I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about marriage and family lately, due to my practicing more couples therapy and wanting to beef up my knowledge and technique, as well as just general curiosity about what makes a marriage or a family into something enriching and rewarding. I set out googling and goodsearching to answer two basic questions: what makes a family work and what makes a marriage work?
These do not seem to be burning questions in the minds of many other people. In America today, we seem to be too busy trying to exclude people from marriage (i.e. same-sex couples, although this is changing, slowly, state by state, with NH signing it into law yesterday and RI destined to be dead last in following suit) to notice that our institution is in serious disrepair, with 50% of US marriages ending in divorce, and a rate for children growing up in single-parent households that continues to steadily rise.
In my quest for information on what makes marriage work, I discovered some fascinating research called State of Our Union by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, who work out of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. The Project at Rutgers has studied marriage from several different angles including a comparative study with Scandinavian families and their divorce rates. Here is how they describe the ideal family environment for raising young children:
[…] I have suggested that the ideal family environment for raising young children has the following traits: an enduring two-biological parent family that engages regularly in activities together, has developed its own routines, traditions and stories, and provides a great deal of contact time between adults and children. Surrounded by a community that is child friendly and supportive of parents, the family is able to develop a vibrant family subculture that provides a rich legacy of meaning and values for children throughout their lives.(9) Scandinavians certainly fall short on the enduring two-biological parent part of this ideal (yet even there they are currently ahead of the United States), but on the key ingredients of structured and consistent contact time between parents and their children in a family friendly environment, they are well ahead of us.
The authors go on to describe how difficult it is in America to achieve this ideal environment:
In America today the achievement of this ideal family environment requires what many parents are coming to consider a Herculean countercultural effort, one that involves trying to work fewer hours and adopting the mantra of “voluntary simplicity” for those who can afford it; turning off the TV set and avoiding popular culture; seeking employment in firms that have family-friendly policies such as flexible working hours; and residing in areas that are better designed for children and where the cost of living is lower. Families in Scandinavia need not be so countercultural to achieve these goals because the traits of the ideal child-rearing environment are to a larger degree already built into their societies.
If you want to keep going with learning about marriage, Poponoe and Whitehead publish a yearly version of “State of Our Unions.” In the most recent version I could find online, Poponoe talks about ways to recommit to marriage, and suggests we’d need a cultural awakening to pull it off. Here is a link to the 2007 essay.
With regard to the question of what the key ingredients are of stable long-term relationships, here are some very telling statistic from Poponoe and Whitehead:
By now almost everyone has heard that the national divorce rate is close to 50% of all marriages. This is true, but the rate must be interpreted with caution and several important caveats. For many people, the actual chances of divorce are far below 50/50.
The background characteristics of people entering a marriage have major implications for their risk of divorce. Here are some percentage point decreases in the risk of divorce or separation during the first ten years of marriage, according to various personal and social factors:
Percent Decrease in Risk of Divorce:
Annual income over $50,000 (vs. under $25,000) — -30%
Having a baby seven months or more after marriage (vs. before marriage) — -24%
Marrying over 25 years of age (vs. under 18) — -24%
Own family of origin intact (vs. divorced parents) — -14%
Religious affiliation (vs. none) — -14%
Some college (vs. high-school dropout) — -13%
So, you want to reduce your risk of divorce? Have a household income of more than 50 K. That’s right, all those people who try to tell you money doesn’t count in love, well guess what? It does. If you have a household income of less than 50 K and you are still married, you are beating some pretty stiff odds. You should probably find some cheap way to celebrate your amazing luck and good fortune in relationships.
You want to do something else to reduce your risk of divorce? Be at least 25 before you tie the knot. Go to college and think about what kind of person you want to spend the rest of your life with.
Want to reduce your risk even more? Join a church. Get around a good group of people who share your core values.
Oh, and one more thing. Use birth control (and hope that it doesn’t fail) until you are married. It helps.
And finally, if you are having trouble in your marriage, you might want to consider going to a professional (not that I’m biased!). The biggest problem I see with couples is that by the time they get to making an appointment to see a therapist, they are often feeling extremely burned out about the relationship. They are sick and tired of fighting and want things to be better, but their ability to feel hopeful about the other person or the relationship is quite damaged.
Couples therapy does not need to be a long, involved process. Many times the process of a therapist suggesting some reflection and communication exercises is enough to get the ball rolling. You can also read up on your own and try being your own therapist. I recommend John Gottman and the Gottman Institute, particularly the book 10 Lessons to Transform Your Marriage. For a more spiritually-centered approach, I also recommend Gary Chapman and The Five Love Languages.