- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2000

Over the course of my decade-long tenure as a Little League coach, I watched gloomily as divorce touched more than half the families whose children played on my teams. In that same period, among the several dozen employees who came and went at the bank branch where my wife then worked, most of the marriages also came and went. During the last year of her employ, her crop of eight co-workers boasted just one intact union, other than our own.

These days I teach at a large Midwestern university, and while I haven't formally polled my students, classroom discussions leave scant doubt that many of them report their grades to (and solicit money from) more than one set of parents. I think of the senior who, as I write this, giddily anticipates a wedding. I wish her the best of luck. She will need it.

Though the pace at which couples uncouple has shown a modest decline in very recent years, the current rate 4.6 divorces for every 1,000 population remains fully double what it was a generation ago, taking as its toll some 60 percent of new marriages. Perhaps more troubling than how many of us do it is how quickly we do it. I know of at least three young couples whose marriages failed within the first two years. A third of divorces occur before couples attain the unremarkable five-year plateau. Should this trend continue, we may need to rethink our traditional notions of marital longevity and the commensurate awards for same. Diamonds would seem a fitting tribute for any couple that makes it to the 10-year benchmark nowadays.

Joking aside, the ramifications here are dire. Census Bureau figures tell us that the nuclear home is about to sink into minority status among today's infinite array of family-living arrangements. Just 50.8 percent of American households consist of a married mother and father, and children whose conception awaited the conception of the marriage itself; this figure represents a decline from 67 in 100 households in 1970. That same study tells us that a quarter of America's children now live in broken homes, which is what we used to call them (and what, in fact, they are) before PC pressures bullied us into euphemizing such interpersonal wreckage as "alternative families." Slowly but surely, America is coming to realize that this rampant dismantling of households cannot possibly be good for the children left behind: statistics on crime, drug abuse and teen pregnancy leave little room for debate. Nor, one might argue, is it good for the parted adults themselves, who re-enter the matrimonial market with fewer illusions about riding off into the setting sun.

Some of the reasons for this conjugal malaise have been amply chronicled. Working wives are less dependent on men for financial sustenance, thus are less inclined to suffer marital doldrums in silence, more inclined to bolt at the first sign of trouble. Concrete notions of morality rooted in Judeo-Christian ideals have given way to "personal choice" and "situational ethics"; as one comic gibes, we act these days as if Moses had handed down the Ten Suggestions.

Yet of all the factors affecting the grim numbers, the most virulent and paradoxical may be the very self-help movement that was supposed to reward us with fulfillment everlasting. I have in mind especially the various 12-step programs and their myriad less structured imitators that stress "non-victimization." In the process of teaching us how to get our needs met, they also teach us to be less susceptible to the needs of others. Like a social Ebola, the mantra of "codependent no more" has broken out of that small core group of pathological doormats for whom such emotional barricades are necessary, and now infects the mainstream with its "empowering" message. To wit: The best way to foreclose the prospect of being hurt is to not put your feelings at risk to begin with.

The result is a fulminating obsession with self-preservation that spells death for true love. Like doctors in a cancer ward who purposefully avoid becoming too involved with dying patients, many among us approach our wedding days with a reserve that inevitably handicaps the marriage. We draft prenuptial agreements, and refuse to embrace our husband's surname as our own. We take separate vacations, and glory in the notion that each partner "needs his/her space" to "grow as a person." Some of us create customized understandings that slice large loopholes in traditional marital dogma so as to accommodate greater personal freedom (typically sexual in nature). We refuse to commingle assets. We postpone having kids in part due to finances, yes, but also, at least in some cases, because we "want to make sure the marriage works first."

What does all this say about our willingness to surrender ourselves to the marital unit? It says that many of the "couples" in this category never do wed. Not really. They merely sign some papers and move in together. The partners must hope for the best while recognizing that often as not, day-to-day reality will fall short.

Without such wisdom, forgiveness gives way to fatalism, and ultimatums supplant understanding. For Americans to do better at marriage, we must learn to escape the abiding narcissism bred by the self-help movement. The belief that one exists in an emotional vacuum ranks also among life's most potent self-fulfilling prophecies.

Steve Salerno teaches journalism at Indiana University.

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