Friday, July 4, 2014


Good News / Bad News about Marriage

You probably have read that about half of marriages in America end in divorce, as do half of second marriages. Such discouraging statistics are mistakenly high, as Harvard-trained social scientist and best-selling author Shaunti Feldhahn demonstrates in her recent book, The Good News about Marriage.

The continuing controversy over legitimizing same-sex marriages shows that many Americans– on both sides of that issue– still view marriage as an important institution, more important than our shockingly high out-of-wedlock birth statistics might indicate. Rates matter. The higher the divorce rate, the less special the tradition of marriage, as compared with simply “shacking up,” and perhaps the less it makes sense to try to support marriage.

Feldhahn and her research associate, Tally Whitehead, analyzed many studies that attempted to determine the fraction of first marriages that end in divorce and the fraction of subsequent marriages that do likewise. Getting this right is a statistical challenge, akin to the medical specialty of epidemiology.

Simple approaches are often wrong. Imagine trying to determine your probability of dying eventually (=1.00) by comparing the number of births per year versus the number of deaths per year. A young population will have more marriages (and births) per year than divorces (and deaths) and the reverse will be true for an elderly population. Separations and second marriages complicate the marital statistics further.

Correctly estimating the fraction that fail is important, however. A large likelihood of divorce makes marriage less attractive and makes those in shaky marriages more likely to give up than try to save the union. Feldhahn and Whitehead argue persuasively that only about one-fourth of all first marriages end in divorce as do about one-third of second marriages, results more encouraging than the one-half fraction often cited.

These researchers encouragingly note: “In multiple surveys, 91 to 97 percent of respondents say their marriages are happy….In another poll, 93 percent said they would marry their spouse all over again….Most marriage problems are not caused by big-ticket issues, and simple changes can make a big difference.” Even in troubled marriages, almost all the spouses involved claimed to care about their partner’s well-being. “…in 82 percent of struggling couples, one partner is simply unaware of the other spouse’s unhappiness,” a problem much easier to solve than “addressing major systemic issues, such as addiction….”

The book is well written and a treasure trove of valuable information on the topic. Readers interested in the details will want to refer to the book, which includes 134 footnotes, most with references, and several tabulations.

Professionals interest in the health of the institution of marriage will find much to encourage them here. A case is made, as well, for the value of religious belief and observance in strengthening marriage and reducing divorce. More material on achieving successful relationships and marriages written by Ms. Feldhahn is advertised at the end.

On the other hand, even if only one-quarter of first marriages fail, this is a shame. Worse, though not within the book‘s purview, is that the rate of out-of-wedlock births has skyrocketed over the past few decades. Perhaps these researchers will address this next. I would buy that book, too.

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