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Why Do 40% of Marriages Fail in America?
The broken system of marriage.
This is an interesting question, right? Not just because there is a lot of debate about what the divorce rate actually is (most estimates put it between 39% and 50% with that percentage going up even higher if one of the participants has been married previously), but because almost everyone has their own take on what’s happening. For example, let’s look at a tweet that went viral on Twitter and some of the responses:
Now, let’s look at some of the replies:
This was the most popular response by far. There were at least a couple of dozen people that suggested some version of this answer, but that begs a question. Divorce statistics from the first half of the last century in America are admittedly a little spotty, but it appears that they were about 1/3 of what they are today. So, were they better at communicating at the turn of the last century? That seems doubtful, right? Back then, Americans were poorer and less educated. And there is certainly much more emphasis on actual communication in marriage today than there was back then. So, is a lack of communication the real issue? Probably not. So, what about this?
Undoubtedly, there is SOME truth to this. Just to give an example, long ago (so forgive me if I get some minor detail wrong), a woman was telling me about her ex-husband. She said they dated for 9 months, she really liked him, and she was impressed that he refused to ever sleep over because she had a child and he wanted to be “respectful.” So, they got married and she quickly found out the real reason he never stayed over. Despite the fact he told her that he didn’t drink, he was an alcoholic who would go home after seeing her and get hammered out of his mind. He probably intended to quit before they got married, but guess what? It didn’t work out that way, he couldn’t hide his alcoholism from her once they were married and their marriage was over within a few months.
Still, this whole “You just have to pick the right person” thing mostly seems like a cope because there’s obviously a lot of circular reasoning involved. Did your marriage not work? Oh, then you MUST HAVE picked the wrong person. Really? Like half of America is just picking the wrong person? In my lifetime, I can think of at least three couples I’ve been around that just seemed made for each other. Like hand and glove. Like they seemed as perfectly matched as two people could be. Guess what? Two of those couples are now divorced. Again, there is probably SOME validity here, but there’s no way this can be sinking such a big percentage of marriages in America.
Now these two? They’re probably some of the best answers, but they don’t quite get to the real root of the problem:
There are outliers among us who love being single so much that they would never get married and others who NEED to be paired up so much that they don’t ever want to be single, but the reality is that both being married and being single is a mixed bag. There’s a lot to be said for having your own space, doing what you want without having to consider another person, and knowing that if you meet someone exciting, you can pursue them if you want. Of course, it’s also nice to go home to someone that wants to hear about your problems, who shares joys and responsibilities with you, and that you can sleep with every night.
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Over time, people do evolve and change. They have different desires, fears, and needs. There’s a very natural tendency to wonder if the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. People also often know what they’re missing by not being single. No thrill of the hunt. No just thinking only about yourself, in your own space, on your own time. However again, people have faced this dilemma in one form or another for as long as people have been getting married. Marriage is, was, and will probably always be a trade-off.
So, what would my “one word” be that explains why so many marriages fail in America? That word would be, “system.” To be more precise, marriage is a “system” and we have peeled, broken, and ripped parts off of that system to the point where it no longer functions very well.
That may not make sense at first, but it will when you start to go beyond thinking of marriage as a union of two individuals and you start to think of what purpose it serves. There’s a reason marriage has been called the “building block of society.” Unquestionably, marriage is the best way to raise children. There are also countless studies showing married people tend to be happier. Additionally, married people are more likely to be good, responsible citizens. A “Leave it to Beaver” society is going to fare better than an Animal House/Sex in the City society.
So, how do you get people involved in a practice like this that benefits your society? You’ve got to have incentives – and once, those incentives were very strong. Sex outside of marriage, divorce, and having children outside of wedlock were once considered to be scandalous. This meant men were heavily incentivized to get married so they could have sex. Meanwhile, women working outside the home used to be relatively rare and most of those women had menial jobs. In addition, America hasn’t always been a welfare state. So, women wanted to get married so their husband could support them and their children. On top of this, back then, as is still the case today, marriage was the best way to raise children and there was a long tradition of promoting marriage in our society.
All of this fits together like a puzzle. You can see how each piece strengthened the system and made it more viable. Unfortunately, as piece after piece of this healthy system has been ripped away for one reason or another, the whole system has become increasingly dysfunctional.
Men no longer need to get married to get laid. In some cases, they may have LESS SEX if they get married. Women no longer need a man to support them or their children. There’s very little stigma around sex outside of marriage, divorce, or having kids outside of wedlock anymore. We even strongly incentivized divorce for many women with the way we handle child support, alimony, and child custody.
Marriage doesn’t work for so many Americans because the system we have in place doesn’t work very well anymore. Many people tend to ignore the breakdown of the system because 50%-60% of Americans (again, depending on which statistics you believe) are staying married, but that’s not the sort of success rate we should want for a “building block of society.” It’s like having 40%-50% of your population die driving down an icy road out of town and saying, “We don’t need guardrails, signs, or to salt the roads! The people that lived made it fine without all that!”
We need to fix the whole system, which is extraordinarily difficult for two reasons.
First of all, the natural impulse is to want to repair the old system, but once you get beyond potentially fixing the incentives the system has put in place that led to more divorce (which would be possible, but far from easy to change), it doesn’t seem realistic. There’s just no way to roll back many of the changes that crippled the old system, and most people wouldn’t want to roll them back if they could. We’re talking about things like women entering the workforce in large numbers, the birth control pill and men being able to get laid outside of marriage. Going back doesn’t seem to be an option.
However, going forward is a problem as well because this issue, incredibly important though it may be, really isn’t on a lot of people’s radar. Despite the fact that marriage is a faltering institution in America, there is very little discussion about how to fix that problem other than magically going back to the old system, which as we just noted, is very unlikely to work.
What is likely to work? Rebuilding the system in a new way. Both men and women need much more incentive to get married and stay married than they currently have. We could certainly imagine not particularly pleasant scenarios that could lead to that outcome like a societal collapse or a rapidly spreading STI that couldn’t be stopped by condoms and that was so frightening, casual sex became nearly unthinkable. But just repairing the system of marriage short of that? We’re a long way from even starting a conversation like that in our society, much less coming to any kind of healthy solution.