Top 10 Marriage Myths
By David Popenoe
The most recent U.S. Census figures confirm what most everyone already knows — divorce rates, indeed, are on the rise.
With nearly half of all marriages ending in divorce, many couples are starting to re-evaluate their relationships.
But before you start any heady analysis, it's important to know the facts from the myths when it comes to marriage:
Marriage Myth 1: Marriage benefits men much more than women.
Fact: Contrary to earlier and widely publicized reports, recent research finds men and women to benefit about equally from marriage, although in different ways. Both men and women live longer, happier, healthier and wealthier lives when they are married. Husbands typically gain greater health benefits, while wives gain greater financial advantages.
Marriage Myth 2: Having children typically brings a married couple closer together and increases marital happiness.
Fact: Many studies have shown that the arrival of the first baby commonly has the effect of pushing the mother and father farther apart, and bringing stress to the marriage. However, couples with children have a slightly lower rate of divorce than childless couples.
Marriage Myth 3: The keys to long-term marital success are good luck and romantic love.
Fact: Rather than luck and love, the most common reasons couples give for their long-term marital success are commitment and companionship. They define their marriage as a creation that has taken hard work, dedication and commitment (to each other and to the institution of marriage). The happiest couples are friends who share lives and are compatible in interests and values.
Marriage Myth 4: The more educated a woman becomes, the lower are her chances of getting married.
Fact: A recent study based on marriage rates in the mid-1990s concluded that today's women college graduates are more likely to marry than their non-college peers, despite their older age at first marriage. This is a change from the past, when women with more education were less likely to marry.
Marriage Myth 5: Couples who live together before marriage, and are thus able to test how well suited they are for each other, have more satisfying and longer-lasting marriages than couples who do not.
Fact: Many studies have found that those who live together before marriage have less satisfying marriages and a considerably higher chance of eventually breaking up. One reason is that people who cohabit may be more skittish of commitment and more likely to call it quits when problems arise. But in addition, the very act of living together may lead to attitudes that make happy marriages more difficult. The findings of one recent study, for example, suggest "there may be less motivation for cohabiting partners to develop their conflict resolution and support skills." (One important exception: Cohabiting couples who are already planning to marry each other in the near future have just as good a chance at staying together as couples who don't live together before marriage).
Marriage Myth 6: People can't be expected to stay in a marriage for a lifetime as they did in the past because we live so much longer today.
Fact: Unless our comparison goes back a hundred years, there is no basis for this belief. The enormous increase in longevity is due mainly to a steep reduction in infant mortality. And while adults today can expect to live a little longer than their grandparents, they also marry at a later age. The life span of a typical, divorce-free marriage, therefore, has not changed much in the past 50 years. Also, many couples call it quits long before they get to a significant anniversary: Half of all divorces take place by the seventh year of a marriage.
Marriage Myth 7: Marrying puts a woman at greater risk of domestic violence than if she remains single.
Fact: Contrary to the proposition that for men "a marriage license is a hitting license," a large body of research shows that being unmarried — and especially living with a man outside of marriage — is associated with a considerably higher risk of domestic violence for women. One reason for this finding is that married women may significantly underreport domestic violence. Further, women are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce a man who is violent. Yet it is probably also the case that married men are less likely to commit domestic violence because they are more invested in their wives' well-being, and more integrated into the extended family and community. These social forces seem to help check men's violent behavior.
Marriage Myth 8: Married people have less satisfying sex lives, and less sex, than single people.
Fact: According to a large-scale national study, married people have both more and better sex than do their unmarried counterparts. Not only do they have sex more often but they enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally.
Marriage Myth 9: Cohabitation is just like marriage, but without "the piece of paper."
Fact: Cohabitation typically does not bring the benefits — in physical health, wealth and emotional wellbeing — that marriage does. In terms of these benefits, cohabitants in the United States more closely resemble singles than married couples. This is due, in part, to the fact that cohabitants tend not to be as committed as married couples, and they are more oriented toward their own personal autonomy and less to the well-being of their partner.
Marriage Myth 10: Because of the high divorce rate, which weeds out the unhappy marriages, people who stay married have happier marriages than people did in the past when everyone stuck it out, no matter how bad the marriage.
Fact: According to what people have reported in several large national surveys, the general level of happiness in marriages has not increased and probably has declined slightly. Some studies have found in recent marriages, compared to those of 20 or 30 years ago, significantly more work-related stress, more marital conflict and less marital interaction.
Copyright 2002 by David Popenoe, the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.
David Popenoe is professor of sociology at Rutgers University, where he is also co-director of the National Marriage Project and former social and behavioral sciences dean. He specializes in the study of family and community life in modern societies and is the author or editor of nine books. His most recent books are Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable for the Good of Children and Society and Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America.
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