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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 August 2009

  • How the unmarried respond when asked why they move in together
  • Couples tie Internet to marital conflicts
  • Long-married couples provide needed sign of encouragement to the young
  • Factors that threaten a lasting marriage
  • Americans believe in marriage, but divorce at astonishing rates
  • SPECIAL REPORT: Marriage and family in Pope Benedict’s new encyclical


The Unmarried Give Their Reasons for Moving in Together

“Couples tend to slide into cohabitation” without making a real decision to do so, according to two University of Denver researchers who addressed the Smart Marriages annual conference July 9 in Orlando, Fla.

Scott Stanley and Galena Rhoades told the conference that just one-third of the 1,297 participants in a new study funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development said that prior to moving in together they “talked about it, planned it and then made a decision together to do it.”

However, another one-third of the study participants said: “We didn’t think about it or plan it. We slid into it.” Yet another one-third said they “talked about it, but then it just sort of happened.”

Stanley and Rhoades told the Smart Marriages conference that couples already engaged to marry were “more likely to have made a decision about cohabiting.” The conference was sponsored by the Coalition for Marriage, Couples and Family Education, a Washington-based nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization dedicated to strengthening marriage and reducing family breakdown.

The new study was conducted by Stanley, Rhoades and Howard Markman, also a University of Denver researcher. Another study by these researchers, published in February 2009 in the Journal of Family Issues, found that cohabitation did not primarily represent a form of trial marriage or means of testing their relationship for a large majority of the study participants.

The February study said that in comparing its findings with previous research, “fewer people endorsed testing the relationships as a major reason for their own cohabitation than might have been expected.”

Rhoades commented in a University of Denver release that “cohabiting to test a relationship turns out to be associated with the most problems in relationships.” She commented, “Perhaps if a person is feeling a need to test the relationship, he or she already knows some important information about how a relationship may go over time.”

People who cohabit also did not tend to reject marriage as a valid institution, according to the February study. It said, “Few individuals reported cohabiting because they did not believe in the institution of marriage.”

A key goal of the February study was to find what people themselves would say when asked why they cohabit outside of marriage. The study said:

“Across all participants, 61.2 percent ranked ‘I wanted to spend more time with my partner’ as their No. 1 reason for moving in together, whereas 18.5 percent ranked ‘It made the most sense financially’ highest, 14.3 percent ranked ‘I wanted to test out our relationship before marriage’ highest, and 6 percent ranked ‘I don’t believe in the institution of marriage highest.”

In fact, the study observed, “spending more time together and convenience” were “the most strongly endorsed reasons” people gave for cohabiting outside marriage.

In their Orlando presentation, Stanley and Rhoades noted that “4 percent to 5 percent of all U.S. households are cohabiting households.” They said, “60 percent to 70 percent of couples live together before marriage” in the U.S. today.

Cohabitation, the researchers said, “tends to last less than two years.” In their February study, the Denver University researchers explained that according to national estimates, “cohabitations generally dissolve or become marriages within a year or two.”

A concern the researchers noted is that “cohabitation may make it harder” for a couple to break up. “Constraints such as sharing debt, having a lease or major purchases increase in cohabitation and are associated with thinking it’s less likely the relationship will end,” according to Stanley and Rhoades. They added, “Some might marry a person they would not have married if they hadn’t been cohabiting.”

Stanley and Rhoades told the Smart Marriages conference that “at least 20 percent of children in the U.S. will at some point live in a cohabiting household.” The researchers said that “the odds of a couple being together two years after the birth of a child are six times greater in marriage than cohabitation.”

Discussing what is known as the “cohabitation effect,” the researchers said that couples who marry after first cohabiting “are 1.26 to 1.86 times more likely to divorce.” They cited research indicating that “premarital cohabitation is associated with lower marital satisfaction, poorer perceived and observed communication in marriage, more marital conflict, higher rates of domestic violence, higher rates of infidelity.”

The February study said that one reason it may prove valuable to know the reasons people give for cohabiting outside marriage is that this “could shed light on the ‘cohabitation effect’” and why those who cohabit premaritally “are at greater risk for marital distress and divorce” later on.


Couples Tie Internet to Marital Conflicts

Husbands and wives now are reporting to marriage counselors that excessive time spent on the Internet has become a source of conflict in their marriages, according to ACCORD, an agency of the Catholic Church in Ireland that provides marriage counseling throughout the nation.

A July report by ACCORD said that in 2009, Internet usage has become a “statistically significant” problem for couples, with 7 percent of ACCORD clients seen in the first half of 2009 citing it as their primary problem.

John Farrelly, ACCORD’s director of counseling, told this Web site that the Internet is reported by spouses as a problem in three ways: as a source of pornography and through its relation to infidelity; as a means of gambling; and because too much time is spent online to the detriment of family life. “The largest of these is too much time online,” he said.

Farrelly wrote “The Good Marriage Guide,” a widely read book in Ireland that includes a chapter titled “Information Technology Overload and Addictions.” The reason for that chapter, he said, is “the addiction-like behavior seen in thousands of clients in terms of the Internet, using cell phones or e-mails.”


Long-Married Couples Provide Needed Sign of Encouragement

Young people “need examples to encourage them to believe that it is really possible to enter into loving and lasting marriage promises, and that living the sacrament of matrimony brings great joy, fulfillment and happiness,” Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, Ga., said in his June 4 column in the Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the archdiocese.

The archbishop called attention to the many married couples and ordained priests who celebrate 25th, 40th and 50th wedding anniversaries in the spring. “Married couples and priests who observe anniversaries at this time of year provide a wonderful joint statement on our ability to live out the promises that we make as young people with the grace of God, and it is a message that we all need to hear more frequently,” he said.

Of course, he commented, “wise husbands, wives and priests will all admit that the real honor belongs to God, who is the truly faithful and sustaining one in their lives.” Anniversaries, said the archbishop, “are really moments to praise God for his fidelity.”

A “wondrous sign of encouragement” is provided by married couples to young people, “who so often observe only the broken promises that are trumpeted in the Hollywood news reports and on the Internet,” Archbishop Gregory said.

Long-married couples “would be quick to acknowledge that there are many struggles and trials that they have endured” over the course of time, Archbishop Gregory wrote. However, he commented, “with God’s grace and with their own patience and love for one another they have grown far happier together than they could possibly be alone.”

Jubilarian couples “declare to the entire church that marriage in Christ is both possible and life-giving,” he said.


“What’s Love Got to Do With It?” Factors That Threaten a Lasting Marriage

Do engaged couples need to discuss how many children they one day hope to have? Based on a study by three Australian researchers, it appears this is among the key questions couples hoping for a lasting marriage need to consider together.

“Marriages in which the wife had a much stronger preference than her husband for a child, or another child, were at more than twice the risk of separation than marriages where preferences were in agreement,” the researchers said in a paper presented during a July 16-17 conference in Melbourne. Their study tracked some 2,500 couples over a six-year period from 2001 to 2007.

The widely reported study titled “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” zeroed-in on the reasons couples separate or divorce. “We know little about the factors which currently determine marital longevity,” according to researchers Rebecca Kippen and Bruce Chapman, social scientists at the Australian National University, and Peng Yu of Australia’s Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs.

One reason the study attracted widespread interest was that it included a few rather unpredictable findings. Curiously, for example, marital longevity was found to be at much greater risk when one spouse smoked and the other did not. Also, the study found that differing levels of formal education between the spouses do not pose the threat to a lasting marriage that many believe to be the case.

On the other hand, the study called attention to several somewhat more predictable factors that often threaten marriage, such as financial stress and unemployment. The study also mentioned:

  • Divorces of a couples’ parents: It said, for example, that “couples in which the husband’s parents had separated or divorced, but the wife’s parents had not, were almost 90 percent more likely to separate themselves than couples where neither partner had experienced parental separation.”
  • Large age differences: Statistically speaking, “age difference between husband and wife was clearly linked to marital instability.” The researchers focused especially on marriages in which the husband was two or more years younger than his wife, or nine or more years older.
  • Possible issues in second marriages: “Couples for whom the union was a second or higher-order marriage for both partners had an increased likelihood of separation.”

So, are marriages doomed from the start when there is a large age difference between the spouses or their own parents divorced? Not according to Kippen. But she told this Web site that research like this could make future spouses “aware of risk factors” in marriage.

“It is clear that some characteristics are associated with a greater risk of separation,” so “it would be great if couples could talk through such issues” before marrying, Kippen said.

Her personal view, she said, is that “it is very important for couples to take some sort of preparation course before marrying. Marriage is probably the most important contract that most of us will undertake.”


Americans Believe in Marriage But Divorce at Astonishing Rates

Americans believe deeply in marriage, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead said in a June 25 speech. They tend to want to get married, and 90 percent actually do marry, expecting their marriages to last a lifetime. However, Whitehead observed, American marriages “break up at astonishingly high rates.”

Whitehead, a social scientist, told the annual conference of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers that, as a people, Americans “divorce more and remarry more than people in almost any other part of the world.” She is co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

The theme of the NACFLM conference, held at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minn., was “Becoming a Marriage-Building Church: Implementing the U.S. Bishops’ Pastoral Initiative on Marriage.” Writer Maria Wiering discussed Whitehead’s presentation in a Catholic News Service report July 6.

It might be said that “Americans are enchanted with the idea of marriage and the aspiration to marriage, but disenchanted with being married, particularly to one person for a lifetime,” Whitehead told the family life ministers. Catholics, she said, are becoming more like the general population when it comes to certain attitudes toward marriage.

Moreover, a shift in the way marriage is understood today has important implications, Whitehead suggested. She described this as a shift from a public to a private understanding of the marriage relationship.

While marriage once was understood as a public, legal and religious institution, today it often is approached as a private relationship on the couple’s part. Thus, while marriage once governed sex, procreation, family life, kinship relationships and social lives, today it widely is understood as a “private, soul-mate relationship” whose purpose is to foster personal growth, happiness and intimacy, Whitehead explained.

Those things are good, she said. However, lacking the broader religious institutional support for marriage, a “soul-mate” relationship “is very, very fragile,” she commented; it always leaves the question of whether or not the person one is married to is indeed his or her soul mate.

Other troubling trends threatening marriage today include a split between marriage and parenthood, and a statistical divide related to the marriages of college-educated and noncollege-educated couples, according to Whitehead.

Statistics show that marriage is becoming a form of privilege, Whitehead said. She explained that college-educated couples are more likely than the noncollege educated to marry, to be happily married and to experience low divorce rates.

This social development was described by Whitehead as a divide between “the marriage haves” and “the marriage have-nots.” She attributed it to several factors, among them the decrease in high-wage, blue-collar jobs. She observed:

“Young men, if they can’t find steady, reliable work, are not considered good marriage material by women and even by themselves; they don’t feel prepared to support a family.”

Whitehead said that marriage “used to be the first stop on the road to independent adulthood,” defining separation from one’s parents. However, today marriage “has been redefined in the sequence of adulthood as the very last thing you do” after finding employment, repaying debt and purchasing a home.

But people without a college education have more difficulty achieving these goals than those with a college education, Whitehead said. This leads them to put off marriage, but not necessarily parenthood. “And when they do marry, their marriages are extremely precarious,” she said.

Finally, Whitehead noted that nearly four out of 10 children are born outside of marriage in the U.S. today. Research shows that children born outside of marriage will be exposed to greater economic and emotional hardship than others, and often will lose their connection to their fathers, she said.

“The overwhelming majority” of children born to cohabitating parents will not be living with both parents by age 15, though these children may be living with another live-in partner of one of their parents, Whitehead said.

In remarks to this Web site, Whitehead described the divide between the marriage “haves” and “have-nots” as a “troubling trend that marriage-building parishes should be aware of, particularly since the idea of marriage as a form of economic privilege is contrary to Catholic social and sacramental teachings.”

It often is forgotten, she added, “that the majority of young adults are not four-year college graduates, yearn just as much as better-educated young people to have a happy and lasting marriage, but are less likely to actually achieve it.”

She also told us that “one simple thing parishes and family life ministers” might do “is to share the social science evidence on why marriage matters, why it produces better outcomes for children, and why it has many social, economic and psychological advantages over cohabitation” and “how troubled marriages can be improved and saved.”

Social science “does not give us ‘the Truth,’ but it does tell us something about the world we live in,” Whitehead pointed out.

She recalled that during the St. Paul conference she heard “two common comments” from family life ministers. Their first comment was that “younger people especially respond to empirical evidence, perhaps because their exposure to media or education trains them to treat social science evidence as authoritative.”

The family life ministers’ second comment was that current social science evidence largely echoes or supports “Catholic teachings on marriage,” Whitehead said. Thus, “again for younger people, it opens a door to deeper appreciation for the church’s teaching on the sacrament.”

Furthermore, she commented, the social-science evidence helps dispel common misconceptions, such as the view among 43 percent of millennial-generation Catholics, 18-24, that ‘living together before marriage is a good way to avoid divorce.’”

SPECIAL REPORT: Themes of Marriage and Family in the New Encyclical

It is becoming a social and an economic “necessity once more to hold up to future generations the beauty of marriage and the family, and the fact that these institutions correspond to the deepest needs and dignity of the person,” Pope Benedict XVI writes in his third encyclical, “Charity in Truth” (“Caritas in Veritate”), released July 7.

The pope calls upon the world’s nations “to enact policies promoting the centrality and the integrity of the family founded on marriage between a man and woman, the primary vital cell of society, and to assume responsibility for its economic and fiscal needs, while respecting its essentially relational character.”

“Integral human development” in a globalized world is the new encyclical’s theme. Achieving development goals requires the interplay of “charity” and “truth,” says Pope Benedict. He writes:

“Truth needs to be sought, found and expressed within the ‘economy’ of charity, but charity in its turn needs to be understood, confirmed and practiced in the light of truth.”

That the pope would describe support for the dignity of marriage and the family as a social and economic necessity is not surprising in an encyclical at pains to connect respect for human dignity and all human life – in personal life and in public policy — to worldwide social development.

Pope Benedict suggests that when marriage in its full “unitive and procreative” meaning is not located at “the foundation of society,” the families of the world ultimately suffer various forms of “violence”; harm may be done even to their economic well-being in the interests of other economic goals for society.

Confronted by policies such as mandatory birth control in some places, Pope Benedict says “there is a need to defend the primary competence of the family in the area of sexuality.”

Pope Benedict challenges society to ask whether a failure to respect the dignity of all human life leads to a diminished capacity to build a more just world.

“Openness to life is at the center of true development,” the pope explains. Thus, for example, he links respect for life in the womb to respect for the lives and well-being of all others in the human family.

“When a society moves toward the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good,” the pope says. But “by cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones,” Pope Benedict proposes (No. 28).

Given the demands associated with human development in the third millennium, the scope of this encyclical’s concerns is broad: the financial crisis, human dignity, the common good, poverty, globalization, migrant workers, business ethics, faith and reason, technology, sexuality, the meaning of love – and, at several points, marriage and the family.

At one point, Pope Benedict finds in the family a pattern for the respect required on our shrinking planet for the legitimate diversities within the human family. He explains:

“Just as a family does not submerge the identities of its individual members, just as the church rejoices in each ‘new creation’ incorporated by baptism into her living body, so too the unity of the human family does not submerge the identities of individuals, peoples and cultures, but makes them more transparent to each other and links them more closely in their legitimate diversity.”

The effects of unemployment on the family are addressed by Pope Benedict. “Unemployment today provokes new forms of economic marginalization, and the current crisis can only make this situation worse,” he writes, adding that “being out of work or dependent on public or private assistance for a prolonged period undermines the freedom and creativity of the person and his family and social relationships, causing great psychological and spiritual suffering.”

In this context, Pope Benedict wants “to remind everyone, especially governments engaged in boosting the world’s economic and social assets, that the primary capital to be safeguarded and valued is man, the human person in his or her integrity.”

The encyclical expresses concern about marriage when the pope, in a somewhat technical discussion, examines the effects of deregulating the labor market in today’s globalized economy – a deregulation that developed as rich nations sought to “outsource production at low cost with a view to reducing the prices of many goods” and nations sought “to attract foreign businesses to set up production centers.”

The “mobility of labor” associated with this has “certain positive aspects,” but the “uncertainty over working conditions caused by mobility and deregulation, when it becomes endemic, tends to create new forms of psychological instability, giving rise to difficulty in forging coherent life plans, including that of marriage,” the pope says. This, he adds, “leads to situations of human decline.”

Given its title, “charity” – love – is a thread that runs throughout the entire encyclical. “Charity is at the heart of the church’s social doctrine,” the pope says.

Charity “is the principle” of our “microrelationships” – our relationships with family members, friends or within small groups, the pope comments. Then, taking this basic principle of home and personal life to the world stage, he asserts that love also is the principle of our “macrorelationships” – our social, economic and political relationships.

About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.