The rate of people entering marital unions is dwindling. Half a century or less ago, almost everyone would marry at some point, even though there was a 50% chance of also being divorced if one did so.
Though the divorce rate has shrunk a little, the rate of those who enter into marriage has shrunk drastically. Those in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s alike will express the unnecessary nature of marriage as well as the risk of divorce as reasoning for their good decision to remain unmarried, but research tells a different story. Though long-term marriage is no longer the norm, almost any study out there will show an the association between marriage, health, and life satisfaction.1,2
My recent study3 looking at long-term success in marriage assessed 141 men and women who have been married for over 20 years. I sought to understand the various aspects of long-term success, so I asked participants what they felt was important to marriage, how to get through difficult times, and their beliefs around marriage and divorce. Couples tend to be quiet about the intimacies of their relationships, so confidentiality was important to allow for honesty.
The average length of time married for participants was 32 years, giving way to the expertise these participants offered. In general, those with higher educational attainment reported their marriages being more important to their sense of life satisfaction. Further, participants felt that long-term marriage was more a product of choice than chance – hard work and commitment to each other were the keys to coming back from all difficult times – most of which were infidelity, times of transition, health, finances, and deaths.
For the 15 individuals who reported being dissatisfied with their marriages, all failed to report the same hard work and commitment on both parts as the satisfied individuals. The dissatisfaction was not reported to be a product of mistakes made, but from a failure to put in the necessary effort. For example, those who experienced infidelity in their relationships fell into two groups: those who reported high satisfaction and those who reported dissatisfaction. Most who experienced this stated that they worked hard together and came back from it with an even better relationship, while those reporting dissatisfaction also reported a failure to work hard work to get back on track. The only experience that seemed to always predict an unsatisfactory relationship was spousal abuse – even if in the past.
Despite the advantages of marriage, the rate of those who will never be married is higher than ever. Studies show that the main cause of the lesser marriage rate is the economic and educational disadvantages of men today.4,5 Despite this fact, educational costs are at an all-time high, as are costs of living.6 Having children – a prime reason for marriage in the past – has become more out of reach for couples who cannot afford the basics. And for those who do have children, having a traditional family still seems an impossibility. More and more children are not growing up in two-parent homes and thus not witnessing healthy, committed relationships, and thus less likely to have those relationships themselves, as half of the study’s participants reported that watching their parents navigate a marriage helped them to be successful in their own marriages.
Long-term marriages preserve families, mental health of their members, and the larger economy. So, what can be done? We can consider education a right rather than a privilege by funding higher education, having more incentives for those who get degrees in needed fields, and restricting the costs of basic needs such as housing, food, and medical expenses. Despite being one of the most expensive countries in the world, our citizens don’t get the advantages of those in other developed countries. Family planning and incentives for those who have children while married can also further healthy marriages and thus all of their advantages. Let’s consider the research and begin to support our society’s most important sanctions.
Brittany Stahnke Joy is an assistant professor at Limestone University. Her research surrounds marriage, suicide, and OCD, and her clinical expertise lies in Mental Health. She recently published an academic memoir on her experience with obsessive-compulsive disorder, The Doubting Disease: How one person took charge of the mental disorder that plagued her decisions for a decade, finally embraced the unknown, and found the power of choice. In her spare time, Brittany likes to spend time with her family, enjoys painting and wood working, and loves a good book.
Book: The Doubting Disease
1. Carr, D., Freedman, V. A., Cornman, J. C., & Schwarz, N. (2014). Happy marriage, happy life? Marital quality and subjective well-being in later life. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(5), 930–948. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12133
2. Grover, S., & Helliwell, J. F. (2019). How’s life at home? New evidence on marriage and the set point for happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies: An Interdisciplinary Forum on Subjective Well-Being, 20, 373–390. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-017-9941-3
3. Stahnke, B. (2022). To Be or Not to Be: Advice From Long-Term Spouses in a Mixed Methods Study. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families, 1-7. https://doi.org/10.1177/1066480722112355
4. Chambers, A. L., & Kravitz, A. (2011). Understanding the disproportionately low marriage rate among African Americans: An amalgam of sociological and psychological constraints. Family Relations, 60(5),
5. Schneider, D., Harknett, K., & Stimpson, M. (2018). What explains the decline in first marriage in the United States? Evidence from the panel study of income dynamics, 1969 to 2013. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(4), 791–811. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12481
6. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2021). Digest of Education Statistics, 2019.