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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Marriage in the News January 2010

  • Marriage and family: Lessons of the recession
  • Study finds children are hard work – and make married couples happy
  • Why hasn’t cohabitation lowered the risk of divorce?
  • Supporting the vocation of marriage
  • A glance back at Christmas:
    1) How couples can fare better during holidays
    2) A husband and wife, their quarreling parents and a baby

Marriage and Family: Lessons of the Recession

Since the current economic recession began in December 2007, “millions of Americans have adopted a home-grown bailout strategy. They are relying upon their own marriages and families to weather this economic storm,” according to W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.

Writing in “The State of Our Unions,” a report published jointly Dec. 7 by the National Marriage Project and the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values, Wilcox said the recession “appears to offer a silver lining for marriage.” Why? It is “fostering a spirit of economic cooperation, family solidarity and thrift that redounds to the benefit of marriage.”

“The State of Our Unions” report has been published annually for the past decade.

The recession has served to remind people “that marriage is more than an emotional relationship; marriage is also an economic partnership and social safety net,” Wilcox explained. The associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia notes that U.S. divorce rates “actually fell from 17.5 per 1,000 married women in 2007 to 16.9 per 1,000 married women in 2008 (after rising from 16.4 per 1,000 married women in 2005).”

Thus, Wilcox concluded that “one piece of good news emerging from the last two years is that marital stability is up.”

But Wilcox noted another bit of good news for marriage in research showing that the nation’s “collective credit card binge seems to be coming to an end.” Marriages benefit when couples reduce or shed their credit card debt, as often has happened during the recession, he observed.

Credit card debt “is corrosive in marriage,” Wilcox writes. Thrift, however, is all to the good of marriage. “The recent uptick in thrift promises to pay valuable dividends in the quality and stability of married life in the U.S,” Wilcox commented, citing another article in “The State of Our Unions” written by Jeffrey Dew, a faculty fellow of the National Marriage Project who teaches at Utah State University.

Dew said in his article, titled “Bank on It: Thrifty Couples Are the Happiest,” that research findings indicate that “consumer debt (e.g., credit card debt) plays a powerful role in eroding the quality of married life.” Conflict over matters involving money “is one of the most important problems in contemporary married life,” he wrote.

Dew thinks, however, that the recession “may be fostering an ethic of thrift that is redounding to the benefit of married couples.” In other words, he adds, “couples who have turned away from spending money they do not have and toward saving money around which they can build a shared future together appear well positioned to enjoy more than a healthy bank account.”

Wilcox cautioned readers against concluding from “The State of Our Unions” that marriages have not been strained by the recession. Faced by significant financial pressures, “some spouses have succumbed to heavy drinking, depression and a withdrawal from family life; for some couples, the downturn has fueled marital tension, recriminations and conflict, spiraling downward in some cases to divorce,” he said.

He also suspects that “if trends observed during and after the Great Depression of the 1930s are once again at work, some of the decline [in the divorce rate] is due to economic factors that lead couples merely to temporarily delay divorce.” Yet, Wilcox added, another dynamic is at work, namely that “tough times foster real family solidarity and encourage many couples to stick together.”

So, once the recession ends, will marriages continue to benefit from these lessons? “Only time will tell if the cumulative economic consequences of this recession redound to the benefit of marriage,” Wilcox said. “What is not in doubt,” he believes, “is that the Great Recession has once again brought into clear relief the enduring truth that marriage and money, the nest and the nest egg, go hand in hand.”

Yes, Children Are Hard Work – and They Make Married Couples Happy

Having children at home contributes to the happiness of married couples, reports Luis Angeles, who teaches in the Department of Economics and is director of the Centre for Development Studies at Scotland’s University of Glasgow. He says the findings of his research contradict those of some researchers whose different methods led to different conclusions.

Other researchers concluded that “having children makes people less happy or at any rate does not make them any happier,” Angeles notes. He adds that some researchers make sense of their findings “by pointing out that raising children involves a lot of hard work for only a few occasional rewards.”

Indeed, children do “involve a lot of work,” he writes. Nonetheless, Angeles believes that “when asked about the most important things in their lives, most people would place their children near or even at the top of the list.”

Angeles published his research in mid-October in the Journal of Happiness Studies. The research analyzes 15 years worth of data from the annual British Household Panel Survey. “Married individuals in general, and married women in particular, are more satisfied when they have children at home,” Angeles notes.

The research focused on children up to the age of 16 living at home. Thus, Angeles says, the researchers were confident that the parents they dealt with were well aware of parenthood’s burdens and trials. After all, parents of children in these age groups must “cook for them, clean after them and pay for their essential and nonessential needs.” Yet, such parents associate having children in the home with life satisfaction in a positive and clearly detectable way, he says.

“There is no denying that children have negative consequences on several well-being measures” that researchers sometimes point out, Angeles says. For example, he explains, it would be “naïve” to think that the hard work of child rearing would have no consequences in terms of the parents’ social life or use of leisure time.

But, he continues, “what we have also found is that despite all these negative sides, when considering their life as a whole, married individuals with children report themselves as better off.” He comments, “The intangible rewards of parenthood must be quite substantial indeed.”

When “looked at carefully,” the research data show “that children are positively related to life satisfaction” for married people, Angeles writes. He says: “For the average person, having children has a small and possibly zero effect on life satisfaction. For the average married person, however, the effect is” large and positive.

One is tempted to conclude “that children make people better off under the ‘right conditions,’” the researcher says. He explains, “By right conditions we have in mind the time in life when people feel that they are ready, or at least willing, to enter parenthood.” Angeles thinks that “married individuals, by and large, want children.” He says, “As a rule, the arrival of a child tends to be seen as a blessing to a married couple.”

Angeles also reports “that people who are living as a couple but are not married experience lower levels of life satisfaction with children.” But even this finding is helpful in explaining the satisfaction so many married individuals associate with having children in their home, he says; it “dispels the idea that the positive effect [of children] on married individuals is due uniquely to the fact that they can pool together resources, such as money and time, to raise their children.”

His conclusion is that “what separates married and unmarried couples is arguably not the possibility of pooling resources for the aim of raising children, but the willingness to do so in the first place.”

Why Doesn’t Cohabitation Lower the Risk of Divorce?

Some people used to believe that cohabitation before marriage would serve couples as a “trial marriage” and thus reduce the likelihood of divorce for those who eventually married. But “it did not turn out this way,” according to a report titled “Divorce: Facts, Causes and Consequences,” released Nov. 19 by the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa, Ontario.

One section of the extensive report analyzes the reasons for this, suggesting that cohabitation very often is entered without much thought of long-term commitment at all or, of course, of marriage. The report’s author, Anne-Marie Ambert, is a retired sociology professor at York University in Toronto. She writes as a scholar, attempting objectively to analyze research findings and focusing largely on what cohabitation has meant for many couples “until now.” This is neither a religious nor a church-related report.

Ambert explains that for many couples cohabitation has represented “a lesser commitment than marriage.” She says, “Some individuals select themselves into cohabitation because it requires, in their opinion, less sexual faithfulness than in marriage or because cohabitation is viewed as an alternative to the lifelong commitment assumed by marriage.”

In addition, Ambert comments that it is easier both to get into and out of cohabitation than to do either with marriage. Couples may have less reason “to ‘work’ at maintaining a relationship that may never have been viewed as a lifelong commitment to begin with,” Ambert states.

The lower levels of commitment frequently involved in cohabitation are a reason “it cannot be said that cohabitation necessarily constitutes a ‘trial’ marriage,” according to Ambert. Since “many such less-committed couples move on to marriage and may not be ready for the required commitment,” divorce “may follow” for them, she says.

Among other reasons cohabitation has not reduced divorce rates in the way some once predicted, Ambert cites research indicating that there “is a correlation between religiosity and marital happiness, as well as stability.” But couples who cohabit tend to be “less religious than those who marry without cohabiting,” she suggests.

Ambert does not find it surprising that the eventual marriage of a cohabiting man and woman would be at higher risk when they are “less religious and less committed to each other and to the institution of marriage”

Finally, Ambert speaks of a “causality effect” related to cohabitation. What she means is that cohabiting couples who marry may have been shaped and influenced by their earlier “experience of a less secure, committed and at times less faithful cohabitation.”

In light of this, her report indicates that some couples may simply have come to accept the “temporary nature of relationships” – yet another reason cohabitation does not reduce the likelihood of divorce for them.

Helping Couples Stay Married and Supporting the Domestic Church

“As a church, not only do we need to encourage our young people to embrace the vocation to marriage, but we also have to help them stay married,” Archbishop John Vlazny of Portland, Ore., wrote in the Nov. 26 edition of The Catholic Sentinel, the archdiocese’s newspaper. In a column titled “The Gift of Family Life,” Archbishop Vlazny pointed to the strengths of the family as a “domestic church.”

The archbishop’s hope and prayer is “that in this archdiocese we shall be able to provide greater support for married couples in their efforts to provide that happy haven we call home, one which, unfortunately, is not such a happy place for too many of today’s children.”

“Healthy, holy and happy family life” is “critical for the well-being of God’s people,” Archbishop Vlazny stressed. Yet, he said, “parents today definitely face an uphill struggle in trying to create such an environment for their children and themselves in their homes.”

Within a family “the seeds of faith are planted and nourished,” the archbishop wrote. It was in his own home as a youth that Archbishop Vlazny said he “came to learn the true meaning of Christian hospitality.”

He described a home as “holy ground,” and said that “fulfilling the dream for healthy and holy family living is a work in progress in every home.”

Vatican Council II spoke of the family as the “domestic church,” Archbishop Vlazny noted. The term became popular, he said, “because a family is a small community of persons that both draws its nourishment for the life of faith from the whole church, which is the body of Christ, and also mirrors the life of the church in the way the individual family members interact with one another.”

Within the domestic church, parents have a responsibility to nurture their children’s vocations, the archbishop wrote. He said: “A vocation to ordained ministry, consecrated life, marriage or the single life is not simply a matter for an individual child to consider. Parents too are responsible for nurturing the vocations of their children.”

Discussing the vocation to marriage, the archbishop said parents “have the responsibility of giving an example” to children “of how husbands and wives should live together.”

An extended discussion of the family as a domestic church appears in the pastoral letter titled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan” issued by the U.S. Catholic bishops in November 2009. “As the church is a community of faith, hope and love, so the Christian family, as the domestic church, is called to be a community of faith, hope and love,” the pastoral letter states.

It says that “through the sacrament of matrimony, Christian couples are configured to Christ’s love for the church” and that “because of this participation in the love of Christ, the communion of persons formed by the married couple and their family is a kind of microcosm of the church.” That is why Vatican Council II employed “the ancient expression ‘domestic church’ … to describe the nature of the Christian family,” the pastoral letter explains.

A Glance Back at Christmas:

(1) How Couples Can Fare Better During Holidays

Was Christmas a time of “great peace and happiness” for your family or a time of great stress that ignited “conflict and argument”? ACCORD, the marriage care service of the Catholic Church in Ireland, cautioned in a December message that Christmas “can present many challenges to the happiest of couples.”

The agency encouraged couples to take steps to head-off some problems that often arise during the holidays. And though ACCORD directed its comments specifically to couples at Christmastime, much of what it said applies well to any big holiday.

ACCORD observed, for example, that this big holiday “is a time for family.” But then it asked, “Whose family?”

The dilemma underlying that question challenges couples to come to terms with the reality that each of them has moved beyond simply being someone’s child to having their own home and needs.

ACCORD explained that “in the son/daughter scenario” one’s allegiance is to his or her parents. But, it observed, “most couples are now marrying at age 30, so they have for over a quarter of a century lived their lives in the role of son or daughter.” The agency told spouses that “it takes strength and experience to move into the role of husband/wife and appreciate that one has new priorities.”

Part of the ACCORD message addressed young couples experiencing their first big holiday season together. It recommended that they “agree on what is important” to each of them” and not be afraid to create their own traditions for the holiday. “Give yourself permission to do things differently,” while also giving others “space to do the same,” the agency advised couples.

ACCORD urged couples to share their thoughts about how they want the holiday to be, realizing that neither of them is a mind reader. Furthermore, couples ought to “negotiate how time will be spent,” the agency said. Its advice was to “make an effort to understand the position of others, ask lots of questions” and be clear about what the couple is prepared to negotiate and what they will not give up.

Money can be a problem at holiday time, ACCORD noted. “Money is one of the main causes of arguments” for couples, but agreeing on a holiday budget “in advance should be a big help,” ACCORD said.

Among other noteworthy points, ACCORD urged couples not to neglect themselves and the needs of their relationship during the holidays, “when everyone in the family is clamoring for attention.”

ACCORD reminded couples that when people are under stress, “it can sometimes be tempting to take out your frustration verbally on those who are closest to you.” The fact is, however, that this may well be “the very person who can be your greatest ally and source of support,” so venting in this way “can do more harm than good.”

(2) The Story of a Couple, Their Quarreling Parents and a Baby

“Nothing upsets routine more, nothing opens hearts more, nothing transforms a ‘No!’ to a ‘Yes!’ more than a baby,” exclaimed New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan in his 2009 Christmas Midnight Mass homily at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He asked, “Is it any wonder that God would enter the world as a baby?”

To make his point, Archbishop Dolan told the story of a young wife and husband, and each spouse’s parents. The archbishop prepared this young couple for the sacrament of marriage more than 30 years ago. The husband and wife were different from each other in notable ways, but “their families were so dramatically opposite,” he recalled.

The young wife had a master’s degree in education, while her husband barely had “gotten out of high school,” Archbishop Dolan told the congregation. The husband was a plumber, she a school principal. She drove a Ford Thunderbird, he drove a pickup truck. But the archbishop remembers them as “head over heels, hopelessly in love.”

Nonetheless, a “major heartache” had haunted the couple’s “otherwise happy engagement.” Their two sets of parents “detested each other.” Archbishop Dolan said the “parents got into a shouting match” the evening before the couple’s wedding, and during the wedding Mass the parents “shot lasers at each other.”

This animosity continued after the wedding. Then, about a year later, Archbishop Dolan said he received a call from the couple saying that they had a new baby and wanted him to baptize the child. He told them he would be honored and then asked, “Oh, by the way, how are the Hatfields and McCoys?” The answer was, “As bad as ever.”

On the occasion of the baptism, the grandparents stared at each other in the church “like Yankee and Red Sox fans,” Archbishop Dolan said. But then, back at the couple’s home after the baptism, an entirely new situation developed.

“As I walk into the house, there are both pair of grandparents, on the floor, cooing at the new baby! They’re laughing, the four of them, teasing about which side of the family the new baby favors, passing the little fellow one to another, one more radiant than the other.”

The young parents, visiting in the kitchen with Archbishop Dolan, remarked of their own parents: “You’d think they were life-long friends! We can’t believe the transformation!”

Commenting on this in his Midnight Mass homily, Archbishop Dolan said that the baby had “changed a hateful ‘no’ to a radiant ‘yes’; that infant transformed lives … from resentment to reconciliation.”

The archbishop asked, “Is it any wonder that God would enter the world as a baby?” He challenged the congregation to allow the infant of Christmas to “transform sin to grace, darkness to light, selfishness to love, despair to hope, doubt to faith, ambivalence to meaning, death to life.”