Keeping at it
The other day, some people I know celebrated their nineteenth wedding anniversary. They celebrated by themselves with dinner at home. They ate leftovers, lay in bed together and read their books, picked ticks off the dog, and wondered when the rain would stop. They wrote notes to one another on cards they made or found. One of the cards had an image of a man and a woman dancing together, flinging their arms to the side and throwing their heads back as though they were singing, or howling. The dancers were obviously happy, separately, and together. The inscription on this card said "Let's dance on another 40 years or so."
But, will they, I asked myself, and I did some research.
"By now almost everyone has heard that the national divorce rate is close to 50% of all marriages," Barbara Whitehead and David Popenoe write in The State of Our Unions (2004), written at Rutgers University for the National Marriage Project. "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."
For instance, money helps. If a couple's annual income is greater than $50,000, rather than less than $25,000, the chance that they will divorce drops 30 percent. If you are over 25 when you marry, rather than under 18, the risk drops another 24 percent.
Indeed, "...if you are a reasonably well-educated person with a decent income, come from an intact family and are religious, and marry after age 25, without having a baby first, your chances of divorce are very low indeed."
That's good, but how can you take the temperature of a marriage in search of latent instability? Jeffrey Larson, a professor at Brigham Young University, in a book entitled "Should We Stay Together?" (Jossey-Bass, $25), proposes some scientific ways to examine a marriage and, understanding its nature, increase the chance that it will last. Here's what the partners need, according to Professor Larsen. High self-esteem, flexibility, assertiveness, and sociability. The two of you need to be a bit like one another, have a long acquaintance, good communication skills, and good conflict resolution skills. It all works best if both of you are older, have healthy "family-of-origin experiences," happy parental marriages, parental and friends' approval, and significant education and career preparation.
That's a tall order. No one measures up on all these points.
How does this couple that just celebrated an anniversary do? Honestly, it's so-so. He certainly has high self-esteem, maybe a little too high. Her communication skills are capable of crystal clear expression, that's for sure, but conflict resolution between them can be highly charged, and awfully noisy. I've heard them.
Professor Larsen highlights some of the traits that predict stormy weather ahead for any marriage. For instance, if one of them is neurotic or anxious or depressed or impulsive or self-conscious, or all of the above, the likelihood that the marriage will escape intact is small. And, if the partners have been acquainted only briefly, if they've had a lot of different partners before focusing on one another, or if they're pregnant before marriage, a long-lasting outcome gets increasingly hard to foresee. Likewise, if they're younger, under pressure to marry, face the disapproval of parents or friends, and have little education or preparation for a career.
In general, measured against these positive and negative benchmarks, my celebrants don't come off too badly. For example, he has steadily been able to lower her standards for his success, for romance, for intensity, and for bliss. Oh, the truth is, he's been able to put the prospect of bliss right out of the picture. Together, when they aim high these days, they are looking at lackluster and less fulfilling. And, aiming low, they seem to have achieved a high level of satisfaction with one another and with their marriage. I suppose it's a lesson for us all.
I'm suspicious however. When I think of that card, with the two dancers and their arms flung out an upwards, and the exuberant expressions on their faces, I wonder if, despite the hits and misses, his shortfalls, her disappointments, there hasn't been a vast, deep reservoir filled over the years with deepening love and affection. I wonder if the scientists have measured how astonishingly hard two lovers and partners will work to endure.