High expectations are not the cause of marriage failure

High expectations are not the cause of marriage failure. They’re an essential part of commitment.

The Times contribution to Valentine’s Day is an article claiming that marriages fail today because we expect too much of one another. Psychologist Eli Finkel of Northwest University Illinois points out that in the 1800s couples concentrated on the practicalities of making sure the chickens were fed and protected properly. Today we are expected to help one another “flourish as a person”.

I just don’t buy this analysis.

It’s no good looking back to the 1800s for comparison when all of the major changes in family structures and habits have taken place since the 1960s. By that time, most people were already decades past worrying about the practical issues of self-sustenance. Professor Finkel could just as well have made his comparison from the perspective of the 1960s – or even the 1950s. And there would have been no evidence to support his claim.

So what’s changed since the 1960s? Two words. Birth control.

Until the introduction of the pill in the early 1960s, any wise woman – most women even – would want to check out any potential partner for his future prospects long before jumping into bed. Marriage was – and is – the way couples celebrated the end of the checking out process and the beginning of family life. As evidence for this, the proportion of babies born outside marriage – apart from brief blips around the two world wars – never exceeded 5% from the early 1800s all the way through to the 1960s. It was only in the 1980s that births outside marriage began to take off.

Before the pill, sex meant children. Children required commitment. Commitment meant marriage.

It’s only since the 1960s that living together without getting married, and then having a baby without being married, became a serious option. The growing popularity and social acceptance of unmarried cohabitation really only gained momentum in the 1980s.

To me, it is the gradual acceptance of cohabitation as a precursor, as an alternative, and as a way out of marriage that far better explains the rise and fall in divorce rates – and therefore why marriages work or not.

In a nutshell, it is easy to “slide” into cohabiting without really committing. But if things go less well than planned, the added entanglement of living together tempts couples who might otherwise have split up to keep going and “slide” into having a baby and even “slide” into marriage. But real commitment requires couples to be intentional about their future together, to “decide” to marry, to “decide to have a baby. Couples who “slide” rather than “decide” are therefore inevitably more likely to split up when expectations aren’t met. More cohabitation means a higher proportion of fragile relationships “sliding” into marriage. Divorce rates then rise as these fragile relationships – which would never have started before the 1960s – end and couples look for other potential partners. None of these options were widely available before the pill.

After the big rise in divorce through the 1970s and 80s, the situation is now reversing fast. Cohabitation has become socially acceptable. So there is much less pressure to marry. Fewer “sliders” means only those couples who really mean it get married. The result is that divorce rates have now fallen 35% in the early years as couples begin their married life on a stronger footing.

Professor Finkel is right that we have to work at our marriages. High expectations require some degree of effort. Frankly I doubt that has been any different since the 1960s – and maybe even since the 1800s. The difference today is that the pill has given us choices that we never had before the 1960s.

All marriages are vulnerable to some extent. All go through ups and downs. Some are bound to fail. Indeed my research shows that the proportion of couples who divorce after the first ten years of marriage hasn’t changed at all since the 1960s.

Marriage depends on the choices we have and whether we “slide” through them or “decide” into them. It’s in the earliest years that we have always seen the highest divorce rates. It’s in the earliest years that all of the change in divorce since the 1960s has taken place.

The key to understanding why more fail today than in the past lies less in whether we fall short of high expectations and more in how strongly we commit to our marriage in the first place.

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2 thoughts on “High expectations are not the cause of marriage failure

  1. Comment from Disqus, Dr Malcom Rigler: I have worked as an NHS GP for over 30 years. During that time I have been “alongside” numerous women and some men upset even destroyed by divorce – likewise many grand parents . It is an issue that most GPs encounter from time to time. Whilst divorce is regrettable sometimes it is the best thing to happen and can lead to a wider social network for children , emotional growth and development for the divorcees. Listening to a Radio 4 programme a few years ago I heard that in one culture at least separation and divorce is “almost expected” with the adults involved needing 2 or 3 attempts to be able to cope with and even enjoy “married life”. Within this culture ( not within Europe I seem to recall) the children at the time of any “split up” go to live with the fathers family it being assumed that the father and his family are best placed to “provide for the children” ( in the country concerned no social security system exists) . Might the Marriage Foundation reflect on this very different cultural approach to “divorce” ? In the UK so many men lose touch with their own children and the women involved sometimes struggle to “make ends meet” . During my career as a GP I sense that we are already well on the way in the UK to accepting that 2 or 3 attempts at “living together and being married” are needed to “make a go of marriage”. Might we seek to enliven this National debate by giving BBC air time to the very different cultural approach to “divorce” mentione above. I think that the “Fatherhood Trust” and other groups interested in making sure that children have good access to both their mum and dad after a “split up” would be interested to join in the conversation.

  2. Comment from Disqus, Harry Benson: Thank you Malcolm. I’m not sure how one might define “2 or 3 attempts” but I can certainly relate to the value of sticking it out “for better for worse”. I also agree with you that some couples are better off divorced, leaving aside the issue that couples are much more likely to split if they are not married. For the children however, outcomes are generally only better where the parents had high levels of conflict. Low conflict divorces (or unmarried separations) are devastating because the kids don’t see it coming. The best research on this has been done by Paul Amato in the US. Here in the UK, our analysis of the biggest current household study appears to show that most splits involve low conflict couples. That’s a preliminary finding that needs a bit more data to show that the finding is robust. We’ll do something on that this summer. And finally, yes, I read lots of research on the importance of both parents. The trouble is that nobody has yet come up with an effective way of engaging fathers post-separation. They either do or they don’t. The strongest predictor of father involvement in couples is being married. If you split, the strongest predictor is being previously married.

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