National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) has released With This Ring… A National Survey on Marriage in America, a report on one of the largest and most comprehensive surveys ever conducted on Americans’ attitudes towards the institution of marriage.
Norval D. Glenn, the Ashbel Smith Professor and Stiles Professor in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, headed the research project and wrote the report. The Office of Survey Research at the University of Texas at Austin interviewed, via telephone, a representative sample of 1,503 Americans over the age of 18.
Is it ever too late to get married?
We have all heard the conventional wisdom that getting married as a teenager is risky business. The data has shown that couples who get married as teens are significantly more likely to get divorced than other couples. However, have you ever thought that maybe you could get married too late?
According to the findings of the survey, it appears that for both men and women there may be a “peak marriage age” in the mid-twenties. More precisely, people who get married between the ages of 23-27 are much less likely to get divorced than those who marry as teens. People between the ages of 23-27 are also much more likely to be in high-quality marriages than people who marry in their late twenties or later. This new finding goes against the conventional wisdom that it is wisest to delay marriage until the late-twenties or thirties when one becomes more established. The reasons behind this finding are unclear. Some possibilities are that late-marriers may have unrealistically high standards for a spouse, or poor social skills. Also, having a longer succession of low commitment relationships may make it harder for persons to commit to marriage.
Nevertheless, this finding should cause us to reevaluate our views on when it is “best” for people to get married.
Are people happily married?
If you look for an answer to this question in the movie theater or on TV at night, you may think that all marriages are stale, unhappy, and sexless. But this survey suggests that Americans are by and large a happily married bunch. In fact, 69% of respondents said their marriages were very happy, and 88% said they were completely or very satisfied with their marriage. Granted, one must take into account the phenomenon that people tend to report answers in surveys that they think others want to hear. So, even if they are not happily married, they may just say that they are to avoid embarrassment or going against social expectations. However, the survey also asked people to assess the happiness of the marriages of people they know, and 73% of the respondents said that most couples they know have happy marriages. This is encouraging news. However, the encouragement that this news provides is dampened by the reality that most unhappy marriages tend to quickly end in divorce. Since unhappy marriages do not last very long, the marriages that remain intact are the happy ones. The degree of happiness in marriage, therefore, is not a completely accurate indicator of the overall health of marriage in general. But we should still be heartened by this important finding about the happiness and satisfaction of married couples in America.
Why do people really get divorced?
The conventional wisdom on divorce is that it only happens after both parties have tried their hardest for a long period of time to save their marriage. But the findings of this survey suggest that this may not be true, in many cases. When asked the questions, “do you wish you had worked harder to save the marriage?” and “do you wish your ex-spouse had worked harder to save the marriage?” only a third of respondents answered “no.” Also, 62% of ex-wives and exhusbands answered “yes” to the question, “do you wish your ex-spouse had worked harder to save the marriage?” These findings (along with “lack of commitment” being the number one reason given for divorce) run counter to the conventional wisdom that most divorces only happen after both spouses have done their best to save the marriage.
There is additional hope in these findings, because the most common reasons given for divorce are preventable. The top three reasons given by ex-husbands and ex-wives were “lack of commitment,” “too much conflict and arguing,” and “infidelity” – reasons that can be addressed by the counseling and interventions included in various healthy marriage initiatives.
Would people support government intervention in marriage?
There has been a lot of talk about the government “getting involved” in promoting marriage. The most common objection to this idea is that people do not want the government to interfere in such a private matter. However, the findings of this survey provide preliminary evidence that there is a base of support for the provision of premarital counseling for couples considering marriage, which is often the main objective of government marriage initiatives. In fact, 86% of respondents agreed that all couples considering marriage should be encouraged to get premarital counseling and almost half (47%) agreed that all couples should be required by law to have premarital counseling.
Does living together before getting married help produce a better marriage?
It is often said that living together before marriage – known as cohabitation – is a helpful and harmless way of testing compatibility before marriage and figuring out if couples are right for one another. At worst it shows a couple that they are not right for each other, causing a break-up, and at best it allows a couple to prepare for marriage. While there is no data showing how many marriages are avoided as a result of a bad cohabitation experience, this survey and many other studies provide evidence that cohabitation does not produce better marriages. In terms of both divorce and marital happiness, marriages that were preceded by cohabitation are less successful than those that were not.
What do Americans think of fathers?
This is another question that will yield a very negative response if the answer is sought on primetime television, where most fathers are portrayed as dumb, dangerous, and disaffected. By contrast, this survey provides extremely encouraging support for the institution of fatherhood. Namely, 97% of respondents agreed that fathers are just as important as mothers for the proper development of children. Also, 89% agreed that all things being equal, it is better for a child to be raised in a household with a married mother and father.
There is little doubt that marriage is one of the most venerable and significant institutions in American culture. Also, it is arguably society’s best “glue” to connect fathers to their children, heart to heart. The National Fatherhood Initiative National Marriage Survey provides a wealth of data that can help us answer the above questions, and many more, as we work to provide the best opportunities for children to thrive.
To see all of the National Fatherhood Initiative's quarterly newsletters, go to https://www.fatherhood.org/ftnewsletter.asp.
Reprinted with the permission of the National Fatherhood Initiative.