Marriage: are we in for the long haul?

21 Jul

Four years ago, my husband and I went to Phoenix, AZ for his 20th high school reunion. I walked away surprised and disheartened about how many of his classmates were divorced. Our life as a couple was really just beginning – we had only been married three years, and we had a six-month-old baby. It was hard for me to believe that other people – only a few years older than me – had divorced, and in some cases already remarried. My experience at the reunion made me wonder if our generation was doomed to repeat the mistakes of our parents’ generation. I had hoped we would do better.

These are the issues that Susan Gregory Thomas grapples with in her new book, In Spite of Everything: A Memoir. I mentioned in last week’s post that I rarely find time to read a whole book these days, but I was lucky enough to run across an excerpt from In Spite of Everything in a national newspaper. Thomas is a child of a harrowing divorce, and in her book she examines how split families impacted our generation (Gen X). As the book title implies, she also struggles with the end of her own marriage, despite her best intentions “not to imbed my children in the torture of a split family.”

I am one of the lucky ones — my parents are still together after more than 40 years of marriage. I am thankful not to have lived through a family meltdown, and I am thankful to have witnessed what a solid and successful marriage looks like. However, I don’t think any of us growing up in the 80s escaped the shadow divorce cast over our youth. We all knew – at least second-hand – that the most important institution in our lives, our family, was fragile.

According to statistics from the National Marriage Project (cited in Thomas’s book), American divorces peaked in 1980. That was the year I was in the third grade, and I remember the constant stream of news about classmates’ parents splitting up. I remember the angry boy who threw his desk across the room, the girl who came back to school in the fourth grade with a new last name, and the sullen kid who went to live with his grandparents because “dad was gone.” Despite having only seen my parents fight once in my life, I remember asking my mom repeatedly if Dad was going to leave. (I don’t think it occurred to me that mommies leave too.)

By the time I was in high school, my peer group’s parents lived up to the national statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce. But the landscape I remember is not as bleak as what Thomas described in her book. She writes: “Growing up, my brother and I were often left to our own devices, members of the giant flock of latchkey kids in the 1970s and 80s. Our suburb was littered with sad-eyed, bruised nomads, who wandered back and forth between used-record shops to the sheds behind the train station where they got high ….” She also cites a 2004 marketing study about generational differences that reports that our generation “went through its all-important formative years as the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history.” Fortunately my friends all had at least one supportive, involved parent to keep them from completely derailing during adolescence, but that’s not to say everyone did, it may just have been the kids I knew.

Because of the divorce epidemic, I was in no rush to get to the altar. I knew I needed to figure out who I was before I merged my life with someone else’s. I also figured I should enjoy the freedom of not having to answer to parents or compromise with a spouse for at least a few years. I remember sitting down with my two best friends our senior year of high school and prognosticating about when we would all get married. I said that I couldn’t imagine marrying before 29. I was right, I married at 31.

In my early 20s, I was truly shocked when friends’ announced their engagements. Didn’t they have more things they wanted to do on their own? Weren’t we all going to stay single and hang out like the cast of Friends? Were they really mature enough to commit to spend the rest of their lives together? Did they know what they were in for? And didn’t they know getting married at 24 was, like, so 1960? I also remember thinking that I was – in a way – thankful for divorce. I knew some of these “just-out-of-college unions” wouldn’t last, and that the victims would need to reboot their lives. I also appreciated the insurance of knowing I could press the eject button and legally and acceptably end a marriage if it took a tragic turn.

According to Thomas’ book, our generation is doing better than our parents’. She points to statistics from the National Marriage Project that divorce rates in 2009 (the most recent data available) were the lowest since 1970. We are marrying later in life, which one would hope means we are more mature and ready to handle the responsibility of a lifelong commitment, and most of us had a few years after college to grow into adulthood.

It will be years before we can write the headline on Gen Xers and marriage. It is unlikely our marriages will have the longevity of our grandparents’ generation, but hopefully our families will be more stable than the baby boomers. I will report back after the 30th high school reunion.


3 Responses to “Marriage: are we in for the long haul?”

  1. Anonymous July 21, 2011 at 7:33 pm #

    Hey Kathleen, I enjoyed the post, and it’s certainly relevant, especially as we’ve seen most of our friends now marry and watch some of them creep toward divorce. I do wonder what role information plays into this – similar to the way I believe more information about parenting elicits, at times, an unhealthy amount of navel-gazing that can narrow our focus so acutely on parenting or in this case, our marriage, to the exclusion of outside interests or engagements, that we’re simply destined to implode.

    I sometimes think our instutions – social, biological, religious – were never intended to withstand conteporary scrutiny – kind of like our bodies were never intended to sit at a computer all day and snack on potato chips. Obviously, we’ve made great social and cultural strides through institutional reinvention, and then we still (me included) go home and cry into our pillows. Or take drugs of one kind or anotherjust to get out of bed.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.


    • 40countdown July 22, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

      Hey — I agree we may have too much information, and that we probably spend too much time wondering if we are really happy, could be happier, etc. I also think that the baby boomer generation was doomed for divorce. They came of age during the most significant social change in our country’s history. The sexual revolution and the women’s movement raised the stakes significantly for what women wanted from marriage, and I dare say many men weren’t ready for it. I also think the “challenge authority” “if it feels good do it” and counterculture influences of the 1960s gave boomers a heavy dose of feeling that personal happiness was more important than commitment. I doubt that most boomers realized how devestating divorce would be on kids. After all, they grew up in a time when children were seen but not heard, and the interest of the family was put before the interest of an individual child. However, back then, because of strong family units and more well-defined community values, parents really didn’t need to be as involved in their kids lives then as we do now. (that’s probably another post entirely.) I think our generation is having a tough time with marriage because we are the first generation to really have modern families with two parents working and two parents actively involved in raising kids — we are in uncharted territory. Also, according to a stat from Thomas’ book, more than 40 percent of us are from broken homes, so we don’t have the benefit of knowing what a stable marriage looks like. I do think that our family lives will be more successful than boomers’ … I am also really interested in how millienials will reinvent marriage and family.
      Thanks for your comments Bud — miss you!!!


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