Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Don't you know, half of all marriages...

I just ran across a few articles in the New York Times on marriage that I think point to a larger ongoing cultural conversation that I wanted to bring up here. Two of the articles address the rate of divorce in the United States, another looks at the impact of higher education levels among women on marriage, and one looks at a shifting marriage model. Each article is thought-provoking and worth reading.

The article on divorce ("Divorced from Reality") states that research shows that the rate of divorce is at the lowest level since 1970. Wait, let's say that again. Research shows that the rate of divorce is at the lowest level since 1970. And that rate is not 50%. So why, may I ask, are we incessantly (and evidently, inaccurately) reminded that "half of all marriages end in divorce?" This article points out some errors with the census measurements that seem to have led to the perpetuation of this 50% divorce myth. Another interesting New York Times article addresses the same issue, but breaks down the statistics into year ranges since the divorce rate differs based on when one got married and the education level of the wife.

Then there's this opinion article about how women are redefining "marriage material," in part due to changes in the education level of women over the years. One of the contributing writers, Betsey Stevenson, references this other article that she wrote with Justin Wolfers on the influence of economics on marriage. The writers point out the shift of marriages from basically being a way to conquer the feat of running a household (with specialization of one person working at home and one person working in the market place) to today's model which is based on love and companionship in shared pleasures. They talk about the shift from "shared production" to "shared consumption," pointing out the logic of opposites attracting being a benefit in the specialization marriage model, but in today's model, similarities are more of a strength. The writers propose the high divorce rates of the 70s reflect the transition period from the specialization marriage model to the "modern hedonistic marriage" model.

The articles offer interesting analysis and reflection-- and it's fantastically encouraging too, as a newlywed who wants a strong, happy, life-long marriage. And this last article even makes sense of the reason for the two different relationship compatibility philosophies of "opposites attract" and "birds of a feather." And yet, I can't get away from the fact that I was unaware that the oft-quoted divorce statistic was inaccurate. This article was from 2008, so it is not even a brand-new revelation. Why are these numbers not getting out? Is failure more interesting than success? Do people prefer to set the bar low? Why are more people not talking about happy, healthy marriages?

Well, some people are, and for that, I am thankful. There is an on-going conversation that began a few months back over with Meg at A Practical Wedding and other blogs about the way people talk about marriage within our culture, the institution of marriage, and about the terms of "husband" and "wife." * And I guess the U.S. is at a point where marriage will either become more and more uncommon (as in Québec) or young adults will increasingly re-think marriage and this new model (or multiple models) will continue to evolve in society.

As a newlywed originally from the south of the U.S. (where people marry young) now married to someone who is from Québec (where marriage is uncommon), we are already at a starting point that is unconventional. In a way, that offers an unexpected freedom in how we build our marriage and life together. Clearly, we will not perfectly reflect either model from our culture of origin, so we have the task of creating a shared life that is right for us. And it is fun to explore the possibilities as we dream together about normal, daily life in the months and years ahead. We talk about things like this summer's upcoming move and our potential future rented apartment in Québec City, or alternatively maybe looking at homes outside of town. Or the potential future little kiddos we might have one day, running around in little snow pants and speaking adorable little-kid-French. And then, we can also lazily reflect on the fact that a couple of cats would wake us up less at night. But this...this is the space we inhabit these days: an extremely creative place full of potential and unexplored possibilities.

*Which is even more of a linguistic issue in Québec, where no one in our generation seems to use those terms of "mari" (husband) and "femme" (wife, literally "woman"). We are often referred to as "blonde" (girlfriend) and "chum" (boyfriend) among Québécois friends. There is also another term that is used, conjoint(e), which means life partner, and can be used for married and unmarried couples.


  1. Good blog post Jenny, I posted the first NY Times article you mentioned on Twitter for others to read.

  2. Great post! It's super interesting to read your reflections on being married in Quebec, as someone who is new to our weirdo marriage culture.

    Since we're been married, I definitely don't think I've used the word "mari" once. I think I've mostly used "conjoint" or, yes, "chum"! I'm not sure how many people give a crap about the marital status of one's relationship around here (which, despite having chosen to be archaic and still get married, I really, really appreciate).

  3. this is a really insightful post - thanks!

  4. Thank God, I can tell my parents that just because I am marrying an American does not mean my marraige is going to end in divorce.

    I think the statistic sort of stuck around as a precautionary tale. "You don't want to be that couple who gets divorced", etc.

  5. This is a great post - thanks!

    (I came here via Marie-Ève in Montreal.)

    I'm from Ontario and planning on marrying a Quebecker, so I loved when you said "In a way, that offers an unexpected freedom in how we build our marriage and life together."

    That is exactly how I feel!

    Thanks for pointing me to all those (fascinating) articles.