Lifelong learning


Without examining the history of the training regimen that was instituted early in our marriage, I can report that the keys to its ultimate success were patience, firmness, repetition, repeated demonstrations, and pop quizzes, both multiple choice and essay type. That’s what did the trick. Plus, you need a good teacher, and in that way, I’ve been blessed. Educators of all sorts will appreciate the strenuousness of such an effort and sympathize with my mate. Ultimately, you need to learn to wag your tail. That’s the time-honored signal that you’ve been wrong, that you regret it, and that here is the visible acknowledgement of those two admissions. Plus, you do it on the floor.

I suspect that the demands of marriage, and especially the educational diligence incumbent on the female partner may explain some of the mildly encouraging news we’ve heard about marriage, the institution, recently. The Centers for Disease Control regularly survey the centuries old infection that is marriage, today transformed into a modern union with a wide variety of options. The CDC reports that there were 2,118,000 marriages in the U.S. in 2011, or 6.8 percent of the total population of about 311,000,000. In 2000, there were 2,315,000 marriages in a total population of about 282,000,000, or 8.2 percent. But, the 2011 percentage share of the population tying the knot annually, though lower than it was a decade ago, has held steady since 2008. We are holding our own.

There have been big changes during the last half of the 20th century. We delay marriage till we are older, cohabit for some time before marrying, and end first marriages with divorce about half the time. Among women, 68 percent of unions — often called committed relationships — formed in cohabitation, and generally these events occur in one’s life at about the same time as marriage did in the past. Researchers often study these two types of union together to measure the durability of first unions.

In 1995, 50 percent of all women’s first marriages ended in separation or divorce after 20 years. In 2002, surveys found that about one-third of men’s first marriages ended in divorce after 10 years. There are many factors that influence the likelihood of divorce from a first marriage, including educational attainment, employment status, and premarital cohabitation. Researchers survey marriages between partners aged 15 or older.

Married couples account for slightly less that half the total of American households. That’s more married couples than in the past, but a smaller percentage of the total number of households. Marriage as the backbone of American households has been in a slow but steady decline, as a percentage of total American households, for several years. That doesn’t mean that Americans have turned their backs on the noble team sport, but there are alternatives, more acceptable now than they were a few years ago, and divorce, plus the overall aging of the population, contribute to this sad trend.

Generally researchers have found that women and men who cohabit with their future spouse before first marriage are more likely to divorce than those who do not, but the most recent research suggests that this link may be weakening, largely because cohabitation is more common than it was, so it spans contributors such as age, education, financial security. Young, poorly educated, and financially insecure folks who cohabit before marriage have a tough time staying married when they take the plunge.

Since the population has reached 311 million plus, we can safely assume that the male-female breakdown has endured. And because a substantial portion of the millions of new additions are under 15 and unlikely to have formed new households, we can safely operate on the theory that the total share of households featuring a married couple is about what it was in 2006, when most of the data reflected here was first gathered. So, those of us who’ve invested so much time in marriage and the instructional rewards that go with it may rest easy, knowing that while we may not be making much headway against the current trend, we’re not falling behind at an increasing rate.

Seventy-four percent of Americans were at or beyond the household forming age in 2005. That means the potential number of households might have been 216 million, instead of 111 million, a deficit in speculative terms of almost half. In light of the training available in most married relationships, why haven’t these shirkers stepped up? Lots of reasons, one supposes, most of them perfectly understandable. For example, for those between 18 and 29, members of both sexes may cling to the busy bee hypothesis, buzzing here, buzzing there, sipping here, sipping there, in the sunny springtime of discovery. You know what I mean.

If you are, like me, a member of the married household population, you may be cheering the youngsters on in their reluctance to launch their married lives. The most sensible of this age 20-30 cohort’s members are in school, beginning careers, in the military, moving around, looking for a foothold on the future, and they understand that the time has not arrived for household establishment.

From 30 to 50, there may be a sizable group whose members form, then deconstruct a household. It seemed like a good thing at the time, but it didn’t work out. Maybe they’ll join the married household ranks again, but not right away. After all, statistics be damned, most Americans do marry, and many do so several times. Most have children, and increasingly, most of these offspring, based on their experiences as the children of married parents, delay into their middle age the onset of marriage. The teacher-student model followed by wives and husbands generally has an unplanned educational correlative — a dividend, you might say — in which the parents serve as the teachers and the children the students, learning from their experience to delay, delay, delay.

Now, of course, another reason why the number of married households has shrunk just a bit is that the population as a whole is getting older, which means that one or the other half of the couple at the head of a married household dies. As the population of married couples ages, death visits more often than it does a younger cohort, and the consequence is a household led by a widow or widower, and consequently, no longer one of us. Actually, it’s usually the husband who departs first, a testimony to the fact that the teacher in the wife-husband pair learned a lot more over time than her student.

Yet another reason for the decline in the married share of American households could be exasperation. In my experience, no matter the diligence of the teacher, she can experience terminal exasperation. Often, it’s towel trouble. For instance, it’s one of the mysteries of cohabitation that towels require such diligent management. I mean, you take a shower, you grab a towel. You dry off, you throw the towel on the floor. Next day, you shower, you pick up the towel from the floor, you dry off, you throw the towel on the floor. After several days, you shower, you reach for the towel on the floor where it should be. It isn’t there. You take another, you dry off, you throw the towel on the floor. It’s a time-honored system. I have skills, I can do this.

But, I find out my system is all wrong. First of all, this towel belongs to a certain person, that towel belongs to me. They are both white, I object. How do I know which is whose? Yours is wet, smelly, and dirty. It doesn’t look that dirty. Trust me, it’s filthy.

Why can’t I have a blue towel?

It doesn’t go with the room.

And there you have it, the key to the trends documented by the CDC. I suspect it is towel trouble or some similar educational stand-off that accounts, perhaps all by itself, for the national decline in the formation and endurance of married households. Perhaps the bureau should modify its survey instruments to confirm the hypothesis.