I'm certain that many of you hold fond memories of Paul Harvey and, like me, remember that after he shared a negative story he would often introduce a more positive story with the words "now wash your ears out with this one." That's what I am about to help you do in this column. It is guest-written by Shaunti Feldhahn, a gifted author and social researcher who has demonstrated that the long-held and widely believed notion that half of all marriages end in divorce is simply not true.
What follows is an excerpt from her book, "The Good News About Marriage: Debunking Discouraging Myths About Marriage and Divorce."
Dispelling the divorce myth
Let me introduce you to a young couple I met at a marriage conference a few years back. I will call them Joe and Jana, but they are like hundreds of other couples I've met — and perhaps you have too.
Married eighteen months and with no kids yet, Joe and Jana are still in the newlywed phase. They enjoy living in a little apartment in the city, working full-time and going out to eat or to the movies. As they spoke to me, they were still clearly in the first blush of new love: holding hands and leaning into each other.
A few minutes into our conversation, Jana said, "Being married has been so wonderful. I'm glad we did it. And I think we'll probably make it."
Her husband was nodding happily, but I was jarred.
"Probably make it?" I asked, casually. "Why just 'probably?'"
"Well, there's no guarantee, you know," she said. Her sober words were a surreal counterpoint to her sweet smile and the tender way she held her husband's hand. "Not when half of all marriages don't make it. But we're the type to work hard, so I think we'll beat the odds."
"There's no guarantee." "Half of all marriages don't make it." "I think we'll beat the odds." Most couples don't verbalize these impressions about marriage so forthrightly, but I've found that they are there underneath. And all too often they lead to the dangerous (usually subconscious) feeling of probably. Not "We'll be together for life and make it work, no matter what," but... probably.
For too many couples, believing half of all marriages end in divorce is a reason why some marriages end in divorce. Or even if a couple stays together, the subconscious worry about not beating the odds can still be damaging. One or both partners might hold back. Maybe they're on guard. Perhaps they keep separate bank accounts, just in case.
But the marriage union is designed to be all in, where a couple can be vulnerable, transparent and forgiving — not on guard. The actions that come from being on guard create distrust, build walls and sabotage marriages. They set in motion the very outcome the couple didn't want — an outcome that too often comes because it feels inevitable — because couples have a sense of futility when they most need hope instead. And the irony is that the hope people need — the good-news truth that will give them strength to reclaim their marriage — is actually there. They just don't know it yet!
So to start, here are the four big-picture, good-news truths we think are most important (and which are, with a few exceptions, undisputed among most experts):
• Half of all marriages today are not ending in divorce; the overall prevalence of divorce is nowhere close to 50 percent and never has been.
• The divorce rate has been declining overall for years; it has declined substantially since its peak around 1980.
• Even the good-news averages don't tell the whole positive story. Several actions and patterns dramatically lower couples' chances of divorce even more.
• From the 1970s right up to today, many respected researchers continue to believe in and refer to a 40 to 50 percent divorce rate, but these are always projections based on assumptions about what will happen in the future, and although some higher-risk groups have certainly hit that projected divorce rate, the average has never come close.
Although experts mean many different things by "the divorce rate," the most familiar and simple way of discussing it is to determine what percentage of marriages have ended in divorce. Put another way, of those today who have ever been married, what percent have been divorced? We can call this the "prevalence" of divorce or the "current" divorce rate. Although this rate is popularly believed to be 50 percent, it has never been close.
Right now, according to one of the most recent Census Bureau surveys, 72 percent of people who have ever been married are still married to their first spouse. In other words, more than seven out of ten people are still married to their first spouse.
Can we conclude the remaining 28 percent are divorced? Nope! They could be either divorced or widowed, since that percentage includes everyone who was married until a spouse died! Importantly, that percentage has been stable for years. The "still married to first spouse" number was slightly over 70 percent in 1996, and we can infer a similar number from another type of census survey even back in 1985, which was close to the years of the highest divorce rates of 1980.
Looking at how vastly different this truth is from what society believes, imagine the difference to our collective consciousness about marriage and divorce if we began to say "Most marriages last a lifetime" rather than "Half of marriages end in divorce." And how encouraging it would be for people to know that, even better, the picture is only improving.
Hear more from Shaunti Feldhahn
I hope you found this information to be as encouraging as I did. There is nothing wrong with marriage and it's great news to know that things are not so bad as we have been led to believe. There is, however, plenty wrong with how we have treated this bedrock institution in our society. I am so thankful that advice and sound counsel on how to do marriage well is ubiquitous today. Along with the surprising good news, Shaunti is the author of other remarkably helpful books on marriage. Two of my favorites are "For Women Only," and — you guessed it — "For Men Only."
For these books, Shaunti interviewed thousands of men and women and she helps us not only understand, but truly appreciate the basic differences between the genders. I often recommend to clients that they take time and read these books together. I'm convinced she provides wonderful insights into how men or women do life, but she does not know your spouse individually. So as the husband reads "For Men Only" out loud to his wife she can give him immediate feedback on whether or not she believes that particular insight applies to her. For while all women share some commonalities, each is unique is some ways as well.
The same obviously applies to the male of our species. He will typically be more like other males than he will be like females, but no two men are identical. So when the wife reads "For Women Only" to her husband he has the opportunity to accept that as a valid description of him or not.
I'm so pleased that Shaunti will be my guest tomorrow evening at 6 p.m. on KLJH 107.1FM. we'll be talking about the truth and other helpful pointers to help you be a couple that not only makes it, but truly enjoys their marriage. I hope you can join us then.