Transforming Ordinary into Extraordinary Marriages
Summer 2002

How Happy Can Marriage Be? Offering Hope to Young Adults

Are today’s singles getting the information they need to make informed choices about marriages? When today’s cynical youth and children of divorce report their expectations about marital happiness in surveys they say that in spite of not knowing anyone with a happy marriage, they expect to marry and to have a happy marriage. With a 50% national divorce rate (40% for first and 68% for second marriages), are they in la-la land? Not really since 40% of married couples report being happy or very happy in their marriages. The question is how can we give accurate, realistic information to help our children, students, and clients get on and stay on the happy marriage track? Let us examine some common myths making the rounds of college dorms and singles bars.

Myth 1: Your marriage is either happy or it isn't
The course of marital happiness does not run smoothly for any couple. Ask couples married 50 years if they have been happy the whole time and the answer is always, “No, we had our ups and downs, but …” The most inter-esting part of their answer is the “but”. Often they say “…but since divorce was not an option we always looked for a way to make things work.”

Surprisingly even among couples reporting marital unhappiness, many will report feeling happier about their marriages five years later. Demographer Linda Waite surveyed 13,000 subjects, asking them to rate their marriages on a scale ranging from "very unhappy" to "very happy." In a follow-up survey, she was shocked by the findings: 80% of those who'd reported they were "very unhappy" five years earlier now rated their marriages to the same person as "happy" or "quite happy."

What helped these marriages improve is not clear. Some couples raising teenagers regained their marital happiness after the kids left. Others may have had therapy or marriage education or learned self-help techniques from books or tapes. Some may have just hung in there until they figured it out.

Recommendation: To increase your chances of having a happy marriage, find out how happy couples act and imitate them. Start with what you already learned in kindergarten: smile, take turns, share, say please and thank you, and apologize when necessary.

Myth 2: Meeting the right person is a matter of chance
Last summer a startling report on the dating habits of college women found that while 63% of college women expected to find “Mr. Right” on campus, they were clueless about how to go about forming a quality pre-marriage relationship. In the study, entitled "Hooking up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right" co-authors Elizabeth Marquardt and Norval Glenn found that women often thought they were limited to only two partner selection strategies, either casually "hooking up" with a succession of men or being "joined at the hip" with one man. Both strategies are doomed according to the authors who called upon adults to help restore courtship rituals by guiding the young on how to meet and select a mate.

Recommendation: Singles should develop a list of desired values and interests and a search strategy to find a pool of potential mates exhibiting those characteristics. Hint: if you want to marry a person who shares your faith you will be more likely to find them at your place of worship than at a singles bar.

Myth 3: The best way to screen a potential spouse is to live with that person
The bottom line about cohabitation is that it is comes too late in the selection process to be an effective strategy. The time to be objective about your partner is before you have invested in a living-together daily relationship. Breakups are always difficult but more so when you have to change residences and divide property. University of Chicago researcher Linda Waite, author of the study titled "The Negative Effects of Cohabitation," writes "These tentative and uncommitted relationships are bound together by the 'cohabitation deal' rather than the 'marriage bargain', but that deal has costs." Here are some of those costs:
  1. Violence. Of all couples living together, partner abuse occurred among 17 percent of unmarried couples who had no plans to get married, in 14 percent of unmar-ried couples who planned to get married, and in 5 percent of married couples.
  2. Faithfulness. One study found that cohabiting men are 4 times more likely to cheat than husbands, and cohabiting women are 8 times more likely to cheat than wives. Waite’s survey also found that in couples who marry after cohab-iting, the woman is significantly more likely to have an extramarital sex partner.
  3. Sexual intimacy. While cohabiting couples have sex more often than married couples of the same age, averaging one additional sex act a month, they rate the sex as less satisfying than married couples with relationships of the same duration. After 4 years of living together, the sexual frequency of cohabitating couples falls far below that of their married counterparts.
  4. Health and happiness. Women in cohabiting relationships add some additional health risks especially to their mental health experiencing more irritability and anxiety than wives. Forty percent of marrieds compared to about a quarter of cohabitors say they are "very happy" with life in general.
  5. Divorce rates. Studies show that the divorce rate for couples who live together before marriage is almost twice as high as that of those who did not cohabitate first.
Recommendation: Use early screening strategies in the first months of dating while you are still objective. Make sure you have criteria for screening in and for screening out.
Myth 4: If you marry the right person, love is enough
Love may be necessary but it is never sufficient. What is essential for a happy marriage? Drs. Stanley and Markman of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver think their research on the prediction and prevention of divorce shows four keys to marital success:
  1. Confidence in their ability to last. Children of divorce are particularly prone to worrying about their ability to craft a satisfying marriage. What they don’t realize is that there is a pos-itive synergy between expecting their marriages to last and acting as if they will.
  2. A belief that they have the skills to make a good marriage. Markman & Stanley found that conflict avoiders are at risk to un-satisfying marriages or divorce while couples with conflict management skills build on their successes.
  3. Persistence in their commitment to the union. On the good days, commit to your partner; on the so-so days, commit to the ideal of the marriage; and on the bad days commit to something greater, perhaps your vows or God.
  4. A frequent dash of fun. Even these experienced researchers were surprised by the need for fun. "The importance of fun has been under studied," Markman says. "It fuels passion, zest and confidence."
Recommendation: Attend our summer marriage workshops for loads of ideas on how to get and keep a happy marriage. These workshops have a dual focus: young singles and the adults who guide them.


Our audiotape series, Secrets of Extraordinary Marriages, covers how ordinary people can create happy marriages.

Copyright 2002 Drs. Susan & Philip Robison. Feel free to copy and reproduce as long as you print with contact information:

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