Friday, June 23, 2006

Having Faith in Marriage Should Not Mix in Religion by Dr. Alan Singer

Here is my article that the Home News Tribune published on December 24, 2003. In it, I discuss the divorce rate and the impact, positive and negative, of religious groups which promote marriage.

Americans have become less likely to marry and fewer of those who do marry have marriages they consider to be very happy. The American divorce rate today is more than twice that of 1960. The desire of teenagers for a long-term marriage has increased, especially for boys, but girls have become more pessimistic about ever being able to have such a marriage.

It has become a little depressing to regularly hear these statistics about family life in America today. But there has also been a growing enthusiasm for strengthening marriage here in New Jersey and throughout the United States. The creativity and energy of these new groups is enough to turn depression into optimism.

In fact, thousands of delegates gather each summer under the auspices of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education (CMFCE) for the annual SmartMarriages Conference. Experts speak, ideas are exchanged and copious books and tapes are sold. The members of this interest group are convinced that family breakdown can be reduced through education and information.

One such gathering, the New Jersey Healthy Marriages Summit, took place recently in East Windsor and was sponsored by the New Jerseyan's for Healthy Marriages, Children and Families Coalition (NJ-HMCF). One of the highlights of the daylong conference was hearing professor David Popenoe of Rutgers University discuss the trends mentioned above. A well-known expert in this field, he is the co-director of the National Marriage Project. The participants in this summit, numbering more than 100, learned from plenary speakers and shared their experiences in workshops so that they could go back to their own organizations and hopefully put these ideas into action. Even healthy marriages need plenty of nurturing, and that is also part of the skills that participants gain from attending these conferences.

However, I had one major concern. Unlike the national SmartMarriages conference, the New Jersey summit had a very strong emphasis on religion. A coalition, by definition, is a temporary union for a common purpose. I worried, with a session titled "Interfaith Perspectives on Marriage," that the focus of the conference had shifted from helping individuals to sustain healthy relationships, to describing how the major faiths view marriage and family life. That would be fine if the conference were called The Interfaith Gathering for Healthy Marriages -- but it was not. An "ideas exchange," with presenters describing various programs of congregations, is much different (and I believe more useful) than a platform for elucidating theology and doctrine. Session leaders such as Mike and Harriet McManus and I have little in common when it comes to religion, but yet I learned a great deal from them when we sat together at lunch and discussed their new mentoring program for couples.

My primary concern is that individuals who have no religious affiliation whatsoever will distance themselves from this terrific effort and its foundation of solid social scientific data. It will be an "easy out" for the religiously unaffiliated who might perceive the marriage movement as a group of religious fanatics.

The stated mission of NJ-HMCF is "to help all individuals and couples to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain healthy relationships that will lead to healthy marriages and families." With this inclusive mission statement and ambitious goals such as "to reduce the overall divorce rate in New Jersey," there is much to be gained by not excluding any individuals or having them feel uncomfortable because of their different or nonexistent religious beliefs. Furthermore, I have observed that marriages can do just fine with out any religious observance whatsoever. On the other hand, for example, a marriage cannot thrive if there is no trust between spouses.

The strength of this coalition comes from the unity of purpose that individuals of vastly different backgrounds bring to the table. Participants are invigorated as members of this coalition and bring back the positive energy to their own individual organizations, be they secular or religious.
This seems to me, to be the best framework for making a dent in, better yet, reversing these negative trends that so adversely affect family life in America. Besides, as an observant Jew, I don't want to be the one to organize the New Jersey Atheists For Healthy Marriage, because my wife would kill me.

Monday, June 19, 2006

We Need to Read More Stories About Joys, Benefits of Marriage by Dr. Alan Singer

Here's my essay that was published in the Home News Tribune on June 18, 2006. You can see this essay on the SmartMarriages website by clicking here. You can also see how the ThinkMarriage blog made use of this essay by clicking here.
Newsweek's cover story admitted to their error in predicitng the odds of a woman getting married. I think their error was more basic: It wasn't a story about marriage, it was really a story about mating. See if you agree.

When a renowned periodical like Newsweek puts the words "Why We Were Wrong" in red, bold-faced type on its cover, it is bound to attract attention. The "wrong" is referring to a 1986 Newsweek article on getting married. The honesty and humility is inspiring, except that I believe they are still getting one significant aspect of the marriage story wrong. Let me explain.

In a June 2, 1986, cover story titled "The Marriage Crunch," Newsweek cited a research study that described the decreasing odds of women ever getting married as their age increases; victims of what demographers referred to as the "marriage squeeze." The main message of the study was "delaying marriage may ultimately mean forgoing it." And this was perceived as a "slap in the face" to the smartest women of this generation. But the phraseology that caused the most controversy was the statement, "40-year-olds are more likely to be killed by a terrorist: they have a minuscule 2.6 percent probability of tying the knot."

Recently, Newsweek's June 5, 2006, cover story admits that the situation looks far better 20 years later. The 1986 statistic "turned out to be too pessimistic: today it appears that about 90 percent of baby-boomer men and women either have married or will marry." This month's article cites 1996 census data, which indicates that "a single woman at 40 had a 40.8 percent chance of eventually marrying." And co-author of the 1986 article, Pamela Abramson, who penned the terrorist jibe admits, "It's true, I am responsible for the single most irresponsible line in the history of journalism, all meant in jest." The authors of the 2006 article added, "Most readers missed the joke."

I remember reading the 1986 article and still have the same question as I had 20 years ago. Why does Newsweek think that this is an article on marriage? Isn't an article that describes the odds of getting married and a trend such as the increasing median age at first marriage more about "mating" than about marriage? And if you decide to write about marriage, why not be upbeat and quote a significant finding that has, to date, not been revised or refuted? The most supportive household for a child is one with two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage (

I don't remember seeing any cover stories that mention this research finding, but I wish we did. Here's why: Whether a 40-year-old woman has a 2.6 percent or a 40.8 percent chance of getting married, it is a direct consequence of her decision to pursue career goals before family and/or to be absolutely sure of her choice of a husband in order not to "settle." I don't believe that if a woman reads one (more) article on her "ticking biological clock" that it will cause her to abruptly change course from career-track to mother-track.

Call me naive, but I do believe that if a husband or wife with marital problems reads one cover story that describes the most supportive household for a child, it could make a difference in their marriage. The reason is that the vast majority of us married folks have problems (I made up this statistic). Not serious problems like abuse, which should end a marriage, but less serious problems like in-laws or finances that should not end a marriage. Dr. John Gottman's research has shown, "Most of the time couples don't solve their problems and they have perpetual problems."

But couples today may not be familiar with Gottman's research, nor do they necessarily consider the long-term consequences of short-term decisions. With a spouse who does not realize that marriage means, "It's no longer all about me," or states, "I am not getting enough out of this marriage," then today's legal system makes it easier than ever before to throw in the towel and get a divorce. Professor Bill Doherty compares divorce to an amputation. Sometimes it is necessary, but, "It should be avoided if at all possible, because it brings about a permanent disability."

I suggest that the media spotlight the research findings on healthy family life because the divorce rate (close to 50 percent) affects millions of children in the United States; children who did not and would not make that decision. If couples know that two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage is better for their child than any divorce scenario, maybe they would get help in keeping the (normal) conflict in their marriage on the "low" setting. While it is true that more couples than ever before are participating in pre-marital education and married couples' classes and therapy, it is still common to hear, "I don't buy that "stick-it-out-for-the-kids' line because I deserve to be happy." As Dr. Frank Pittman is fond of saying, "Marriage is not supposed to make you happy; it's supposed to make you married."

But guess what researchers have found? Staying in a marriage is not only good for the kids; married couples are better off financially, emotionally and healthwise. The best source for this information is Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher's book, "The Case For Marriage." In these past 20 years, the message has changed to, stick-it-out-for-the-kids and especially you, too.
That's why I believe Newsweek was wrong about what they were wrong about. And while they're at it, maybe they can work on the article titles; "Marriage Crunch," "Marriage Squeeze," you'd think it was a discussion of Sumo-wrestling or breakfast foods.

Dr. Alan M. Singer is a marriage and family therapist in Highland Park.