Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.
Following the big splash around Jodi Kantor’s new book – The Obamas – where she provides an in-depth look into the First Family’s marriage, it seems like everyone has an opinion on Barack and Michelle’s relationship and what it has to say about the institution of marriage more broadly.
But apparently, not everyone’s on the marriage bandwagon.
According to a recent report from the Pew Research Institute, marriage is on the decline in the United States and elsewhere. Barely half of Americans over the age 18 are currently married, and the number of couples married in 2010 dropped five percent from 2009. This comes on the heels of a 20% drop in the overall number of married couples in the country since 1960.
These findings mirror those observed in the UK, where researchers found that only 48 percent of adults there were married.
So I thought it might be time – much as I did not so long ago with divorce – to pinpoint some smart posts out there being written about marriage:
1. All The Single Ladies – In addition to being the title of the runaway Beyoncé hit single, this is also the title of a provocative cover story in The Atlantic from November. In it, author Kate Bollick, traces the familiar evolution of marriage from an economic partnership (pre-20th century) to an idealized, romantic “coupledom” in the 20th century. But she also points to a new trend – the rise of single, non-married women (the result, baldly stated, of an ever-shrinking pool of “marriageable” men.) Bollick makes an impassioned case for why this sociological trend may not actually be such a bad thing, and why it may suit women to seek out unconventional partnership arrangements that stray from the norm. As I watch friend after friend on the brink of separation and divorce, I’m having a hard time disagreeing with her, even as someone who tries very hard to stay married. Well worth a read, if you haven’t already.
2. Generosity is good for marriage – Or at least, so suggest the results of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, which recently studied the role of generosity in the marriages of 2,870 men and women. The survey found that men and women with the highest scores on the generosity scale were far more likely to report that they were “very happy” in their marriages. Apparently, even something as trivially small as making your partner coffee goes a long way towards keeping the flame alive. (For me it’s buttering his toast, as my husband would never dream of letting me near his coffee, but it’s the same idea.) And of course, that makes sense. Even when some of us may be inclined to give our partners the ‘death look’ when they fail to pick up after themselves (or in my case, profess not to remember how to turn on the dishwasher – yikes!), it’s important to remember that putting in that extra effort, even on something seemingly trivial, can make a difference.
3. Acceptance is also crucial. I remember when I was applying to my first set of jobs, straight out of graduate school, and one of my advisers sagely warned me: “All departments have their warts,” which was his shorthand for “Nothing’s perfect.” He was referring to political science departments which might later employ me, but he may just as well have been speaking about future potential spouses. Elizabeth Weil has a great post on precisely this sort of acceptance in the most recent Modern Love column at The New York Times. Weil – for those who don’t remember – is the woman who went public on the cover of a New York Times Magazine a couple of years back about how she and her husband had undergone couples therapy to improve their marriage, even though nothing was really wrong. Now she’s back, explaining that what she learned from that experience is that the key to a successful long-term relationship is to accept that you will never entirely remove your partners warts (my term, not hers.) Yes, you’ll smooth some down, but they don’t go away. And for her, marriage is thus about learning to love your spouse very specifically, not despite – but because of – his or her specific, individual flaws.
4. Nagging, however, is bad. There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal last week arguing that nagging is far more prevalent than adultery in modern marriages, and potentially at least as toxic. According to Howard Markman, a psychologist at The University of Denver, couples who became unhappy five years into their marriage had a roughly 20% increase in negative communication patterns consistent with nagging, and a 12% decrease in positive communication. Not surprisingly, nagging becomes particularly conducive to divorce when couples start fighting about the nagging itself. (Can’t imagine doing that. Ever.)
5. Silence can be golden. I was also quite taken with a post by Karin Kasdin on the New York Times Motherlode blog last summer about what it’s like when you grow old with someone and no longer have the multiple distractions at hand – especially with kids in tow – that force you to speak constantly to one another: the day-to-day scheduling, the finances, the trip planning, etc. She remarked that one the surprising lessons of the empty-nest syndrome is that even while you might fear, as newlyweds, the day you no longer have something to say to one another, perhaps the best sign that your marriage is actually O.K. is when you can grow comfortable with the silence and realize that you won’t fall apart without the chatter.
Here’s to that.