who divorce are much less likely to marry again than women of their parents’ generation.  Only half of them marry again or are even cohabiting after five years.  In fact, the Center reported that one of the most significant trends in the past half century has been the marriage rates of women who already have been divorced.  It’s down dramatically from the 1950s, when two-thirds of divorced women remarried.

From the standpoint of positive human development, the declining remarriage rate among divorced women is probably a good thing.  It shows that women today are thinking differently, perhaps not as locked
into the notion that they “need” to remarry and “have” a man for a fulfilling life.  Not repeating the same mistake is a positive shift, both for themselves and their potential partners.

Another problem:  The Institute tangled together several factors. For example, it included within the same category people who were separated and those who had divorced, when assessing “happiness.”  Any mental health professional will 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.”

Post-break-up happiness is a complex issue, dependent on many factors — the impact on children, the financial picture, and –  most importantly — the relationship between the ex-partners.  But the
Institute made no distinction between bad and good separation or divorce.  Nor did it assess the subsequent impact of those factors upon later “happiness.”

Moreover, the survey didn’t take into account how people define happiness.  It can mean very different things.  For example, a cover for resignation.  A belief  that alternatives are not possible or not worth the effort.  Or it might reflect new growth, genuine resolution of conflicts, and deeper intimacy.

Topping it all off is that the majority of people who stayed within their troubled marriages is the fact that the majority of them believed that divorce was wrong, to begin with.

You could say that the only clear fact emerging from this survey is that not many people are truly happy with their relationships — married or divorced.

What Women…And Men Really Want

And that leads to what I think is a better read of these data and social shifts:   The steady rise of cohabitation is not the cause of the decades-long decline of marriage.  It’s the product.

That is, divorce and cohabitation are not the problem. Bad marriages are.

The real challenge is learning how to make long-term relationships better serve adult needs for emotional, relational, sexual, and spiritual connection; for partnerships of equality and sustained vitality.  Until then, 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 38, “I decided to save a lot of emotional pain and money by ‘skipping’ my first marriage.”

William M. Pinsof, a noted family researcher at Northwestern University, recently examined divorce and its social implications in the journal, Family Process.  He argued that the concept of being married for life is simply no longer a valid expectation; that divorce must be “normalized” and other “pair-bonding” unions accepted as society continues to evolve.

In his perspective, current policies, theories and practices about marriage are out of step with the new realities of couplehood that had emerged by the end of the 20th century.  He advocates acknowledging and
respecting the realities of how people actually pair up and live their lives, today.

This is the sort of thing anti-divorce, pro-traditional-marriage groups can’t accept.  They are locked into a vision of society in which couples stay together at all costs; in which divorce is eventually eliminated as a social evil.  And as far as non-marriage or same-sex couplehood…well, don’t even think about it.

But the truth is, marriage no longer plays the role it once did.  It’s outgrown its traditional purposes.  Previous generations married largely for procreation, acquisition of property and financial security
(especially important to woman, who have been disenfranchised throughout most of history).

But the downside of traditional marriage was 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, which conveys the sadness of the sexual and emotional constraints of the traditional but “successful” marriage.  It’s not all that dated, either, over 75 years later.

Polls and surveys show that most men and women reject old-style marriages, today, although they struggle to create a better model. They know that most relationships tend to devolve over time into what I call a “Functional Relationship” — one that “works,” but mostly in a transactional way, with diminished levels vitality and emotional connection.

This happens because men and women learn to engage in relationships that are, essentially, extensions of adolescent romance.  This includes struggling for control, hiding out regarding emotional needs or
vulnerabilities, and equating excitement with newness.  All of this builds in decline and boredom over the long run.

So it’s not that  people no longer care about long-term committed relationships.  They’re looking for a different kind of marriage or equivalent partnership than what now exists.  They just don’t know how to achieve it.  Consequently, they are open to different kinds of arrangements that better serve what they want.

Both men and women want sustained connection and vitality over the long-run; an adult love relationship.  You see this in surveys, as far back as a 2000 Gallup Poll, and in research that finds that both younger and
older men and women — straight or gay — want to find a “soul-mate” who will be their lifelong partner.  They report longing for lifelong relationships of  vitality and connection in all realms — emotionally, sexually, and spiritually.  And,  with the same partner.  Whether midlife baby boomers or young adults, men and women say they want to avoid breakups and serial relationships.

A gap does exist between what men and women want in their relationships and what they discover they end up with. But what is clear — and encouraging — is that men and women are looking for an alternative that works better, whatever form it takes.

The key question emerging from all this is:  What do adults need to learn in today’s changing culture that would enable long-term relationships to strengthen and grow — whether through marriage or cohabitation; whether in opposite-sex or same-sex unions?

This is what should be commanding research and clinical attention, rather than trying to make divorce, cohabitation, or the desire for sex outside of marriage disappear.  It would be far better to put that energy into learning how to make long-term relationships  better serve the needs of adults today.  This kind of front-end approach would result in people being less prone to turn to divorce as a conflict-resolution device.

That is, conflicts that lead to divorce — a back-end solution — are far more likely to be avoided if couples have learned how their romantic partnerships can serve their shifting needs and desires through the decades of adulthood.

This quest is especially important today, an era of increased longevity, greater health, and lengthier careers.  Increasing numbers struggling with midlife developmental needs, such as defining a sense of purpose; building greater equality and power-sharing in their relationships, both at home and at work; and in general, nurturing their emotional, creative, and spiritual lives.  These are the issues all of us deal with once we’re past young adulthood.  All of them impact our intimate partnerships.

When you have several decades of midlife and old age to look forward to, it makes you think long and hard about the relationship you have with the person you’re living with, day-in and day-out.