Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard (or experienced first-hand) that divorce is much more common than it used to be. Though the literal peak of the divorce epidemic has apparently passed, that is cold comfort to those of us still deciding whether to marry, or trying to figure out how to take care of new marriages in a world where marriage seems increasingly difficult to make work. Judging just by the number of couples who divorce, it's hard to deny that marriage is harder now than it used to be. But, at the same time, whether or not a couple ultimately divorces is hardly a complete measure of how marriages are doing. We need to think harder about the state of our unions.
A new article by Psychology Today spells out the challenges married couples face today, and how these have evolved in the last several decades. Yes, some features of modern life put us at a disadvantage when it comes to relationships. Our lives move at an obscenely quick pace (even though leisure time is in pretty abundant supply, it often doesn't feel that way). Online dating offers us a choice in partners — but too many dating choices ironically make the selection process more difficult, instead of easier.
So how has marriage changed in the last 50 years — and have these changes made it more challenging? Well for one thing, couples are moving in together earlier, and it's having an impact. It's super controversial, but there's some evidence that sexual experience prior to marriage raises women's likelihood of divorce — but other evidence suggests it raises men's likelihood of divorce. So, post sexual-revolution, we thought that cohabitation would help us to test out potential marriage and protect against divorce, but when done too young or with the wrong mindset, cohabitation increases divorce risk. And so much for learning from our experiences — second marriages are actually more likely to fail than the first. Oops!
At the same time, modern-day American couples also enjoy many advantages in virtue of their time and place. It's easy to forget, but even the living standards of relatively poor Americans are significantly better today than were those of our grandparents, who somehow found a way to protect their marriages nonetheless. In concrete terms, these were people who regularly lived several adults to a room, without climate control or cleaning appliances of any kind. Can you imagine what kind of marital fights a day of literally scrubbing dishes and carpets by hand in a freezing cold apartment might lead to? Yikes.
And just because the marriages of the past didn't end in divorce doesn't mean they were all huge successes, either. As feminists have long pointed out, housewives without economic options (and without social support) are very hesitant indeed to leave even the worst of marriages. "No-fault" divorces (where neither party has to prove the other spouse is at fault for the split) were supposed to smooth the transition out of bad marriages, but evidence suggests that no-fault divorce laws permanently increased the risk of divorce. When divorces are easy to get, more people get them. Is this, the era of temporary marriages and temporary families, our new feminist utopia? It's hard to see how this benefits women, or men.
I'm divorced and remarried, so I've given these complicated issues a ton of thought. Basically we should be very suspicious of claims that emphasize the nostalgia of the "good old days" while excusing our own bad behavior now. As it turns out (according to psychologists who study the topic systematically), long-lasting and happy marriages are built on kindness and generosity, which is hardly a surprise. If marriage seems more difficult today, it might just plain be because adults are less nice and more selfish. But that doesn't show that we need to keep changing something about marriage. That just means we need to change something about ourselves.