They were young and in love, and marriage seemed like the right thing to do for many reasons. “It was the next step,” they thought. “Then we won’t be lonely.” “All our friends are getting married why not us?” And the biggie: “Now we’ll be happy.”
But according to comments gathered by two authors from many young couples, divorce followed swiftly, also for many reasons: “He changed.” “She got possessive.” “He wouldn’t communicate.” “She was too needy.” “Neither of us knew how to compromise.” “We just didn’t merge.”
Why do so many young marriages crash and burn? Two new books offer explanations about why many couples are giving each other divorce papers before they turn 30.
One book by Pamela Paul, an editor at American Demographics, suggests that brief, childless “starter marriages” are becoming part of a marital pattern.
Starter marriages are not inevitable rites of passage and should be avoided at all cost, Mrs. Paul, a young divorcee herself, says in “The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony,” published by Villard Books.
But people and the culture are changing, she said, and even though a lifelong marriage can and should remain a personal and societal ideal, it’s not going to happen for everyone.
Laura Schlessinger, host of the popular “Dr. Laura” radio talk-show, also weighs in with “10 Stupid Things Couples Do to Mess up Their Relationships,” published by HarperCollins.
This latest book which follows Mrs. Schlessinger’s best sellers on “10 stupid things” men and women do as individuals focuses on the ways couples hurt themselves and each other with secrets, excuses, egotism, pettiness and power trips.
The books arrive amid federal data that show the pervasiveness of divorce.
Marriage continues to be extremely popular: Nine in 10 Americans expect to marry sometime in their lives, the Census Bureau says in a report released last week on the state of marriage in 1996.
However, the marriages of today are not as rock-solid as those of previous decades, the report says. For instance, of men who married between 1945 and 1964, a consistent 95 percent were still married five years later. But of men who married between 1985 and 1989, just 88 percent made it to a fifth anniversary. The data are similar for women.
Some 43 percent of first marriages break up within 15 years, said another report issued last year by the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), which looked at data collected in 1995.
One-fifth of these breakups occurred within five years, with the risk of divorce higher if the bride was a teen-ager, the NCHS report said.
Mrs. Paul notes that Generation Xers, now aged 24 to 37, are the first “children of divorce” generation.
Gen Xers crave marriage and fear divorce, but a significant number see their worst nightmare come true, says Mrs. Paul, who interviewed 60 young divorced couples for her book.
So why are their dreams not working out? Maybe hip, educated, one-click-and-you’re-there Americans are too impatient for marriage and unwilling to realize that the “act of marriage doesn’t mean a money-back guarantee of marital happiness,” Mrs. Paul writes.
Or maybe, she says, it’s because “starter” marriages are “part of a new marital pattern,” akin to the unpleasant but character-building first job that prepares a person for their “real” career.
Citing some futurists, Mrs. Paul theorizes that as people live longer and are attracted to different people throughout their lives, multiple marriages may be the wave of the future.
“I think [serial marriage is] an unfortunate possibility that we should work against,” Mrs. Paul says, stressing she is not an advocate for multiple marriages.
However, she adds, it appears a few reality checks are in order for modern marriage. For one thing, since young people have so much to do in their 20s education, career and personal development society should support and “celebrate delayed marriage,” in which couples tie the knot in their 30s and then start having children.
She also believes society should fully accept cohabitation. “The marriage-police dogs should stop barking at ‘living in sin’ and instead roll over with glee,” says Ms. Paul, since most cohabiting couples are simply “taking the precaution of confirming their compatibility.”
Third, Mrs. Paul believes the culture should uphold marriage as a desirable but difficult lifestyle choice that requires constant effort and energy. “We have to pay more attention to what makes a marriage work, and often that means portraying it in a realistic way,” she says.
Mrs. Schlessinger, in Washington recently to speak at a conference, said she was offended by the phrase “starter marriage” because “it implies obsolescence it sounds like ‘We’re just doing our thing until we can get the real thing.’”
What’s really going on, she says, is that a generation of young people who spent their childhood struggling through their parents’ divorce and subsequent parade of lovers are now facing the same issues.
“There’s a lot of cynicism, a lot of fear out there,” she said.
Of the 10 stupidities among couples, Mrs. Schlessinger says the worst ones for young couples are picking the wrong person a “stupid mismatch” and breaking up for the wrong reason a “stupid breakup.”
The very things young couples may not want to talk about religion, money, children, extended family are the very things that can derail them later, Mrs. Schlessinger says, adding, “I cannot believe how many calls I get” about people who didn’t realize what kind of person they married.
But breaking up a salvagable relationship is another mistake, she maintains.
According to Mrs. Schlessinger, “We live in a society that says ‘If it’s broken, don’t fix it, just get a new one.’” However, there’s evidence that if people keep their commitment and struggle through for a few more years, their relationship will improve and they will be happier.
This doesn’t mean all couples should stay together, Mrs. Schlessinger says. Divorce may be the right choice if someone has “broken the covenant” with addiction, affairs or abuse.
Mrs. Schlessinger says young couples can protect and strengthen their marriage by going into the marriage “100 percent,” with their eyes open, ready to serve their partner.
“I always remind people, you don’t fall in love and get married. You get married and you learn to love over many years. The other stuff is romantic fantasy, hormonal, cute and adorable a lot of passion is nuttiness,” she says.
“But true love is two 80-year-old people walking in the park, holding hands, who have been together for 60 years through everything. That is love.”