Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Does Marriage Cause Divorce?

"That is the stupidest question you have ever asked on your blog, Rachel," you tell me.  One can’t divorce without marrying.

The world is filled with moralistic doomsayers who swear the divorce rate is skyrocketing and no one stays married anymore.  This isn’t the reality.  The US divorce rate has remained relatively stable for decades.  Still, it is quite depressing to think nearly fifty percent of marriages in the US will end in divorce.  Americans are often surprised to find the US divorce rate is declining, but it it is only declining because many couples are abandoning marriage as divorce seems somewhat inevitable and not worth the risk.   

While many of us fear marriage, there are still many of us who want to be married and want it badly.  As I grow older and see more of my married friends divorcing, I start to question why marriage is so important.  Divorce, it seems to me, can be a result of wanting marriage too much.  Marriage for the sake of marriage is the ultimate goal.  It seems the desire to simply be married above all else takes a backseat to the simple desire of wanting to share your life with a particular person.

What is marriage?  Legally it is two people who are not blood relatives entering into a contract where the government recognizes them as a family with all legal kinship rights.  The contract gives the couple certain responsibilities to each other and legitimizes their children.  For religious people marriage is a sacred covenant blessed by their chosen gods.  Such a union would not be legitimate in their own eyes if not sanctioned by a representative of those gods.

I also think in American culture, marriage takes on a more esoteric definition.   Our culture sees marriage as a state of being for couples.  It is the ultimate form of commitment.  Putting your signature on a piece of paper is the final level you can take your relationship.  It shouldn't have more meaning for how to people feel about each other, but somehow it does.

I admit I feel this way about marriage.  I have always been ambivalent about children and have not practiced any religion in my adult life, but I have always known I wanted to be married when I met the right man.  I was never interested in just meeting Mr. Right and living with him without the ceremony preceding it. I don't know why I feel this way other than years of cultural conditioning about the meaning of marriage. 
 
There are those who do reject this idea.  In the 21st Century many couples are questioning if the legal affirmation makes any difference in their relationship.  There is nothing wrong in living together, or even having children together, without being married.  When you never marry, you never divorce and divorce is seen as the ultimate tragedy.

Is breaking up a cohabiting situation, particularly when there are issues of children, real estate, or other major purchases involved, any easier than divorce?  More to the point, is a relationship less likely to end if the couple never marries in the first place?

My question is, for those who yearn to marry, are they sabotaging the potential for a happy marriage, by making marriage the goal?  Why is it in a world where we are all cognizant of divorce rates, do we not consider why we are marrying? Why do we feel marriage is so important that we don’t give enough consideration to whom we marry and why?

When I was single and looking, I had numerous discussions with my peers, both male female, about why it’s so difficult to find the right person.  Women complained about how shallow and non-committal men were and how they only cared about easy sex.  Men complained that women were too picky and would turn down decent men for more exciting and better-looking men with more money. Both men and women expressed a desire to find the right one, settle down, and have children.  I would ask myself and my friends why these two groups never seemed to find each other.  Why couldn’t these men and women who were so focused on marrying ever seem to meet, date, and marry each other?  

As time passed, some of them did meet and marry.  That is how I realized the mere desire for marriage is not a wise reason to marry.  

Twenty years ago I dated a man who was desperate to marry.  He was insecure in the way many singles in their 20s and 30s tend to be.  He longed to recreate the perfect marriage he saw with his parents (even though he and I were separate individuals with differing personalities and needs from his parents).  He had an intense physical attraction to me (go figure) and he translated that into being in love with me.  He wasn’t truly in love with me.  He was in love with his idea of me.  He was in love with his fantasy of me.  He had a picture in his head of an ideal relationship and put me in that picture.  He was sure I was the one and within a month of dating had expressed his intention to marry me.  He believed we should move in together and make sure we would create his perfect domestic picture, and once this bliss was confirmed, we would marry.  

I admit I was just as insecure (if not more so) and just as eager to be married as he was. I bought into the pretty picture he painted for us.  I was also more cautious. My parents are divorced.  I don't  have happily married parents whose marriage I want to replicate. When I began that relationship I knew firsthand that marriages could fail. I also knew I wasn’t in a good place for marriage.  I was still living at home.  My career was barely off the ground.  I was saddled with a few more years of student loan debt.  I felt as if my life should be more settled before I married. 

I also didn’t feel the need to rush the relationship along.  I felt we should date long enough to leave our honeymoon period – at least a year and preferably two – and then decide if we wanted to marry.  If we decided marriage was the direction we were headed, we could move in together once the engagement was official.  I didn’t trust (and still don’t) the stability of cohabiting situations.* I needed to be sure he was truly in love with me and not his fantasy of me.  I wanted to know if he wanted to marry me, or if he just wanted to be married.

Thank goodness we did things my way.  It took less than a year to discover our massive incompatibility.  I remain grateful I told him he had to stick it out for a year before making a major life decision.  It would have been a disaster if I had allowed myself let my desire to be married override my common sense.

In this day and age, when even those of us who are eager to legally marry are aware of the statistics, I am sometimes surprised by the lack of caution I see around me.  Most of my married peers remain married.  Unfortunately, when I talk to some of my divorced friends about their marriages, I often hear the same stories.  Some of them married impulsively after only a few months of dating.  Some of them married after dating and cohabiting many years and felt they should marry because it’s easier to marry the person you’re with than it is to break up start over with someone new.


There was always a common denominator in their relationships .  Marriage was the goal.  Marriage took priority over truly loving their spouses and knowing them well.  I have heard them express regrets that their families and friends didn’t do more to stop them. (Would they have listened?)  They express disbelief about how they ignored so much of their partners’ faults in order to make it to the altar.  Although women are often portrayed as desperate to marry because of fertility issues, I have known just as many as men as women (if not more) who knowingly went into a bad marriage, hoping for the best even when they knew it wasn’t right.


There are no guarantees in marriage.  Sure marriage counselors have their list of predictive behaviors for divorce, but in the end, not much can assure us any marriage will last.  Some of these couples who seem to rush into marriage for the wrong reasons make it work and stay married for life.  There are couples who do everything “right” and still end up not staying together.  Every marriage is unique, just as every member of a couple is a unique individual.  We can never know the reasons why a couple stays together or doesn’t.  That’s why we should never judge another couple.  Couples who seem to argue all the time and act distant may be happy underneath it all.  The couple who was truly in love twenty years ago and seemed to have the perfect marriage may end up divorced. 

Life happens.  Two people who once shared many common interests may find new paths for themselves and grow apart.  Maybe one member of that formerly happy couple meets someone else and falls in love.  Life becomes so stressful that one spouse hits the bottle or the pills.  Conflicts arise that cause irreconcilable differences.  If we could predict exactly what would destroy our marriages, we wouldn't have a fifty percent divorce rate.

I don't take my marriage for granted.  I know things could change.  I know I can't predict what stressors could affect my marriage in the coming years.  I didn't rush into marrying Kevin.  We dated two years before becoming engaged.  We had a sixteen-month engagement.  When we moved in together a few months before our wedding, the transition was seamless.  Every morning I wake up grateful to be married to Kevin.  If I go to sleep feeling the same way, then I assume I'm doing something right.

What does this all mean for marriage in the 21st century.  My generation married young and married in large numbers.  Psychologists believed as the first generation to see large numbers of our parents divorcing, we were trying to fix what had gone wrong in our childhoods.  Millennials are taking a different view.  They haven seen more generations of divorce and see no real way of fixing it.  They are choosing to not marry.  This may save marriage from divorce, but how much does it guarantee a happily ever after?  Do they have a point, or are they just kidding themselves?

Couples in general, no matter what their age or life experience, need to take a step back from the idea of marriage.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be married.  Sure it can feel silly and old-fashioned in a world where men's and women's roles and religious mores are changing, but it's perfectly acceptable to want to be married. The trick is to not be so focused on marriage, but to put the focus on your partner.

When we meet a potential mate, we need to change the way we see that person.  We have to stop seeing that person as just a potential mate.  Don't start dating someone thinking, "Will I marry this person?  How long should we date before we marry? Does this person have the qualities I want in a spouse? We have been dating X number of months, so when will we marry?" I think we become so focused on the goal we forget about the person.  What's worse is that we justify unsatisfactory relationships because they look good on paper.  We think a spouse should have qualities X, Y, and Z and become so focused on those qualities, we ignore how our partners' qualities A-V.

When we enter a new relationship, we need to stop  thinking about marriage for a while, even if we do eventually hope to marry.  Don't worry so much about the future.  Think about the present.  Don't ask yourself, "Does this person have qualities I can live with in the coming years?"  Ask yourself, "Does he make me happy now?"  "Does she make me feel good about myself?"  "Do I miss him when we're not together, or am I relieved to have time alone when he goes home for the evening?" Keep your relationship in the here and how.  How happy are you at this moment?  If you aren't enjoying this moment, how much will you enjoy your life filled with these moments?  Are the the big moments are overshadowing the small ones?  You may find when your boyfriend is making grand romantic gestures that you are caught up in your emotions and feel your relationship is perfect.  Do you feel the same way about him when you're washing the dishes together or taking out the trash?

Also for women (and I suppose this will apply to some men too), don't get so caught up in your dream wedding that you forget about your marriage.  I get it.  I'm into weddings myself.  I am the kind of girl who dreamed about her wedding when her age was barely in double digits.  For most modern women, a wedding is the only time she will be able to don a gorgeous formal gown and dine on a sumptuous meal, followed by dancing surrounded by hundreds of admirers.  It's perfectly acceptable for any woman, even a reasonable feminist, to want to experience such a thing.  Just please don't put so much priority on having a beautiful wedding that you will marry any man to make it happen.  Your wedding is one day.  Your marriage is the rest of your life.  If you are having doubts, ask yourself if the wedding matters.  Would you be willing to marry the guy in City Hall if it was the only way you could marry him?  Would you forgo the dress, the party, and all the trimmings just to be with him?  If you can't say yes, then maybe it's time to understand your priorities and reconsider your life together.

If you do hope to marry someday, take a cue from cohabiting couples, especially those who reject the institution of marriage.   Why are they together?  They are together because they are happy with each other and love each other.  They are choosing to be together.  They aren't together because they don't want to deal with divorce.  They aren't trying to make it work in hopes of marrying some day.  They are together because they want to be together.  It's not a guarantee they won't ever break up and that the breakup might be just as devastating as as a divorce, but there is a different dynamic at play.  Their relationship is a choice and not a legal obligation.  If you knew you would be prevented from legally marrying your boyfriend or girlfriend, would you still want to be with him or her?  Could you choose to be with your partner every day out of love and not because you felt you had to make it legal at some point? If you can't say yes, then maybe you should move on to someone who makes you so happy right now you can't imagine a future without her.

*Disclaimer.  I make no judgements against those who choose to cohabit.  I am personally not comfortable with it.  I don't feel it had any sort of impact on my marriage.  If you feel you it is part of your relationship progression, then you need to do what's right for you and your partner.

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