On Second Thought, Don't Get Married
More than 2 million couples will get married in the United States this year alone. Several hundred thousand of these couples should reconsider, postpone their weddings or not get married.
Shocking new statistics released recently by the U.S. Census Bureau suggest that Americans may no longer need marriage. For the first time ever, fewer than half of the households in the United States are married couples. In the past decade, the number of unmarried couples increased 25 percent as more people chose to cohabitate. A Pew Research Center study last year put it more succinctly, finding an increasing number of Americans now believes marriage is "becoming obsolete."
This is a dangerous conclusion. It's true that far too many marriages, as currently constructed, end up disastrously. But with some common sense societal changes at the front end, marriage can still serve a vital purpose for a vast majority of adults.
Interestingly, around the same time the Pew study came out, the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, in their annual report on the health of marriage and family life, affirmed that more than three-quarters of Americans still believe marriage is "important" and that more than 70 percent of adults under age 30 desire to marry someday.
So it's clear that a majority of us still crave to be married. It's like we are hard wired to search after that person with whom we can spend the rest of our lives -- even in the face of these dire marital statistics.
I'm not trying to say that marriage is not in trouble. I am trying to say that there are some clear answers to the question of how marriage can get uniformly more satisfying for the people involved. And this I firmly believe: When done right, marriage can be the greatest institution on earth.
In his best-selling book, The Social Animal, New York Times columnist David Brooks says that "by far the most important decisions that persons will ever make are about whom to marry, and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses." He cites multiple studies that have found a strong correlation between the stability of good relationships and increased life happiness.
But the skill of choosing a marriage partner has often been treated as relatively unimportant in our society and a whole lot less complex than it actually is. And herein lies the secret of why marriage has often turned out so disappointingly for so many.
It's frighteningly easy to choose the wrong person. Attraction and chemistry are easily mistaken for love, but they are far from the same thing. Being attracted to someone is immediate and largely subconscious. Staying deeply in love with someone happens gradually and requires conscious decisions, made over and over again, for a lifetime. Too many people choose to get married based on attraction and don't consider, or have enough perspective to recognize, whether their love can endure.
When people choose a partner unwisely, it's a source of enormous eventual pain. During my 35-year clinical career, I "presided over" the divorces of several hundred couples. I never experienced a single easy one. If one or both partners didn't get clobbered by the experience, any children involved often felt deep emotional sadness and loss. Sometimes this sadness kept impacting these people for years -- even decades.
A significant amount of research data, including an in-depth report by the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, buttresses my clinical impressions that parental divorce (or failure to marry) appears to increase children's risk of dropping out of high school. Moreover, children whose parents divorce have higher rates of psychological problems and other mental illnesses. And ultimately, divorce begets divorce; i.e., when you grow up outside an intact marriage, you have a greater likelihood of having children outside a marriage or getting a divorce yourself.
I have often suggested that more pain in our society comes from broken primary relationships than from any other source. If we could ever reduce the incidence of marital breakup from 40 to 50 percent of all marriages to single digits, I suspect it would be one of the greatest accomplishments of our time.
Of course, no one intends to be in an unhappy marriage. Bad marriages don't just happen to bad people. They mostly happen to good people who are not good for each other.
And inspiring marriages don't happen by accident. They require highly informed and carefully reasoned choices. Commitment and hard work are factors too. But after decades of working with a few thousand well-intended and hardworking married people, I've become convinced that 75 percent of what culminates in a disappointing marriage -- or a great marriage -- has far less to do with hard work and far more to do with partner selection based on "broad-based compatibility." It became clear to me that signs which were predictive of the huge differences between eventually disappointing and ultimately great marriages were obvious during the premarital phase of relationships.
When two people have a relationship which is predicated upon broad-based compatibility, there is every reason to be optimistic about their long term prospects. A marriage of this type has virtually no chance of becoming "obsolete."
If all of us together can focus on the challenge of getting the right persons married to each other, it just might change our society more than anything else we could do. Goodness knows, when marriage is right, little else matters nearly so much.
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