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Wall Street Journal


Losing Confidence in Marriage

July 03, 2009

By Kay S. Hymowitz

Is marriage in the midst of the social equivalent of the financial meltdown? The first inkling -- the Bear Stearns moment, if you will -- came almost a year ago when the National Enquirer reported that John Edwards appeared to be the father of a love child. The full-scale crisis hit in the past weeks with les affaires Ensign, Sanford and (at least according to rumor) reality-show star Jon Gosselin. Adding to the sense of a Great Marital Depression was a much discussed article in the Atlantic by performer and writer Sandra Tsing Loh about her own infidelity and ultimate separation from her husband, titled “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”

Yes, marriage is suffering a full-scale crisis of consumer confidence. Some say that marriage is an outdated institution. Others argue that humans are not designed for long-term monogamy, especially these days. “Our life expectancy has shot from 47 to 77,” Ms. Loh observes, “isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?” Responding to Ms. Loh’s article in the online magazine Double X, Kerry Howley proposed that we relieve ourselves of the ideal of permanence that has been a defining characteristic of the institution since men and women began tilling the earth. Ms. Loh, Ms. Howley noted, had been married for 20 years and produced two children. That’s a pretty good run, isn’t it? People change, life moves on, new love calls. And for skeptics who point out that children might quibble with this sort of deregulation, you could still argue, OK, give the kids 18 years and then you can call the whole thing off.

In any crisis, people tend to panic and forget basic facts. This meltdown is no exception. First and foremost, marital breakdown is not rampant across the land. It is concentrated among low-income and black couples. Americans seem to have a lot of trouble grasping this fact, probably because so much public space is taken up by politicians, celebrities and journalists with marriages on the skids. But in actuality, the divorce rate for college-educated women has been declining since 1980. Out-of-wedlock childbearing among the educated class remains rare. The bottom line is that higher-income, college-educated couples are far more likely to get married and stay married than their less-educated and lower-income peers. We shouldn’t go so far as to call Ms. Loh and Mr. Sanford, if he decides to return to the heart he left in Buenos Aires, outliers. But they do nothing to clarify a key problem facing the country, which remains the apartheid state of marriage.

The seemingly reasonable notion that marriage is crashing because we’re likely to live till 80 also doesn’t hold up. The typical divorce is not of a midlife couple bored with finishing each other’s sentences; it’s of a twosome who have just written the last thank-you note for wedding gifts. More than one-fifth of marriages break up within five years. The median age at first divorce is 30.5 for males and 29 for females. The risk of break-up goes up after one year of marriage and peaks at 4½ years. That’s right. A lot of Americans barely wait till the paint is dry in the new family room before setting out for more promising territory.

But if recent high-profile break-ups don’t tell us much about our systemic failure, they do illustrate a paradox of marriage as it has evolved in the post-boomer era. On the one hand, despite their sophistication, the marrying classes still want love with a capital L. The New York Times nuptials pages, once simple status announcements about Muffy Branford marrying J.W.R. Witherspoon, now include details of how the couple met and found a full-tilt, love-of-my-life connection. People may admit that passion fades a bit, but soul-mate idealism is a defining part of contemporary marriage. So is the “relationship work” that is supposedly required to sustain it. On the other hand, the college-educated marrying kind believes -- correctly, judging from the considerable research on the subject -- that their children will be better off growing up with their father and mother in the house. In this sense, they take a practical view; marriage is an investment in their children’s future.

The cruel joke for the good investor, though, is that the latter practical goal -- kids -- undermines the former idealistic one: love. Kids tend to decrease marital satisfaction, social scientists tell us. It starts with the first child and goes downhill from there. Yes, all couples, including the childless, find their ardor cooling over time. And couples with children still enjoy lots of things together, especially, as Arthur Brooks, the author of “Gross National Happiness,” has quipped, “spending time away from kids.”

But children take a toll on a twosome expecting to maintain an intense, soulful love bond. They suck up all the oxygen that used to be spent, um, communicating. Ms. Loh tells us that her husband is a “good man . . . a decent man.” She just didn’t feel the connection anymore. No doubt marrieds have long suffered after the thrill was gone and marriage was about the kids needing shoes or the grass requiring mowing; their disappointment gave birth to the “midlife crisis.” But the disillusioned Soul Mater, his or her lofty dreams dashed, is especially vulnerable. It just wasn’t supposed to be like this. We’re different from our parents and grandparents. We don’t have to compromise. We can leave. (Long pause.) Can’t we?

It doesn’t help that the Soul Mate seeker likely suffers from the American disease of restlessness. The essence of the marriage vow is to stay still. But as a group, Americans are an especially flighty bunch, always looking for a better opportunity, a bigger home, a second chance. We’re no less fidgety in our mating habits, as Andrew Cherlin demonstrates in his recent book, “Marriage-Go-Round.” Americans divorce and “repartner” far more than do people in other Western countries, either by remarrying or shacking up. True, the educated classes are less inclined to actually hop on the go-round. But that does not mean that they don’t hear the barker calling: You can start over, you can do better.

Those who maintain that long-term, monogamous unions are at odds with nature are surely on to something. But it’s worth remembering that the first human beings didn’t spend 9 to 5 in an office cubicle or, for that matter, wear clothes. Marriage is a human invention designed to create order and some semblance of permanence out of natural chaos in order to rear the next generation.

One of the many ironies of the institution is that marriage seems more satisfying to those who no longer have children in the house. If people simply grew more tired of each other over time, then we would expect that couples unloading the Explorer at the college dorm would head directly to the lawyer’s office. On the contrary, marital happiness increases once the kids are gone, despite the prospect of decades of dreary, pass-the-Maalox-dear evenings. A few years ago the AARP warned of a growing trend in “gray divorce”; others cautioned about the coming of “Viagra divorce,” as older men came to realize that, with a little chemical help, they could restart their engines. Didn’t happen. Empty-nesters still stay together for the duration, just as they did 40 years ago.

Perhaps it’s the declining hormones of late middle age. Perhaps it’s the joint pride of a difficult task completed. Maybe they’re satisfied with their investment, after all.

Original Source:



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