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.