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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 May 2009

  • How the arrival of children affects marriage: The underlying message
  • Why young people are marrying at a later age
  • Two more states legalize same-sex marriage: Reaction
  • New York bishops respond after governor introduces same-sex marriage bill
  • The impact of a Marriage Encounter weekend: One couple’s story
  • SPECIAL REPORT: What have you done for your marriage?
    1) Taking steps to counteract boredom
    2) Last year in this space: “Date night for married couples”

How the Arrival of Children Affects Marriage: The Underlying Message

The transition to parenthood with the birth of a first child is “a particularly identifiable and challenging period for couples,” said Scott Stanley. That is a key message to take away from very widely reported research published in April, he said.

Stanley, a noted marriage educator and researcher at the University of Denver, was referring to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The lead author of the research report was Brian Doss, assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M; the co-authors were Denver University’s Howard Markham, a professor of psychology; senior researcher Galena Rhoades; and Stanley.

“The study focuses on the way declines in marital functioning happen over time for couples who have children and also for those who do not,” Stanley told Smart Marriages, a coalition for marriage, family and couples education. He said, “Yes, transition to parenthood changes couples, and the changes can be challenging.”

The study’s major finding, according to Stanley, is that that there was a drop in “marital quality (happiness, communication, management of conflict, etc.) around the time of the first birth.”

These findings will not surprise marriage educators in the church. Numerous church leaders in marriage preparation hold that couples should be prepared for the impact the arrival of a child can have on a marriage. Marriage educators also believe that the birth of children presents a natural opportunity for couples to reflect on their marriage.

However, the key message actually taken away from the just-published research was not always the message recommended by Stanley. Writing in his “Sliding vs Deciding” blog, Stanley observed:

“Not surprisingly, the headlines around the study that came out varied from things like ‘Want to Have a Happy Marriage? Don’t Have Kids’ to ‘Study Shows Transition to Parenthood Puts Strain on Marriages.’ I’ll give it to journalists that the first type of headline sounds cool and sells more hits on the Web, but the second headline is a lot more accurate and does not editorialize.”

Elsewhere Stanley said: “Do these findings argue that couples would be better off just saying ‘no’ to children? Of course not.” He stressed that “life transitions are important opportunities for helping couples strengthen their marriages.” He also stressed that with a first child’s birth a couple begins building a new type of satisfaction in life, which he termed “family happiness.”

“We’re too overfocused on romantic happiness in life and not on bigger types of contentment and meaning,” Stanley told Smart Marriages. He said, “Researchers have not really tried to measure this idea of family happiness, but those raising a family can very often relate to this on many levels.”

In its announcement of the new research, Denver University noted Stanley’s caution against concluding that children damage overall happiness in life. “There are different types of happiness in life, and while some luster may be off marital happiness for at least a time during this period of life, there is a whole dimension of family happiness and contentment based on the family that couples are building. This type of happiness can be powerful and positive, but it has not been the focus of research,” Stanley said.

Stanley told Smart Marriages that the decline of marital satisfaction registered in the newly published research was, “on average, small to medium in size.” He said: “The effect was not hugely negative, as some studies before have found. On the other hand, the decline is real, where some other studies have suggested that this may not be true.”

The research findings reflected an eight-year study of 218 couples, 90 percent of whom experienced some decrease in marital satisfaction once the first child arrived, according to the Denver University release. But couples who did not have children also showed diminished marital satisfaction over the eight years, though this occurred more gradually, according to Stanley.

The research showed that couples who lived together before marriage experienced more problems after the arrival of a child than those who lived separately before marriage, as did those whose own parents had fought or divorced. However, some couples said their relationships were stronger post-birth, the university pointed out.

Stanley told Smart Marriages that “studies like this help make the point that people don’t need to just let stuff happen to them; they can make choices, including to preserve and protect the great stuff in their marriages.”

Why Young People Are Marrying at a Later Age

“The average age of American men marrying for the first time is now 28,” up five full years from 1970, said Mark Regnerus, associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas in Austin. Women, on average, are marrying two years younger than men, he reported.

In an opinion piece April 26 in the Washington Post, Regnerus discussed several reasons young people today tend to delay marriage. Titled “Say Yes. What Are You Waiting For,” it seemed clear that Regnerus believes the young today often delay marriage for reasons that deserve discussion by culture at large.

The writer and his wife married at age 22. They believe the benefits of their early years of austerity still benefit them. Yet, Regnerus insisted in the article, his “job is to map trends.”

Regnerus said he has found in his research that “many women report feeling peer pressure” not to think seriously about marriage until their late 20s. He suggested that accountability for the trend to delay marriage lies less with young people than their parents, whose ideas about marrying changed as they obtained advanced educational degrees and progressed in their careers.

Parents now advise children to complete their education, begin their careers and seek financial independence before contemplating marriage, according to Regnerus. As a result, he said, young people have developed a sense that marrying young may be foolish, even “socially harmful.”

Regnerus suggested that current views on the right age for marriage are shaped by an awareness that marrying young “remains the No. 1 predictor of divorce.” However, he thinks people commonly misunderstand what social scientists mean by “early marriage.”

The “best evaluations of early marriage” refer most prominently to teenagers when speaking of the link of marriage age and divorce, he said. Marriages that begin at age 20 or later “are not nearly so likely to end in divorce as many presume,” he said.

Another reason Regnerus gave for the trend to delay marriage involves the phenomenon of “online dating personality algorithms and matches.” He thinks Americans have become acquainted with the notion that combining marriage with science somehow assures that the right two people are involved.

But other factors are what really count when it comes to making marriage good, Regnerus said. It isn’t a matter of “matches, but mentalities,” he explained.

Thus, what really matter are such qualities as “persistent and honest communication, conflict-resolution skills, the ability to handle the cyclical nature of so much of marriage and a bedrock commitment to the very unity of the thing.” Regnerus said he has met some quite young people who possess these qualities and some 45-year-olds who do not.

Reaction After Two More States Legalize Same-Sex Marriage

With the legalization this spring of same-sex marriage in Iowa and Vermont, four U.S. states now allow same-sex couples to marry. The others are Massachusetts and Connecticut.

In an April 3 decision, Iowa’s Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling to strike down a state law that defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman. The state’s high court held that the law violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause and did not “further any important governmental objective.” The decision took effect April 27, the first day same-sex couples could apply for marriage licenses in the state.

The Catholic bishops of Iowa said April 3 that with its decision, the court rejected “the wisdom of thousands of years of human history.” The decision implemented “a novel understanding of marriage, which will grievously harm families and children,” the bishops said.

The ruling in Iowa represents “unwarranted social engineering” that “attacks the good that marriage offers to society, especially the good of children, and weakens the critical relationship between marriage and parenting,” the bishops added.

They urged “Catholics and other citizens of Iowa to recognize the clear need for a constitutional amendment on marriage.” Supporting marriage “as the stable union of one man and one woman is necessary to defend marriage, families, children and the common good,” the bishops said.

The process of amending Iowa’s state constitution to define marriage as the union only of a man and a woman would take about two years, observers said.

In Vermont, same-sex marriage was legalized April 7 when state legislators overrode their governor’s veto of same-sex marriage legislation. Vermont became the first state in the nation to legalize same-sex marriage without a court order. TheVermont law takes effect in September.

Three weeks before the vote by Vermont’s legislators, Bishop Salvatore Matano of Burlington, the state’s only Catholic diocese, testified before the state senate’s judiciary committee on the then-proposed legislation. He commented: “The church’s defense of traditional marriage in many cases is interpreted in a negative way. Yet, those who are united as husband and wife in marriage have the right to have their state in life properly identified and unaltered.”

Bishop Matano asked, “If the proposed legislation is enacted, will the church and other communities of faith be denied the privilege of practicing their faith without fear of repudiation, scorn or retaliation?” He acknowledged “the struggles and hardships endured by so many to protect and to support the beauty and dignity of marriage.” He added:

“We also are fully conscious that the church is called to demonstrate true concern for all peoples, especially those who suffer and face great challenges in life. … The church, in imitation of its cornerstone, Jesus Christ, seeks to be compassionate and empathetic to all in need of support and encouragement in this life’s journey.”

Bishop Matano said that out of a desire for the good of all people “and not wishing harm to anyone, and respecting the rights of our fellow citizens to seek the truth and pursue the common good, we, nonetheless, have the duty to uphold and to defend the traditional definition of marriage as it has been upheld and revered over the ages.”

In California, voters last November approved a state constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union only of a man and a woman, thus overturning the decision by the state supreme court to legalize same-sex marriage. Currently, the state’s high court is reviewing a constitutional challenge to the November ballot initiative.

Bishops Respond After New York Governor Introduces Same-sex Marriage Bill

After Gov. David Paterson of New York introduced legislation April 16 that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state, the New York Catholic Conference immediately called for the bill’s defeat by the state legislature.

“There is no compelling state interest” in the proposed legislation, the state Catholic conference said April 16. The legislation, it said, “will weaken rather than strengthen the institution of marriage, which is so important to a stable society.”

The governor said the proposed legislation “is about basic civil rights and personal freedom.” His office said the legislation “recognizes the fundamental civil right of marriage and would grant same-sex couples the same legal recognition afforded to partners of the opposite sex.” The bill, it added, “would amend the Domestic Relations Law to give same-sex couples the opportunity to enter into civil marriages.”

The governor’s office said that “to make clear the distinction between marriage as recognized by the state and marriage as recognized by religious institutions,” the proposed legislation “specifically provides that it would not compel any member of the clergy to solemnize a same-sex marriage.”

In its response to the governor’s announcement, the New York Catholic Conference called attention to sections of a 2008 statement on same-sex marriage by the state’s bishops. “Common sense and empirical evidence tell us that children’s welfare is best served in most cases by their being reared in a stable home with their mother and father. … Encouraging marriage between a man and a woman, therefore, serves the state’s interests,” the bishops said in the earlier statement.

The bishops rejected any notion that their position constitutes discrimination against homosexual persons. The bishops emphasized and affirmed church teaching “that we must treat our homosexual sisters and brothers with dignity and love, as we would all God’s children. Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns that any form of prejudice and hatred — ‘every sign of unjust discrimination’ — against homosexual people should be avoided.”

However, the “fact that two people have a committed relationship is not a reason for the state to confer upon it the status of marriage,” the bishops said in the 2008 statement.

“Marriage and family have worked well throughout history to promote the common good,” New York’s bishops said. However, the marriage of two persons of the same sex “furthers a societal disconnect between procreation and marriage while promoting the notion that a nontraditional family structure serves a child as well as a traditional one,” the bishops added. They said, “We are confident history will judge this notion harshly.”

The Impact of a Marriage Encounter Weekend: One Couple’s Story

“Most couples really want to be happy. They just get into occasional slumps. Then they start distracting themselves with attitudes and behaviors that really build walls between them,” Joanne Lucier said.

The story of what she and her husband Mark did for their marriage is told in a feature article titled “Transforming the Ordinary,” by Bob and Joyce Leonetti, that appeared in the Feb. 13, 2009, edition of the Catholic Star Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Camden, N.J. The Leonettis’ article explains the workings and impact of a Marriage Encounter weekend.

Before their wedding, the Luciers participated in an Engaged Encounter weekend. Some years later they recalled a suggestion by one of the weekend’s presenting couples — that after a few years of marriage they might consider participating in a Marriage Encounter weekend. The presenting couple said this would be a great way to reconnect once disillusionment set in.

Disillusionment? The Leonettis write: “At the time, Mark and Joanne never seriously envisioned a day when they would be disillusioned.” But much later “they felt powerless to bridge the ever widening gap between them.” With work, chores and parenting, the couple felt they had little time or energy left for each other. “After six years of marriage they were emotionally drained.”

According to Mark Lucier, “Disillusionment in marriage works like a car that is running rough and just needs a tune-up so that all the parts start working together again.” He said, “If you don’t tune it up, the parts start to break down, and before you know it you get tired of repairing the old car.”

But “married couples just don’t have the tools” they need for this, Joanne Lucier said. So the Luciers decided to take the advice given them and participate in a Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekend. The weekend, 10 years ago, has not made all the couple’s problems “disappear, but it has given them tools to cope with them and grow from them,” the Leonettis comment.

A key element of a Marriage Encounter weekend is the communication technique it teaches, “one that allows couples to share their thoughts and feelings in a safe and structured venue,” the Leonettis explain. This communication technique, they add, requires a daily investment of 20 minutes, 20 minutes that have become part of the fabric of life for the Luciers.

Worldwide Marriage Encounter says the emphasis of its weekends is on communication between husbands and wives. A Marriage Encounter weekend, it says, is not a retreat, a marriage clinic, a group sensitivity experience or a substitute for counseling. Instead, the weekend aims to revitalize a marriage. The goal is to turn a good marriage into a great marriage.

The Luciers say that “their relationship, which had become stagnant, now continues to grow stronger every day,” according to the Leonettis. They report that the Luciers also “credit the weekend for helping them become better parents.”

SPECIAL REPORT: What Have You Done for Your Marriage?

Take Steps to Counteract Boredom

Will the discovery of better ways to resolve tensions and manage conflicts increase a couple’s satisfaction with their marriage? Probably so. However, a newly published study indicates that eliminating negative factors of that kind is not all a couple can do for their marriage, especially if boredom is a reality of their life at home.

Couples also can take the positive step of engaging in new and interesting activities together. When they do so, their marriage reaps long-term benefits, the study says.

A couple’s feeling of closeness is a key to these long-term benefits. The researchers suggest that when spouses feel close, their marital satisfaction increases.

The researchers point out that the sense of excitement experienced at the start of a couple’s relationship arises from the rapid development of a sense of closeness, “the rate of which inevitably declines over time.” However, if the couples then find ways together to “experience excitement from other sources (such as novel and challenging activities),” this experience “can reignite relationship passion by associating the excitement with the relationship,” the researchers explain.

The authors of the research, published in April by the journal Psychological Science, were Arthur Aron and Irene Tsapelas, social psychologists at the State University of New York in Stony Brook, and University of Michigan researcher Terri Orbuch. They interviewed a representative U.S. sample of 123 married couples seven years into their marriage, and then again nine years later, 16 years into their marriage.

One question asked of participants in the study was, “During the past month, how often did you feel that your marriage was in a rut (or getting into a rut), that you do the same thing all the time and rarely get to do exciting things together as a couple?”

Their findings “show directly, for the first time, that not only conflicts, but also simple boredom, can shape relationships over the long term,” the researchers state. And the study shows that while boredom in marriage can have a long-term effect on a couple’s relationship, the positive steps taken to introduce some excitement into their relationship also can have a long-term effect.

Aron’s earlier work has shown that a couple can take steps to enhance their marriage by doing new and challenging things together. The notion of a regularly scheduled “date night” has been discussed by him in the past. He has recommended that for their date night couples sometimes do something novel together – something they do not do all the time. Could that mean something as “novel,” for example, as going on a hike or to a play?

The new study, however, shows for the first time how long-lasting the effects of all this can be.

The authors suggest that their findings may benefit not only marriage preparation and enrichment programs, but marriage counselors too. To enhance a marriage, it “may be important to focus not just on eliminating negatives, but also on enhancing positives,” they say.

Last Year in This Space: “Date Night for Married Couples”

Just over a year ago, in April 2008, the “Marriage in the News” section of this Web site discussed some of Stony Brook Professor Arthur Aron’s earlier work. New research he co-authored is discussed in the report above. Perhaps that makes the report that appeared last year, titled “Date Night for Married Couples,” worth repeating at this time. It follows below:

“One frequently recommended antidote to marital boredom is a weekly ‘date night.’ But many long-married couples ‘are going about date night all wrong,’ according to a Feb. 12, [2008], article by Tara Parker-Pope in the New York Times. She cited brain and behavior researchers whose work suggests that dining at a familiar restaurant, visiting friends or going to a movie may not be sufficient to counteract boredom for people married a long time. However, different or novel activities that both husband and wife enjoy — skiing, going to a play, hiking, dancing, taking an art class or even attending a lecture — may fill the bill.

“Parker-Pope cited research by Arthur Aron, a professor of social psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. According to him, the goal is to find ways to inject novelty into the relationship. The theory is, Tara-Pope explained, that ‘new experiences activate the brain’s reward system …, the same brain circuits that are ignited in early romantic love.’

“The Stony Brook professor cautioned that ‘novelty alone is probably not enough to save a marriage in crisis,’ but that ‘for couples who have a reasonably good but slightly dull relationship, novelty may help reignite old sparks.’

“Aron shared a report with this Web site that he, as lead researcher, along with several collaborators published a few years ago in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology explaining the nature of this research and its practical implications. ‘North American couples clearly consider spending time together, regardless of the type of activity, to be an important [marriage] maintenance strategy,’ the report said. Furthermore, there is ‘substantial evidence that time spent together is indeed correlated with relationship quality.’

“What’s more, the research indicated that shared participation in novel and arousing activities was consistently associated with higher ‘relationship quality,’ according to the report.

“It pointed out that couples long have been encouraged to pursue positive activities together as a means of enhancing their relationship. However, the focus often has been placed on an increase of ‘caring or generally positive behaviors, not on novel and arousing activities.’ What a number of researchers are coming to believe, the report stressed, is that long-married couples benefit from activities that are new and relatively different from their more routine ways of spending time together.

“The potential practical implications of this research are ‘quite significant,’ the report said. After all, participation in novel activities is ‘an easily managed route’ that any couple can follow to help improve their relationship – even couples ‘who are not adept at verbal exchange.’”