With marriage a 50-50 proposition, why do couples keep taking the plunge?
When Caryn Waxman goes to weddings, she never tells anyone she’s a divorce lawyer. She doesn’t want to kill the mood, and she knows people would rather avoid the subject. Besides, despite her job, Waxman wants marriage to last.
But she has been in the business too long to think all marriages will. Waxman says the couples with the greatest chance of success are those who have a realistic sense of the state of matrimony in this country.
Divorce cannot be ignored. It is just as much a part of the national dialogue about marriage as wedding cakes and honeymoons. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, between 40 and 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, depending on the ages of the spouses when they are wed. The younger people marry, the more likely their marriage is to fail.
In 2008, there were 2,162,000 marriages performed in the United States. That averages out to 7.1 marriages per 1000 people. The national divorce rate is 3.5 per 1000.
In Vermont, married couples fare slightly better. The marriage rate in the state for 2007, the most recent measurable year, is 8.6 per 1000. By contrast, the divorce rate, slightly higher than the national average, is 3.7 per 1000. When looking at these figures, one needs to keep in mind that they represent couples who have wed in Vermont, whether they live in Vermont or elsewhere. (Couples from New York who come for a rustic wedding probably won’t return for their divorce.)
While Vermont divorce rates have dropped over the years — they peaked in 1980 at 5.5 per 1000 — the national percentage of marriages ending in divorce has held steady at about 50 percent for the past decade. Those are not great odds for anything, especially a lifelong commitment that generally comes with children and shared property, finances and assets.
Most people wouldn’t choose a surgeon who successfully opened up only half his patients, or hire a lawyer who won half her cases. And you would never participate in an activity — say, skydiving — if it came with a 50 percent fatality rate. So why do seemingly intelligent and risk-averse people still enter into the institution of marriage knowing the success rate is about one in two? And why are already-divorced people likely to get remarried, despite the even more dismal success rates for second and third marriages?
This isn’t generally something couples think about before taking the plunge, says University of Vermont sociologist Alice Fothergill. They think about the ceremony and their future children, how to divide household chores and how to deal with in-laws. But they don’t entertain the idea of divorce. “They think they will be in the 50 percent of marriages that work,” Fothergill says.
Fothergill, who teaches an undergraduate class on marriage and family, is quick to note that the 50 percent figure doesn’t apply “across the board.” The number of divorces in the country is significantly affected by the age of the couple at marriage, poverty, teen pregnancy and other factors. But, for the sake of a general discussion of divorce, 50 percent is fairly accurate, she says.
Fothergill’s research suggests that people are satisfied with marriage. As a society, we still embrace the institution and put our full faith in it, despite what the statistics may suggest — and even when we ourselves are children of divorce. A number of recently engaged or married couples interviewed for this story fit that description, yet they say they had no compunction about entering into a marriage themselves.
Fothergill points to three main reasons people still make marriage a goal:
They continue to believe in the institution, even when they have been involved in a previous marriage that failed.
Marriage makes things easier socially and financially. Society understands the marriage framework and has put systems in place that benefit married couples.
People really want a life partner.
“The benefits outweigh the risk for people,” Fothergill says. “People still believe marriage is a sacred institution.”
In theory, at least, marriage provides stability, security and an assurance that someone will always be there for you. Plus, after a certain age, it is expected of heterosexual couples. At some point, generally when committed couples are in their late twenties or early thirties, people start asking when they’re going to get married. While Canada and many countries in Western Europe have rapidly declining marriage rates, the institution doesn’t seem to have lost its luster in the U.S.
Plus, there is the notion that children thrive best in families with married parents. “People want a companion, and they want children,” Fothergill says. “There is a really strong message that that’s the best way to raise kids.”
Emily Blistein understands that message. The recently married Middlebury 30-year-old never thought she would tie the knot. She never had “little-girl daydreams” about her wedding day like so many of her contemporaries. She wondered whether marriage was necessary for a successful family before she wed Drew Palcsik, who had been married once before and has two children from that union. The couple and Palcsik’s children were already a family, but, Blistein said, she still felt like she was on the outside. “I really had to unpack marriage and ask, What do we get from it?” Blistein says.
Blistein says she came to see marriage as an anchor for their family unit as it developed. But she recognizes getting hitched is not for everyone and that it’s not a cure-all. “It was the opportunity to aspire to something with love,” she says.
Alison Barges, who became engaged in April to her boyfriend of four years, Jay Derouchie, says in her mind, marriage gives society a way to understand their relationship and the couple a feeling of being true partners. “It’s solidifying you as a family. It brings it to a totally different level,” said Barges, of Williston. “It’s important to be married.”
Barges lived with a partner for 10 years before meeting Derouchie, but never had the level of commitment she does now, she says. As a child of divorce, the 36-year-old was wary of committing to someone who wasn’t going to be an equal partner. “I don’t want to go through what my parents did,” she says.
It’s difficult for people to talk about why they want to get married beyond citing the motivations of love, security, permanence and family. And, when the subject of divorce is brought up, many brush it off. In a way, marriage resembles spirituality. You either take the leap of faith or you don’t.
Waxman, the divorce attorney with Downs Rachlin Martin in Burlington, has seen her share of marriages dissolve. In the 13 years that she’s worked exclusively as a “matrimonial and family lawyer” — the gentler trade term divorce attorneys use — Waxman has come to believe that our culture relies on fantasies about marriage, she says, and that those fantasies help ensure there will be divorce. “People don’t understand how hard it is to get unmarried,” she said.
For many people, Waxman points out, the day-to-day reality of being married is eclipsed by the fairy tale of the wedding day itself. The $40- billion American wedding industry sells the ceremony as the most important day in a woman’s life, one when no expense should be spared. “It’s about the dress and the reception,” Waxman says. “The idea that now you’re one. Now you’re whole. There’s something about that fairy tale that people like to hang their hats on.”
Our society has been sold on that fairy tale, which can turn destructive and erode the foundation of a relationship. Waxman says many of the divorces she has seen occurred because people held unrealistic expectations about marriage and their spouse. No one can be a soul mate, a best friend, a lover, a confidant and more all the time.
The national divorce rate started to climb in the 1960s and ’70s and peaked in the 1980s, in large part because Americans felt liberated from traditional mores — and wanted more out of their relationships. “We started having enormous expectations,” Fothergill says. “We expected a lot from this one person. People need to ask, What can this one person realistically fulfill for [me]?”
If the key to a lasting union is realism, perhaps that bodes well for Gregory Douglass’ impending marriage. The 29-year-old says his family has seen its share of failed relationships, leaving him with no expectations of marriage. The Essex Junction man proposed to his partner of five years, Glen Nadeau, last fall because he wanted to make their relationship “a little more concrete.” Plus, family and marriage are paramount to Nadeau. Douglass figures marriage will be much like their relationship now. He’s not putting pressure on the couple to be anything more to each other than they are already.
“We’re making a commitment to each other,” Douglass says, “and life will happen as it does.”