This week marks a milestone in my life: I’ll be celebrating my 40th wedding anniversary (two days before I turn 60). I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage lately as I’ve been researching marriage, divorce and out-of-wedlock birth rates in my ongoing debate about Hispanic assimilation.
Marriage is in trouble, among all groups of Americans. The divorce rate is down slightly — about one-third of all first marriages will end in divorce after 10 years of marriage — but it’s no time to pop the champagne bottles. Marriage rates are down even more sharply. Fewer Americans are marrying today than anytime in the past, and cohabitation is on a sharp increase.
If you look at the factors that predict who will marry and who will divorce, my marriage didn’t stand a chance. My husband and I were both 19 when we married — still teenagers, whose divorce rates are sky-high (nearly half of all teenage brides divorce within 10 years). He was Jewish. I was Catholic. His father was a doctor, mine a house painter.
His family was comfortably upper middle class; mine struggled to make it through the week on paychecks that weren’t always there, especially in winter months when work for a painter was spotty. We were both in college, but the birth of our first son 18 months later could have doomed our education plans, especially mine. We both went on to complete college and attend graduate school.
So why did we beat the odds? By refusing to give up on the relationship, even when things were tough. Every marriage goes through patchy periods. But if you have kids — we have three sons, now grown — you owe it to them to do everything in your power to work it out. (Of course, physical abuse, drug addiction or severe alcohol abuse can’t be tolerated, but most marriages that end in divorce don’t do so because of these factors.)
My husband’s personal commitment has led to professional passion, as well. He has spent the last several years promoting healthy marriage — first in the Bush administration as a deputy assistant secretary in the Administration for Children and Families and now working to get federal and state money to strengthen existing marriages and help low income couples learn skills to form better relationships and promote healthy marriages.
Marriage is one of the most effective anti-poverty programs there is. The poverty rate for black children overall has been stuck at about 40 percent for decades, but only 13 percent of black children being raised by both parents live in poverty, and this rate has been going down over the years, even though it is still higher than the national average.
But promoting marriage is an uphill battle. We have become, in so many ways, a disposable society. Don’t like washing dishes or (heaven forbid) diapers? Replace them with paper, which can be thrown away. Last year’s car isn’t as shiny or cutting edge as the new ones? Trade it in for this year’s model, even if it puts you greater in debt.
The wife is getting a little thick around the middle, or the hubby is losing his hair? There’s always someone younger, better looking or more successful out there. In the past, there was social stigma attached to divorce. Now, the pressure on married couples is not to settle for anything less than perfect spouses and uninterrupted bliss.
Marriage isn’t like that. It’s hard work. Few of us can count on looking as good as we did in our wedding pictures. People change, for better or worse. Traditional marriage vows recognized this. Spouses pledged to honor each other in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, until death. The Catholic Church still uses this pledge.
But the trend today is to write hip, even funny, vows, which aren’t really vows at all, like these suggested on a popular wedding website: "I promise to always make your favorite banana milkshake," or "I vow to split the difference on the thermostat," as Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston did when they married. And look how long that union lasted . . .
Marriage is a serious — dare I say, sacred — endeavor. It is also the foundation of our society. If children are to thrive, we must do more to encourage and celebrate marriage. I’ll be doing my share this week.