There are a lot of myths about divorce that keep infecting our society. For starters, despite what we’ve heard, the divorce rate actually is not 50 percent. In fact, that number is actually one that was a projected number based on the fact that the divorce rates were on the rise in the 70s and early 80s.
The reality, according to a piece by the New York Times this past December, is that divorce rates are dropping, meaning “happily ever after” is actually a pretty good possibility.
We spoke to therapist Susan Pease Gadoua and journalist Vicki Larson, authors of the eye-opening book about marriage, The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, to get their take on modern marriage, the myths about divorce, and the expectations and facts that come with both.
Here’s what Gadoua and Larson had to tell us.
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1. One in two marriages end in divorce
As I wrote above, that 50 percent statistic is wrong and was based on a projected number that is far too outdated. I mean, the 70’s were 40 years ago, and a lot has changed since then. While divorce rates increased in the 1970s and 1980s, they’ve actually dropped in the last 20 years.
The New York Times found that 70 percent of marriages that occurred in the 1990s actually reached their 15th year wedding anniversary. Statistics also show that thanks to people marrying later in life, maturity is helping to keep people together longer. At the rate that things are going, there’s a good chance that two-thirds of marriages will stay together and divorce will be unlikely.
So if the divorce rate isn’t 50 percent, what is it? It really depends on when couples married, explains Vicki. “Just under 15 percent of those who tied the knot in the 2000s have divorced, but many of those couples may not have had kids yet—kids add stress to marriage. Of those who married in the 1990s, 35 percent have split. Those who married in the 1960s and 70s have a divorce rate in the 40-45 percent range. And those who married in the 1980s are approaching a 50 percent divorce rate— the so-called gray divorce.”
2. Divorce harms children
According to Gadoua, divorce can be stressful on kids, but not so much harmful. What does the most damage is parents fighting in front of the kids.
“Think about it. Who likes to be around conflict all the time? Tension is contagious and kids in particular don’t have the tools or defenses to handle angry exchanges from their parents. There is a great deal of research indicating that what children need more than anything is a stable and peaceful environment. That may be with parents living together, but it can also occur when parents are living apart. The key is that parents get along and stay present for their children. Kids shouldn’t be caught in parental crossfire, used as a pawn or treated like a surrogate spouse. They should be able to relax and feel confident that their parents are in charge,” explains Gadoua.
3. Second marriages are more likely to end in divorce
While statistically this is true, Living Apart Together (LAT) marriages and things like conscious coupling are changing that by challenging the conventional norms of how a marriage should be and providing more options for how married people can live their lives.
Gadoua and Larson encourage couples to explore those options fully. “We’re all for you choosing a LAT marriage—or giving each other space in your existing marriage—because it offers you and your partner exactly what you want: connection and intimacy with enough freedom to avoid the claustrophobia that often comes with living together 24/7 as well as whatever it is that makes many people take each other for granted, whether they’re married or cohabiting.”
4. Divorce equals “failure”
No way. Whether it’s a starter marriage (a marriage that ends within five years and doesn’t result in kids) or a marriage that has stood the test of time, divorce doesn’t mean you’ve failed.
“The only measure we have to determine whether a marriage is successful or not is by how long it lasts. Yet, there are many people who have healthier, better lives after divorce. Perhaps the couple has raised healthy kids who’ve flown the coop and now they want to take a different direction in their lives. Why is that a failure? Look at Al and Tipper Gore. The media was clamoring to place the blame somewhere, yet there was no one and nothing to blame. Their marriage simply ended with both of their blessings,” say Gadoua and Larson.
5. Wedding size and cost relate to the length of a marriage
Earlier this month The New York Times published a piece on the correlation between the size and cost of a wedding and its effect on the length of a marriage. While the authors of the study, Andrew Francis-Tan and Hugo M. Mialon, said that wedding expenses and marriage duration could be “inversely correlated,” they couldn’t pinpoint which wedding, expensive or inexpensive, would have a higher chance of divorce.
Gadoua and Larson agreed, in a roundabout way. Although lavish expenses on an engagement ring and a wedding could mean the marriage will start off with a lot of debt, and nothing strains couples more than money, “What our studies and what research by others seem to indicate is that personalities — being empathetic, generous, appreciative, etc.—and matched expectations are much better gauges of whether a marriage is going to last happily.”
6. You can (and should) divorce-proof your marriage
As Larson wrote in an essay for Divorce360, “you can’t affair- or divorce-proof a marriage because you can’t control another person’s behavior, you can only control your own.”
When we asked her about this topic she explained: “You can’t control your partner’s behavior and if you could that would be really dangerous! You can be the best possible spouse and do all the things relationships experts recommend — from dating your spouse to having great and frequent sex to being a supportive, appreciative partner—and still end up divorced.”
Larson also added that you shouldn’t even want to divorce-proof your marriage, because sometimes it’s healthier to let go and move on.
7. Living together before marriage lowers the chance of divorce
It has often been said that those who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce, but recent studies say that’s not true.
A 2014 study by associate professor Arielle Kuperberg from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro found that contrary to myths that either living together or not living together before you’re married actually has nothing to do with whether or not those couples will divorce. In her research, Kuperberg found what really plays a role is just how young these people decide to cohabitate, because “settling down too young is what leads to divorce.”
LAT marriages also are throwing a wrench in the correlation between cohabitation and its effects on divorce. Couples, especially older ones, are choosing to live apart, but manage to keep their marriage very happy, healthy, and alive.
8. Infidelity breaks up marriages.
While it’s easy to say that infidelity is the major cause of marriages ending, that isn’t always the case.
As Eric Anderson, an American sociologist at England’s University of Winchester and author of The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating told Larson, “Infidelity does not break marriages up; it is the unreasonable expectation that a marriage must restrict sex that breaks a marriage up… I’ve seen so many long-term relationships broken up simply because one had sex outside the relationship. But feeling victimized isn’t a natural outcome of casual sex outside a relationship; it is a socialized victimhood.”
9. If you’re unhappy at a certain point in your marriage, you’re going to get divorced
Marriage isn’t easy. It’s something that requires a lot of energy, understanding, and most importantly communication. Just because you’re unhappy at a certain point, doesn’t mean divorce is inevitable – every marriage has a bad patch.
But if that bad patch is more than just a patch and you’ve really given it your all, including attending couples counseling (“three or four sessions aren’t enough,” says Gadoua) for several months or a year, then maybe it’s time to call it quits. However, a short-lived unhappiness doesn’t warrant an end.
LAT Marriages & Parenting Marriages: Two modern relationship models you need to know about.
There’s no doubt about it: the shape of marriage is definitely changing. Gadoua and Larson discuss several alternative couplings that are becoming more mainstream in their book. These are two less-traditional marriages that are undoubtedly becoming more popular.
“LAT relationships are pretty big in Europe, especially Great Britain, and are also growing in the States. For young people, it generally is a reflection of the so-called emerging adulthood period, when they’re spending more time in school and building careers,” Vicki explains. “But for older people, who may be divorced or widowed, it’s more a reflection of their desire for commitment and freedom, and also, especially for women, a way to not fall into gendered patterns of housekeeping and caregiving.
As for couples who get together to co-parent, some may be romantic partners, but that’s not always the case. “There are websites like Modamily.com just for that purpose,” says Vicki. “We interviewed a couple that was committing to each other and their child for 18 years, with an option to renew, so they could give their child the stability and consistency children need to thrive.
Couples may even transition their traditional marriage into a parenting marriage. “Some couples that are not happy after kids come along and might have divorced in the past are opting to convert their marriage into a parenting marriage,” say Gadoua and Larson. “They stay in the same home and remove the romantic equation from their partnership, which reduces conflict while allowing each of them to spend time with the children. This week alone, Susan helped two couples transfer their marriage from traditional to parenting.”
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