The U.S. Census Bureau recently released a report showing that for the first time, married couples are a minority of all American households. The American Community Survey found that 49.7 per cent or 55.2 million of the 111.1 million U.S. households in 2005 were made up of married couples. The Life-Style Left, led by the New York Times, are clapping their hands with joy over the final death of the “Ozzie and Harriet” lifestyle of the 1950’s. The Religious Right, on the other hand, are wringing their hands in consternation.
I think there is a story behind these numbers.
The most significant growth in unmarried households comes from people delaying marriage for longer than they used to. But these people are not living like cloistered monks or lesbian separatists until the age of thirty-five. Instead, many young people use cohabitation as a substitute for their first marriage.
Although I have no hard and fast numbers, I have a strong hunch about the young cohabitors. I hear from them all the time. They send me e-mails in response to my columns. They call in on radio talk shows. They come up to me after my speeches. They tell me about their parents’ multiple marriages. I hear about mothers who were preoccupied with their new boyfriends and about dads who had no time for their kids while they were growing up.
The message from Generation Y is this. I want to get married and stay married. I have already been through enough divorces for one lifetime, thanks. I want to be sure I have the right person before I get married. I don’t want to take any chances. That’s why I am living with my Significant Other before we finally decide to get married.
Unfortunately, they are likely to be disappointed in this strategy.
People who live together prior to marriage have a higher divorce rate than couples who do not live together. Cohabiting couples report lower levels of relationship satisfaction than married couples. Cohabiting relationships are less stable than married relationships. Couples who live together have higher rates of domestic violence, including child abuse, than do married couples.
For all these reasons, living together does not really avoid the problems of marriage. The emotional attachments can be just as intense, making the break-up just as difficult. And living without a commitment doesn’t prepare a person for the level of commitment that life-long married love really requires. Living together is more like practicing for divorce than practicing for marriage.
But then again, many of our modern, “liberated” sexual practices are counter-productive in exactly that sense. Having a larger number of sex partners is correlated with a lower probability of successful marriage. So is early initiation of sexual activity. The great “innovations” of the sexual revolution actively interfere with the one thing we ultimately want the most: namely, life-long married love.
The young want to know how to make lifelong love work. A thirty-something associate professor, happily married, told me that he is breaking new ground in his family, by being married for 13 years. No one in his family has ever been married that long. He desperately wants to stay married for life. But he has little confidence in his ability to maintain his marriage, even though he is obviously doing some things right.
Generation Y doesn’t need the Baby Boomers to cheer them on to greater and greater lifestyle experimentation. They need information and guidance. And hope that love is possible.
I don’t know everything there is to know about getting married and staying married. Trust me on that one. But I have learned a few things, which I feel an obligation to share with the young. If you have to figure it all out by trial and error, you will be miserable and menopausal!
Trust me. Lifelong married love is possible. And it is worth the effort.
Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse is the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love in a Hook-up World, available at her website.