There’s an interesting interview in Salon today of author Tara Parker-Pope, who has written a book on marriage, called For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage, in which the author looks into the science of what makes marriage work over the long term. I haven’t read the book so I can’t speak to it, but I found the interview interesting, particularly this part, in which Parker-Pope discusses the oft-quoted 50% divorce rate:
The 50 percent divorce rate is really a myth. The 20-year divorce rate for couples who got married in the 1980s is actually around 19 percent. Everyone thinks marriage is such a struggle and it’s shocking to hear that marriage is actually going strong today. It has to do with how you look at the statistic. If the variables were constant, then a simple equation might work to come up with the divorce rate. But a lot of things are changing. And it is true that there are groups of people who have a 50 percent divorce rate: college dropouts who marry under the age of 25, for example. Couples married in the 1970s have a 30-year divorce rate of about 47 percent. A person who got married in the 1970s had a completely different upbringing and experience in life from someone who got married in the 1990s. It’s been very clear that divorce rates peaked in the 1970s and has been going down ever since.
I found this comment really interesting because as a general matter, it conforms to my own anecdotal experience, which is that the large majority of my contemporaries who have gotten married seem to have stayed married; lots of Gen Xers are products of divorced parents but are not themselves divorced. It’s not 100%, obviously, nor do I think all divorces are bad things — I know folks for whom divorce was better than the alternative. But I do find generally speaking the people I know seem to have done better at staying married than the people in their parents’ generation.
But then as Parker-Pope notes, the people who got married in the 70s are different from the ones who got married in the 90s. My parents (who actually married in the 60s) were still in their teens when they got married, with high school educations, had two children in quick order, and were divorced in their early 20s. I and my wife got married in our mid 20s, which was actually earlier than most of my friends, who held off until their late 20s or early 30s, when I had a college education (and Krissy was getting hers), and we waited until four years in our marriage to have our daughter — a “lag time” between marriage and children which is also largely consistent with our friends. Statistically speaking, marriages like my parents’ (and others of their generation) are more likely to fail than marriages like ours (and others of our generation).
We shouldn’t get too self-congratulatory about this. One reason GenXers married later is that we spent a lot more time mucking about in our 20s; 25 was the new 18, as it were. Nor is any of this fundamentally generationally based, since statistically speaking the people who my age who married as our parents did (i.e., younger and less educated) experience more divorce, and I don’t doubt those in the 70s who married more like GenXers did (later, more educated) experienced less divorce as well. It’s not really about us as humans as it is about the circumstances of our lives, in which (ironically) our oft-divorced parents extended our adolescence along enough for a lot of us to actually grow up enough not to blow up a marriage.
But, you know. I’ll take that. I’m happy I’ve been married for a month short of fifteen years now — which is another way of saying I’m happy that I was mature enough when I did get married (and have gotten more so as I went along) not to screw it up — because I don’t doubt whose fault it would have been if the marriage had gone south. I’m glad many of my friends were in similar situations when they took the plunge as well, and that we’re all still at it. And I’m glad that many of those friends who for whatever reason found the first marriage didn’t take were still willing to try again. It’s good to be married, when you can.