Over the last forty years, the “leading marriage indicators”—empirical descriptions of marriage health and satisfaction in the United States—have been in steady decline.2 The divorce rate is nearly twice the rate it was in 1960.3 In 1970, 89 percent of all births were to married parents, but today only 60 percent are.4 Most tellingly, over 72 percent of American adults were married in 1960, but only 50 percent were in 2008.5
All of this shows an increasing wariness and pessimism about marriage in our culture, and this is especially true of younger adults. They believe their chances of having a good marriage are not great, and, even if a marriage is stable, there is in their view the horrifying prospect that it will become sexually boring. As comedian Chris Rock has asked, “Do you want to be single and lonely or married and bored?” Many young adults believe that these are indeed the two main options. That is why many aim for something in the middle between marriage and mere sexual encounters—cohabitation with a sexual partner.
This practice has grown exponentially in the last three decades. Today more than half of all people live together before getting married. In 1960, virtually no one did.6 One quarter of all unmarried women between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-nine are currently living with a partner, and by their late thirties over 60 percent will have done so.7 Driving this practice are several widespread beliefs. One is the assumption that most marriages are unhappy. After all, the reasoning goes, 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, and surely many of the other 50 percent must be miserable. Living together before marriage, many argue, improves your chances of making a good marriage choice. It helps you discover whether you are compatible before you take the plunge. It’s a way to discover if the other person can really keep your interest, if the “chemistry” is strong enough. “Everyone I know who’s gotten married quickly—and failed to live together [first]—has gotten divorced,” said one man in a Gallup survey for the National Marriage Project.8
The problem with these beliefs and assumptions, however, is that every one of them is almost completely wrong.
The Surprising Goodness of Marriage
Despite the claim of the young man in the Gallup survey, “a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage.”9 Cohabitation is an understandable response from those who experienced their own parents’ painful divorces, but the facts indicate that the cure may be worse than the alleged disease.10
Other common assumptions are wrong as well. While it is true that some 45 percent of marriages end in divorce, by far the greatest percentage of divorces happen to those who marry before the age of eighteen, who have dropped out of high school, and who have had a baby together before marrying. “So if you are a reasonably well-educated person with a decent income, come from an intact family and are religious, and marry after twenty-five without having a baby first, your chances of divorce are low indeed.”11
Many young adults argue for cohabitation because they feel they should own a home and be financially secure before they marry.12 The assumption is that marriage is a financial drain. But studies point to what have been called “The Surprising Economic Benefits of Marriage.”13 A 1992 study of retirement data shows that individuals who were continuously married had 75 percent more wealth at retirement than those who never married or who divorced and did not remarry. Even more remarkably, married men have been shown to earn 10–40 percent more than do single men with similar education and job histories.
Why would this be? Some of this is because married people experience greater physical and mental health. Also, marriage provides a profound “shock absorber” that helps you navigate disappointments, illnesses, and other difficulties. You recover your equilibrium faster. But the increased earnings probably also come from what scholars call “marital social norms.” Studies show that spouses hold one another to greater levels of personal responsibility and self-discipline than friends or other family members can. Just to give one example, single people can spend money unwisely and self-indulgently without anyone to hold them accountable. But married people make each other practice saving, investment, and delayed gratification. Nothing can mature character like marriage.14
Perhaps the main reason that young adults are wary of marriage is their perception that most couples are unhappy in their marriages. Typical is a Yahoo! Forum in which a twenty-four-year-old male announced his decision to never marry. He reported that as he had shared his decision over the past few months to his married friends, everyone laughed and acted jealous. They all said to him that he was smart. He concluded that at least 70 percent of married people must be unhappy in their relationships. A young woman in a response to his post agreed with his anecdotal evidence. That fit her own assessment of her married friends. “Out of 10 married couples … 7 are miserable as hell,” she opined, and added, “I’m getting married next year because I love my fiancé. However, if things change, I won’t hesitate to divorce him.”15
Recently the New York Times Magazine ran an article about a new movie called Monogamy by Dana Adam Shapiro.16 In 2008, Shapiro came to realize that many of his married thirty-something friends were breaking up. In preparation for making a film about it, he decided to do an oral history of breaking up—collecting fifty in-depth interviews with people who had seen their marriages dissolve. He did no research, however, on happy, long-term marriages. When asked why he did not do that, he paraphrased Tolstoy: “All happy couples are the same. Which is to say they’re just boring.”17 “So it will not be surprising,” the Times reporter concluded, “to say that the film, in the end, takes a grim, if not entirely apocalyptic, view of relationships.” The movie depicts two people who love each other very much but who simply “can’t make it work.” In other interviews about the movie, the filmmaker expresses his belief that it is extraordinarily hard though not completely impossible for two modern persons to love each other without stifling one another’s individuality and freedom. In the reporter’s words, the never-married Shapiro, though he hopes to be married someday and does not believe his film is antimarriage, finds an “intractable difficulty” with monogamy. In this he reflects the typical view of young adults, especially in the more urban areas of the United States.
As the pastor of a church containing several thousand single people in Manhattan, I have talked to countless men and women who have the same negative perceptions about marriage. However, they underestimate the prospects for a good marriage. All surveys tell us that the number of married people who say they are “very happy” in their marriages is high—about 61–62 percent—and there has been little decrease in this figure during the last decade. Most striking of all, longitudinal studies demonstrate that two-thirds of those unhappy marriages out there will become happy within five years if people stay married and do not get divorced.18 This led University of Chicago sociologist Linda J. Waite to say, “the benefits of divorce have been oversold.”19
During the last two decades, the great preponderance of research evidence shows that people who are married consistently show much higher degrees of satisfaction with their lives than those who are single, divorced, or living with a partner.20 It also reveals that most people are happy in their marriages, and most of those who are not and who don’t get divorced eventually become happy. Also, children who grow up in married, two-parent families have two to three times more positive life outcomes than those who do not.21 The overwhelming verdict, then, is that being married and growing up with parents who are married are enormous boosts to our well-being.
Timothy Keller and Kathy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God, 1st ed. (New York: Dutton, 2011), 22–26.
We have just released a new Bible Study on the book The Meaning of Marriage by Tim Keller
These lessons are available on Amazon, as well as a part of my Good Questions Have Groups Talking Subscription Service. Like Netflix for Bible Lessons, one low subscription gives you access to all our lessons–thousands of them. For a medium-sized church, lessons are as little as $10 per teacher per year.
Each lesson consists of 20 or so ready-to-use questions that get groups talking. Answers are provided in the form of quotes from respected authors such as John Piper, Max Lucado and Beth Moore.
These lessons will save you time as well as provide deep insights from some of the great writers and thinkers from today and generations past. I also include quotes from the same commentaries that your pastor uses in sermon preparation.
Ultimately, the goal is to create conversations that change lives.