Is marriage dying?
That seems to be the popular narrative today. It’s true that marriage rates are decreasing, and those who do get married are tying the knot later in life, on average. And so you have people saying there just aren’t enough good marriage candidates, listing reasons why marriage doesn’t work anymore, or choosing to just live together instead. Conventional wisdom states that since half of all marriages end in divorce, and many of those who don’t divorce have unhappy marriages, then marriage just isn’t worth it.
But is that really true?
It turns out that the marriage picture isn’t nearly as bleak as we’ve been led to believe. Some people may be shying away from marriage, but they’re doing so based partly on false information.
So let’s set the record straight with some real facts about marriage that people don’t often talk about.
1. Marriage usually works out.
We’ve all heard the statistic that 50% of marriages end in divorce. I’ve quoted it myself. But, it turns out that that number is probably wrong. Apparently, calculating the divorce rate isn’t as simple as you might think, partly because you can’t know the final numbers until everyone is either divorced or dead. New research seems to agree that the divorce rate has been declining, and if the trend continues “nearly two-thirds of marriages will never involve a divorce.” That still represents far too many divorces, but at least the odds are more in your favor. And that’s for the overall population; if you have a college degree, are active in church, and wait until after marriage to conceive and start a family, your chances of getting a divorce fall considerably.
And, of course, divorce is not a lottery. If both spouses are 100% committed to marriage for life, then the odds of divorce are 0%.
2. Most married people are happy.
Yeah, but not getting a divorce doesn’t automatically mean you’ll have a happy marriage. What are your odds of being “happily married”?
Pretty high, actually. About 43% of married people say they are “very happy,” compared to 24% of unmarried people. Most of the rest are “pretty happy”; only about 10% of married people said they were “not too happy.”
That’s just for life as a whole; it doesn’t ask whether they are happy with their marriages. However, another Pew Research study did ask how people felt about their family life, and 84% of married people said they were “very satisfied.” Another 13% say they are “somewhat satisfied,” leaving only 3% to be “dissatisfied.”
The majority of single people also said they were “very satisfied,” but married people were the happiest in this area, by a fair margin. Divorced/separated individuals had the lowest satisfaction ratings.
3. If you stick with it, your marriage will get better.
If you do find yourself in an unhappy marriage, divorce is not the answer you’re looking for. In a five-year study of unhappily married couples, it was found that those who divorced ended up no happier than those who stayed together. Even those who divorced and then married someone else were no happier than those who stayed married to their first spouse. Of the unhappy couples that did stay together, two-thirds of them reported being happy with their marriages five years later.
4. Living together before marriage is still a bad idea.
Years of research have shown that living together before marriage leads to a greater chance of divorce and other “poor marital outcomes.” But now, anytime you mention that living together before marriage is a bad idea, someone will argue that new research shows that’s not actually true.
The new research they’re referring to is a study in the Journal of Marriage and Family. However, that study actually also agrees that people who cohabitate before marriage are more likely to divorce. It simply tries to come up with an argument as to why that is. The argument goes like this:
People who marry young are more likely to divorce.
People who cohabitate before marriage are trying to “act married” (their words, not mine) from the moment they first move in together.
If you pretend those people are married from the moment they move in together, rather than when they actually do get married, that would mean they were “married” at a younger age. And that younger age could explain why their divorce rate is higher.
The most glaring problem with this is that if you’re going to say everyone who lives together is already married, you have to also count any cohabitating couple that breaks up as having gotten a divorce. Which would actually make the divorce rate for cohabitating couples much, much higher. According to government data, about 50% of cohabitating couples “divorce” within the first five years, and about 70% within 15 years.
Other studies may also try to determine why cohabitation leads to a higher divorce rate and other poor marital outcomes. But remember, the only reason they’re able to look for why it’s higher is because it is, indeed, higher. So, yes, living together before marriage is still a bad idea.
5. Marriage is still the best place to raise children.
With fewer marriages, we have more children being raised by single parents or by cohabitating couples. Though it seems obvious that the best situation for a child is to be cared for by a loving mother and father who are committed to each other for life, some try to argue that “non-traditional” families are just as good at raising kids. But the numbers don’t back that up.
For example, according to government data:
Children living with a single parent are 3.1 times more likely to be physically abused, 4.8 times more likely to be sexually abused, and 3.6 times more likely to be emotionally abused than children living with their married biological parents.
Those living with cohabitating biological parents—so everything the same as the married biological parents, except for the “married” part—fare no better: 4.3 times more physical abuse, 4.8 times more sexual abuse, and 3.1 times more emotional abuse.
Worst off are children in cohabitating families where only one of the parents is their biological parent: they are 10.3 times more likely to be physically or emotionally abused, and 19.8 times more likely to be sexually abused. (If those same people are married, the abuse rate, though still rather high, is cut in half.)
Children raised by married biological parents also have better physical and psychological health, lower infant mortality rates, and lower rates of substance abuse. They tend to do better in school, are more likely to graduate college, and are less likely to commit crime.
If you are a single parent, you have my utmost respect; I know it’s a difficult task. These stats are not meant to discourage you. But my hope is they might encourage everyone to make wise choices when it comes to dating and marriage.
6. There’s no such thing as “the one.”
The idea of a soul mate—that there’s one and only one person on earth who’s right for you—isn’t biblical, scientific, or logical. Fact is, there are a number of people who could make a good spouse for you, and you for them.
It’s worth mentioning because the idea of “the one” can cause problems. It can cause single people to be too picky, seeing any tiny flaw as evidence that somebody is not “the one” for them. Since nobody is perfect, if you think they are perfect, that’s a red flag that you don’t really know them and have unrealistic expectations that will eventually leave you disappointed.
It can also cause married people to look elsewhere when marriage gets hard. Supposedly, if your spouse were “the one,” it wouldn’t be hard. So you may think you’ve married the wrong “one.” News flash: every marriage is hard at times. Which leads us to:
7. Marriage is hard, but good.
It could get annoying, as a single person, to hear married friends say that marriage was “awesome, but hard,” or some variation on the phrase. Which was it? Surely if something was really hard work, it couldn’t be all that “awesome,” or vice versa.
As someone who is married, it makes perfect sense.
Marriage is two imperfect, sinful people coming together to become one. But we’re still imperfect. We can still be selfish, or do dumb things, and end up hurting each other. Marriage requires a lot of work, a lot of communication, and a lot of forgiveness. It’s hard.
But it’s also worth it.
It’s worth it for all the reasons listed here. But it’s also worth it because even the hard parts are, in the end, good. They’re good in the same way that other hard things—like going to the gym, studying for a degree, or going through a recovery program—are worthwhile. It’s a learning and refining process.
Unlike the view some people have of love, marriage does require you to change. But it’s a change for the better.
8. Marriage is a picture of Christ’s love for you.
Or it should be, if you are living out your vows.
Marriage is a commitment to actively love someone no matter what. No matter what may happen, and no matter what your spouse does or fails to do. “For better or worse,” with no limit placed on how much “worse” it can get. It’s a fully selfless, self-sacrificial love.
Which is why the Bible compares it to Christ’s love for the church. Jesus humbly served His followers, even though He was King of the universe. He forgave people, even though they didn’t deserve forgiveness. He literally sacrificed Himself on the cross for us. Nothing can separate us from His love.
That’s the kind of love and commitment we’re called to in marriage. And that’s how the hard parts of marriage change us: they make us more like Christ.
If you’re single, none of this is meant to discourage you. There are some ways in which singleness is better than marriage, as well. But if you’re dating someone and making decisions about marriage and the like, it’s good to have the facts.
(With help from Kevin McConaghy)