Some journalists, family researchers, and government policy makers bemoan the lower rates of marriage as women and men wait longer until they get married and more people stay single until later in life. This kind of thinking suggests that what society needs is more marriage.
From the Bush/Cheney years to the present time, millions of dollars in government money have been diverted to programs encouraging marriage and teaching basic relational communication skills. More marriage might be a good goal, but only if those marriages are also healthy and sustainable. Kids growing up today need more examples of unsustainable marriages like they need two extra pairs of lips on the soles of their feet. We don't need more marriages as much as we need more good marriages.
Working to increase the proportion of married people in the United States would be like saying, “People aren't forming enough small businesses—we need to teach them some basic tools so they can get more businesses going.” It doesn't do any good to teach a few basic business skills and then offer some business-friendly tax incentives if these small businesses will soon fail because of a lack of long-term strategic planning. Telling young people to get married to improve their economic prospects is like pushing them off a cliff without a parachute and then being surprised when they crash and burn.
Promoting marriage for its own sake, reducing the complexities of a successful marriage to a few basic relationship skills taught in government-sponsored seminars, and encouraging young people to marry when the fancy strikes them is encouraging a boom-and-bust “bubble economy” in the marital sector. From an emotional and financial health perspective, rather than taking the leap into an unsustainable marriage, many would have been better off remaining single.
The success of marriage does not depend only on two people communicating clearly and calmly with each other. Even if it did, I’m not sure this could be taught in the space of a short seminar. Old habits and ways die hard and new skills require continual practice to acquire, especially in the context of normal marital conflict. Marriage is a deep and complex bond between two people with multiple levels of life experience, a panoply of different psychological needs, and co-mingling stories.
A successful marriage is the longest conversation one has, so it is critical to pick a worthy and suitable partner and invest the time to construct something that will stand the test of time. To return to a business metaphor, successful businesses require significant time during the planning phase—you get clear on your mission, make a detailed plan of how you will execute your vision, pick the right people to run your business, and then invest considerable time and attention (particularly on the front end of your launch) improving whatever is not working. This is not so different from the process of creating a successful marriage. Any person or program that encourages couples to seal the deal quickly or to skip steps in the assessment and planning phases of marriage-building is not using good common sense.
As I have said before, I am not an elitist and I do not believe that only well-educated people are capable of good marriages. In fact, in my role as a relationship counselor, some of the most inspiring marriages I’ve seen are those of people with fewer financial advantages in life.
I do believe that we need to start off by telling the truth— well-educated people are much more likely to forge lifelong bonds. As I will repeatedly point out, part of the reason for this is that they have greater advantages in the first place which makes their lives less stressful relative to others in society. This is the less controllable aspect to the equation.
However, there are some entirely controllable elements that explain this difference – for example, the approach that well-educated people take to marriage and the methods they use to determine whether a given partner has the potential to be a lifelong lover. Many well-educated people essentially profile (and simultaneously enjoy!) their prospective partners during a lengthy period of time before committing to marriage. Such a lengthy courtship gives them the benefit of lots of information about the character and behavior of any potential spouse in many different situations. Other critical things come to light during a sufficiently lengthy pre-marital phase as well. I’ll delve into this in much greater detail in future blogs.
Ultimately, when it comes to improving one’s chances of success in a marriage, no matter who you are, or how well-educated you may be, there are no quick fixes or simple solutions. The truth cannot be distilled down to a few sound bites, “the ten secrets for making a marriage work,” “the five keys to finding true love,” or any other simplistic analysis. (This makes piecemeal blogging quite a challenge – each blog represents just one of many angles of the more holistic picture of successful marriage that I present in my book). As in other critical domains of life, when it comes to a satisfying marriage, the path to success is complicated and multi-faceted. But, the path is not an impossible one to find— many, many more marriages can succeed if we slow down and come to understand some of the controllable reasons that well-educated people tend to have marriages that stand the test of time.
Following this initial cluster of posts, future blogs will come at least once a week…I hope you will join me in this series.