published Sunday, August 31st, 2014

Baumgardner: There’s good news about marriage

By Julie Baumgardner

Shaunti Feldhahn is a Harvard-educated, ground-breaking social researcher who has spent time working on Capitol Hill and Wall Street. Presently, she is focused on using her analytical skills to investigate changes that impact personal and workplace relationships and families.

“For the last eight years, I have been analyzing what the numbers say about marriage, divorce and remarriage in America,” says Feldhahn. “This started by accident as I was working on a newspaper column and wanted to correctly cite the divorce rate. But I found numbers that didn’t match the discouraging conventional wisdom at all. This piqued my curiosity and sent me down a totally different research path.”

What Feldhahn found was shocking. Although researchers continue to project that half of marriages will end in divorce (relying in part on a government study that primarily focused on a high risk group), we have never come close to hitting that average for society as a whole. Instead, according to the Census Bureau’s 2009 Survey of Income and Program Participation report, 71 percent of women are still married to their first spouse. The 29 percent who aren’t include those widowed, not just divorced.

Feldhahn estimates that roughly 20 to 25 percent of first marriages have ended in divorce. Even among baby boomers who have the highest divorce rate, seven in 1 marriages are still intact.

“This is huge,” says Feldhahn. “We have a culture-wide feeling of futility about marriage because for years all of us — including me — have said that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. But that sense of discouragement makes it so easy to give up. We have to change the conventional wisdom so people know that most marriages last a lifetime.”

Additional findings from Feldhahn’s research indicate:

• Most marriages are happy — on average, about 80 percent.

• The vast majority of remarriages survive.

• The rate of divorce is not the same among those who attend church regularly; in that group, divorce rates drop by 25 to 50 percent

• Marriage isn’t as complicated as people think; small changes can make a big difference.

“I’ve done seven nationally representative studies of men, women and marriage, and the common denominator in whether a marriage survives or fails is whether the couple has a sense of hope or futility,” says Feldhahn. “Feeling ‘we’re going to make it’ leads to a different outcome than ‘this is never going to get better.’ So instead of believing it is futile to try, couples need to know that millions of marriages in our country are thriving. And that is the norm.”

Feldhahn readily notes that there are still plenty of marriage problems out there. But her surveys also found that most of these problems are not caused by the big ticket items such as addiction, abuse or affairs. Instead, most of the time a husband and wife care about each other and try hard, but in the wrong areas. They end up sabotaging a perfectly good marriage.

“This means that it is less complicated than people think to get it right; it’s not rocket science,” says Feldhahn. “The most important thing couples can do is commit to making their marriage work, believe the best of their spouse’s intentions toward them, and make sure they have the right tools in their tool belt as they go through their marriage.”

Julie Baumgardner is the president and CEO of First Things First. Contact her at julieb@firstthings.org.

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