America’s marriage culture may be changing, but two statistics look about the same as they did 30 years ago:
• By the time women reach age 40, about eight in 10 will have married for the first time, just as they did in the 1980s.
• And 20 years later, only 52 percent of these wives will still be married - also about the same as before.
These two vital statistics are “pretty stable,” said Casey Copen, lead author of a report on first marriages released Thursday by the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).
The report, which uses data from the National Survey of Family Growth 2006-2010 and previous years, confirms higher ages for marriage (28.3 years for men and 25.8 years for women), and premarital cohabiting as a normal rite of passage.
The duration of marriages is also tracked up to the 20th year, as well as characteristics associated with “survivability.”
For instance, although relatively few - one in five - first marriages fail within five years, they are likely to be associated with characteristics like marrying as a teen, coming from a single-parent home and not having a child together after marriage.
Conversely, marriages that reached their 20-year anniversary were associated with having a college degree, having a religious life, not cohabiting before marriage and not having previous marriages or children from previous relationships, the report said.
Despite the generally stable divorce rate, there’s been an important underlying shift in it, said William J. Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project, which is examining ways distressed couples can reconcile.
“If we go back to the 1970s, the rates of divorce for high-school graduates and college graduates were quite similar,” said Mr. Doherty.
Now “divorce rates have gone up for people with moderate educations and gone down for those with college educations,” he said, noting that the new data show that of married women with a high-school education, 59 percent divorced before their 20th anniversary. In contrast, 78 percent of married women with bachelor’s degrees reached their 20th anniversary.
That suggests that college graduates “have figured out how to ‘do marriage’ in this century,” said Mr. Doherty. It’s possible, he added, that since these couples are becoming “marriage savvy,” their wisdom and skills could be shared with other populations.
That may be too rosy a view for some marriage-watchers.
A major reason why divorce rates are stubbornly high “is because Americans have largely embraced the individualistic ethos ushered in by the 1970s, and are often unwilling or unable to navigate marital difficulties that creep up after several years of married life,” said sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox, who also directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.
“The only good news is that federal data also suggest that married couples with children have seen their divorce rates come down since the 1980s,” Mr. Wilcox said.
Neither college students nor college-educated couples who seek counseling seem to have any idea how to deal well with conflict, said Dr. Arthur Nielsen, a longtime couples’ therapist and professor of psychiatry who teaches a popular “Marriage 101” class at Northwestern University.
“A successful, happy marriage is not such an easy thing to achieve,” said Dr. Nielsen. When conflict occurs, people need a certain amount of emotional maturity and social skills to address it. But “knowing how to calm the other person down without escalating the conflict turns out to be really hard for people,” he said.
Also, while money, sex and children are familiar trouble spots in marriages, modern couples often face stresses associated with juggling two careers - or trying to achieve a picture-perfect marriage after growing up in a divorced home.
“You come home after a hard day, and everybody has the expectation that this is the escape from the battles of the day. But actually there’s kids and dishes and housework and who’s going to pay the bills,” said Dr. Nielsen. “That kind of high-pressure family life can lead to troubles being partners, and tough times.”