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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 October 2009

  • Five myths about marriage
  • Strengthening society’s faith in marriage
  • New Jersey bishops ask Catholics to promote, protect marriage
  • Recession shifts commuter marriages into high gear
  • Renewed worldwide focus on reality of forced child marriage
  • Matrimony is a mystery, but one we know something about


Five Myths Regarding Marriage

It is a myth to believe that “if a marriage gets rotten it never gets ripe again,” said William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor and author who speaks frequently on marriage. Doherty, also a marriage and family therapist, says that a core part of his mission “is to restore a culture of hope about marriage.”

Speaking in Australia to the Marriage and Relationship Educators National Conference, held Aug. 27-30 in Melbourne, Doherty discussed five myths about marriage. The conference was co-sponsored by the Catholic Society for Marriage Education and the Marriage and Relationship Educators Association of Australia.

If it is a myth to believe that a marriage cannot recover from a troubled period, it is also a myth to believe it is foolish to marry without first cohabiting, Doherty told the Melbourne conference. He said other contemporary myths about marriage hold that it is best to marry only after becoming financially secure, that if a couple’s marriage fails, their children really want them to find another romantic partner in order to be happy and that men are not all that interested in marriage.

In an interview with this Web site, Doherty said these myths are part of contemporary culture’s “common wisdom.” He explained that young people are learning about marriage from “a powerful curriculum” within the larger culture–a curriculum that communicates “some pseudo facts that people take for granted.”

It is important to counteract those beliefs “because they’re very powerful,” Doherty said. The myths he discussed in Melbourne represent very strong beliefs within society, he added, but are “completely unsupported by social science.”

Doherty is the author, among other works, of a 2001 book titled “Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart” (Guilford Press). He expressed concern in that book about a “cultural pessimism” regarding “the possibility of permanent commitment in marriage.” He wrote of his conviction “that the core social and personal challenge of our time is how to make loving, permanent marriage work for ourselves and our children.”

Often we hear the stories of people’s divorces, but we do not hear the stories of people who made their way back from marriages that were in trouble, and that is one factor underlying the cultural pessimism about marriage, Doherty told us. “People who make their way back don’t tell their story,” he said.

But a reasonable number of people do make their way back from a troubled period in marriage, he noted. He explained that there doesn’t have to be “just a linear decline,” as if to say “once you start downhill you stay downhill.”

“Take Back Your Marriage” discussed ways spouses can avoid drifting apart by making the effort to have what Doherty terms an “intentional marriage,” a topic he addressed in another presentation at the Melbourne conference, making the point that contemporary marriage requires “a mindfulness” and a “thoughtfulness” on the part of spouses.

An intentional marriage, according to Doherty’s book, is one in which the spouses maintain and build “their commitment and connection over the years” in deliberate, conscious ways. These couples “carefully cultivate their commitment and ways of connecting.”

Doherty wrote that succeeding in marriage today requires couples to combine two ingredients–commitment and an “intentional focus on maintaining and growing one’s marriage”–that previous generations did not have to put together in the same way.

In our interview, Doherty said many couples have told him that the biggest challenge facing couples today “in their goal of having a successful, lifelong marriage” has to do with a lack of time. The spouses’ jobs, the scheduling of children’s activities– “the first priority” goes into the scheduling of such matters, he said.

What happens is that “the family gets the dregs that are left over after the individuals are scheduled,” and the “marriage gets the dregs of the dregs,” he observed. At the same time, he insisted that often what is needed for an intentional marriage is thoughtfulness, not necessarily lots of time.

To make this point, he asked how husbands and wives greet each other when they arrive home at the end of the day. It does not take much time for them to greet each other in a way that suggests they actually are caring, married partners, but it does call for thoughtfulness, he said.


Strengthening Society’s Faith in Marriage

In light of the findings of research into the “consequences of divorce,” scholars “across the political spectrum” now hold “that intact families are essential, especially to the well-being of children,” says W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, which this summer moved its headquarters from Rutgers University in New Jersey to the University of Virginia, where he is an associate professor of sociology.

Wilcox contributed an article titled “The Evolution of Divorce” to the fall 2009 inaugural edition of National Affairs, a quarterly journal published in Washington. Wilcox comments in his article that while “not all scholars, therapists, policymakers and journalists would agree that contemporary levels of divorce and family breakdown are cause for worry,” today a “much larger share of them” than in the 1970s is concerned about “the health of marriage” and the “high level of divorce” in America.

Men’s and women’s “faith in marriage has been shaken” by declining rates of marriage, rising rates of cohabitation and high rates of divorce, Wilcox indicates. For example, he says, between 1960 and 2007 “the number of cohabiting couples increased fourteenfold” in America, “from 439,000 to more than 6.4 million.”

However, Wilcox notes, “cohabitating unions are much less stable than marriages.” As a result, the vast majority of the children born to these couples will, before turning 15, “see their parents break up.” He says that “20 percent of babies are now born to cohabiting couples.”

Wilcox’s wide-ranging article examines the effects of divorce and family breakdown on children, on the spouses’ well-being, on the contact especially of fathers with their children and on “the quality, prevalence and stability of marriage in American life.”

The good news, Wilcox writes, is that “on the whole divorce has declined since 1980, and marital happiness has largely stabilized.” What this means is that “slightly more than 40 percent of contemporary first marriages are likely to end in divorce”–less, that is, than the 50 percent of 1980.

The declining rate of divorce also means that “a clear majority of children who are now born to married couples will grow up with their married mothers and fathers,” Wilcox adds.

The bad news, however, involves America’s widening “divorce and marriage divide.” Wilcox calls attention to statistics showing that married couples with a college education are “about half as likely to divorce” today as those “without college degrees.” He examines the ways cultural forces combine with economic factors to foster this divide.

It is in the national interest to “strengthen marriage and reduce the incidence of divorce,” Wilcox holds. There is, however, an “unthinkable alternative,” he says–namely, “a nation divided more and more by class and marital status, and children doubly disadvantaged by poverty and single parenthood.”


New Jersey Bishops Ask Catholics to Protect, Promote Marriage

“As Catholics we must not stand by in silence in the face of the many challenges that threaten marriage and, in turn, children and the public good. We must not shirk from our responsibility,” New Jersey’s Catholic bishops said Aug. 22 in a pastoral letter titled “The Call to Marriage Is Woven Deeply Into the Human Spirit.”

The bishops urged the state’s Catholics to “protect and promote marriage,” and to resist “the call for passage of a same-sex ‘marriage’ law in New Jersey.” The pastoral letter said, “We must not abandon the teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage and the complementarity of the sexes–a truth that is evident to right reason and recognized as such by the major cultures of the world.”

Moreover, the bishops urged Catholics to lend support to those who choose marriage and those who do not. The bishops stated:

“We must pledge our support to all family members, including those who choose to remain single. We must help those entering marriage to prepare for the challenges, sacrifices and joys to come. We must reach out with the special compassion of Christ to those married couples and families experiencing difficulties, anxiety and illness.”

The pastoral letter’s release kicked off the New Jersey Statewide Initiative for Marriage Protection, co-sponsored by the state’s dioceses, the state Catholic conference and the Knights of Columbus. The initiative aims to rally opposition to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state and includes an October petition drive urging state legislators to reject attempts to redefine “marriage.”

A number of observers expect an action to legalize same-sex marriage to be brought before New Jersey’s legislators after this November’s elections, during their lame-duck session.

The bishops of New Jersey pointed out in their pastoral letter that the civil unions of same-sex couples and others who enter nonmarital unions already enjoy legal protection in the state. Thus, for example, the pastoral letter said that defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman would not remove any benefits currently provided to civil union partners by employers. The bishops explained:

“In New Jersey, the Civil Union Act already provides practical rights, benefits and protections for persons who choose to establish nonmarital unions. As clearly stated in the act: ‘Civil union couples shall have all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law, whether they derive from statute, administrative or court rule, public policy, common law or any other source of civil law, as are granted to spouses in a marriage.”

The bishops noted that under the Civil Union Act “civil union couples are entitled to the benefits and protections of ‘laws relating to insurance, health and pension benefits.’” Also, “an array of unlawful employment practices” are prohibited.

Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the New Jersey Catholic Conference, said in a May 6 statement opposing calls for the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state that “the record shows that the Civil Union Act is working effectively.” He wrote:

“Civil union couples have all of the same benefits, protections and responsibilities under law as are granted to spouses in marriage. If civil union couples have all of the benefits, protections and responsibilities of marriage, why do we want to redefine marriage?”

The bishops’ pastoral letter said, “If the government insists that same-sex unions are ‘equal’ to unions of husband and wife, the government will be teaching not only that mothers and fathers are no longer necessary for children, but also that uniting the sexes is no longer an important ideal.”

“Our homosexual brothers and sisters are beloved children of God,” the bishops said. They called attention to church teachings “that the fundamental human rights of homosexual persons must be defended and that all of us must strive to eliminate any forms of injustice, oppression or violence against homosexual persons.”

At the same time, the bishops said that while “persons of same-sex orientation have the right to live as they choose,” they “do not have the right to redefine marriage for everyone by altering the civil law.” The bishops insisted that same-sex marriage is not a civil right. And they said that “governments do not have the power to define marriage otherwise” than as the union of a man and a woman, since marriage “is a permanent human institution that does not owe its existence to governments.”

Catholics have “the right and the responsibility” as citizens “to hold civil authorities accountable for their stewardship of the institution of marriage,” the bishops said. They called the marital union of a man and a woman “the foundation of the family,” adding that “the family is the foundation of society.”

Marriage, said the bishops, “is singular in its importance as a public institution.”


Recession Shifts Commuter-Marriage Phenomenon Into High Gear

Many out-of-work husbands or wives in these recessionary times are accepting new jobs far from home–and far from their spouses, The Wall Street Journal reported Sept. 22 in an article titled “Long Haul for Working Couples,” by Dana Mattioli. “The search for employment is forcing more couples into long-distance relationships,” Mattioli wrote.

The phenomenon of one spouse working and living away from home during the week, while spending all or some weekends back home, “is more common during this recession than in past downturns because of the prevalence of two-career couples” today, Mattioli said. Thus, she pointed out, even though one spouse lands a job in a distant location, there is no guarantee the other spouse will be able to find a job there as well.

And what if the spouse back home has a stable, full-time job? If the other spouse’s new position seems less than fully stable and secure, the spouse back home might be afraid to surrender his or her present position.

Of course, the recession not only led to job losses, it also led to a depressed housing market that makes it more difficult for couples to sell a home and move. Thus, when one spouse moves to a new job away from home, the other spouse often stays behind, unable to sell a home the couple owns. Mattioli told the story of a couple whose house sold only after “two years and three price reductions.”

Hand in hand with all of this, couples in these long-distance situations face “the emotional difficulties of separation” and the high cost of “maintaining two households,” Mattioli explained. Even grocery costs increase for them, since, clearly, the spouse living away from home must eat.

The phenomenon Mattioli described often is referred to as a “commuter marriage.” In a report on commuter marriage that appeared in the April 2008 edition of this Web site’s news section, we noted that “various commentators on the commuter-marriage phenomenon point out that it takes a toll on couples.” Why so?

For example, our report said, “the arrangement is fatiguing for the spouse who commutes back home for the weekend and then must commute back to work Monday morning.” Of course, a toll is taken on the spouse back home, who may face child care responsibilities more or less alone.

Furthermore, the commuting itself “can be expensive, especially in times of high automobile gas prices or when commuter spouses work far enough from home that they must book frequent weekend airline tickets,” we said. Third, “the cost of a second residence for the commuter spouse” takes its toll.

Our report noted that “with marriages moving into commuter mode for anything from a few months to several years or even longer, some counselors urge couples to reassess at various intervals whether the time has come to move their entire household to the new location or for the spouse who works there to secure a job back home.” We added that “effective communication between spouses appears to be particularly important in a commuter marriage.”


Renewed Focus Worldwide on Continued Reality of Child Marriage

The Sept. 11 childbirth deaths in Yemen of a 12-year-old girl and her stillborn child focused renewed attention on the continuing practice of forced child marriage in many regions of the world.

The girl, Fawziya Abdulla Youssef, had been “forced into a child marriage with a man at least twice her age,” said Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund. Veneman said Sept. 14 that “child marriages violate the rights of children in the most deplorable way.”

Child marriage deprives girls of their childhood and of an education, “and robs them of their innocence,” said Veneman. She said “child marriages are often a result of poverty and ignorance.”

Youssef’s death in a provincial hospital resulted from severe bleeding, it was reported. She was married at age 11 in a region where tribal customs dominate, making such marriages common.

Yemen’s parliament passed a law last February forbidding child marriage and raising to 17 the legal, minimum age for marriage. The law was sent to Yemen’s president for signing at that time, but lawmakers attempting to kill the legislation succeeded in having it sent back to parliament for a constitutional review. In the eyes of some, the new legislation would violate Islamic law.

Mohammed Albasha, spokesman for Yemen’s embassy in Washington, commented in a press statement on Youseff’s death. “The government of Yemen has embarked upon an awareness campaign to end the practice of young marriage, which has been deeply rooted in the rural cultures of Yemen,” he said.

Albasha called attention to the government’s recent attempt to raise the legal age for marriage to 17, but said that “unfortunately,” before the country’s president could ratify the action, members of parliament’s conservative bloc “rescinded the proposed amendments to allow for further deliberations.”

Nonetheless, the embassy spokesman said, “it is anticipated that the matter will be finalized in the near future, and it is deemed an important priority of the government.”

UNICEF reported in a March 2008 paper that “the practice of girls marrying at a young age is most common in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.” But, the U.N. agency said that “in the Middle East, North Africa and other parts of Asia, marriage at or shortly after puberty is common among some groups. There are also parts of West and East Africa and of South Asia where marriages much earlier than puberty are not unusual.”

The UNICEF report noted that “girls living in the poorest 20 percent of households are more likely to get married at an early age than those living in the wealthiest 20 percent.” The organization cited several reasons for the practice of child marriage.

Some poor families may marry-off their daughter, regarding “a young girl as an economic burden and her marriage as a necessary survival strategy for her family,” the report said. In some cases, according to the report, families “may think that child marriage offers protection for their daughter from the dangers of sexual assault, or, more generally, offers the care of a male guardian.”

Gender discrimination is among other factors underlying the practice of child marriage, the report observed. For example, it explained, “girls may be married young to ensure obedience and subservience within their husband’s household.”


Matrimony Is a Mystery, But One We Know Something About

God is met in the “day-in and day-out faithful presence” of a husband and wife to each other and to their family, said Auxiliary Bishop William Justice of San Francisco. But, he said, “the daily routine and challenges of marriage can begin to dull the realization of how intimate is the marriage relationship not only between husband and wife, but also between Christ and them.”

In an Aug. 23 homily he delivered in two San Francisco parishes, Bishop Justice noted that God’s presence in marriage is termed a “mystery” in the Letter to the Ephesians. Of course, he observed, this originally was written in Greek, and “in Greek ‘mystery’ has a much deeper meaning than in other languages.”

The bishop explained what “mystery” in this case does and does not mean. In Scripture, the term “mystery” means “that the reality of which it speaks is a mystery that is so profound, so awesome, that you can never come to fully understand the reality.” However, it does not mean nothing can be known about this reality. Instead, (and Bishop Justice called this “very important”), “you can understand something of it.”

He added that “love itself is a mystery” and pointed out that “we can never fully understand why we fell in love with a particular person, but we know we have and rejoice in it.” Furthermore, said the bishop, a husband and wife who are open to one another “will never touch the limit of their love for one another,” yet they “know they can sense the mystery by continuing daily to say yes to one another.”

The Letter to the Ephesians “is telling us that we will never touch the limit of Christ’s love for us because there is no limit,” Bishop Justice commented. “Yet,” he continued, “in viewing the journey of the love of husband and wife, we touch, have a taste of, this limitless divine love.”

In caring for each other, struggling “to grow in the oneness of love” and sharing “the healing power of forgiveness and service,” Christian married couples “are living the love of Christ, who does the same thing for them and all the members of his body the church,” Bishop Justice said.