A marriage ended last month, maybe you read about it in Us Weekly? Gwenyth Paltrow and Chris Martin are getting a divorce…except they aren’t calling it that. They’re calling it “conscious uncoupling,” a linguistic decision that touched off a minor media firestorm. (If you’re scratching you head, see this WSJ article for a fun taxonomic history.)
Last week, I got this email from one of my readers, a woman who has been through her own divorce, and I share it now with her permission:
Okay–so I saw the news about Gwyneth and Chris yesterday and was sad. Then, I read their announcement about how they’re choosing to call this “conscious uncoupling” and I was like “what now?” and then I read a million articles where it seemed like everyone was praising them and calling them heroic and bla bla bla and I was like “what’s going on in the world today?!”
Then this morning I found this L.A. Times article and was happy again: The bogus science behind Paltrow and Martin’s ‘conscious uncoupling’. I’m curious though–what is your take on it?
First, a quick recap for anyone who missed this: Gwyneth and Chris announced their uncoupling in this article on Paltrow’s “Goop” website. The couple announced their intention to avoid divorcing in a rancorous swirl of tears and plate-flinging, and to instead seek a kind, cooperative and respectful path toward separation. Now there’s nothing wrong with that, especially with two children involved. I applaud such efforts.
If only they had stopped there… It’s one thing to say your own marriage didn’t work out and you’re doing your best to split amicably. It’s quite another to say that nobody should really expect marriages to work out anyway…but that’s what they did.
After a short note from the couple, the article goes on to include a long-winded treatise by two doctors (presumably psychologists though who knows) who argue that marriage was never meant to last a “lifetime” by today’s definition. It used to work, they say, because we didn’t live very long. Since life expectancy has jumped by some forty years since 1900, and divorce rates have increased over that same period, clearly humans don’t have the biological or emotional equipment to remain happily married to one person for decades.
Wow. There are many problems with the historical and logical foundation of these claims that I’m not sure where to start. They make it sound like adding a few decades to life magically precludes the possibility of a long and happy marriage. Huh?
If marriage were actually getting worse, we could at least consider the point. But for most of us, marriage is getting better.
First, let’s just get our historical facts in order. According to my sources, in the Western world of 1900, life expectancy was in the high fifties and the average marriage lasted a full 35 years . Despite the fact that they might live to be eighty, Paltrow and Martin’s marriage lasted just over ten.
The much bigger problem with the Paltrow-Martin argument is its implication that nothing has changed about marriage in the last 114 years other than human lifespan. I don’t have to tell you that causal picture doesn’t make sense. Pick your issue—the role of woman, prosperity, the workplace, birth control, educational attainment, retirement, no-fault divorce, Freud, pornography, social stigma. Our whole concept of marriage and divorce has changed. Did you know, for example, that people didn’t even think of marriage as a “sexualized” concept until they saw on-screen kissing in the 1920s? I could point out a million other differences. There is very little comparison between a modern-day couple pondering marriage or divorce and a couple doing the same in 1900.
Furthermore, I think marriage in Western society has changed substantially enough since 1900 that you could call it a crazy experiment right now. Or at least I do. A majority of young people jump into the relationship landscape these days armed with a high school education, some rent money, birth control, hope for a loving and intimate union, and the freedom to delay marriage until they find someone they want to marry. How long have people like that been taking a swing at the institution? Really, it’s only been for the last few decades.
The good news is this marriage experiment is going well. On many counts, and in many places, marriage is thriving in America today. Ponder these facts:
1. Husbands cheat a lot less: Since 1975, American couples of all types (heterosexual, gay, and lesbian) have grown significantly more monogamous. In 1975, 27% of husbands reported having had a “meaningful love affair” with a partner they cared about. By 2000, a piddling 1.3% of husbands had bedded such a woman. Casual flings are dwindling too. In 1975, 28% of husbands reported a hookup, in contrast to only 10% in 2000. Even better, our values are changing. The number of people who think it’s ok to cheat, lie, or keep secrets in marriage has dropped dramatically in the past forty years. (Read more: Have Husbands Really Stopped Cheating?
2. Young people are less likely to get divorced than their parents: The “traditional family” people have their facts backwards. They make it sound like Americans never split up before the sexual revolution, but in fact, 1 in 3 marriages ended in divorce by 1946 . Today, this contingent argues that divorce is “more prevalent than ever,” when it has actually been declining since 1980 for everybody except the baby boomers. If you weren’t born between 1946 and 1965, your chances of staying married have been on the mend since 1980. Check out this chart below, taken from a recent Washington Post article:
To place yourself, just find your age bracket along the bottom and slide your finger up to the 2010 line. That’s the percentage of people your age who have ever gotten married and then gotten divorced, as of 2010. I’m 32, so about 25% of people my age have ever married and then split up. As you may notice, that figure is lower today than it was in 1980 or 1995.
3. We have happier marriages today than we used to. In 1957, less than one-third of working-class couples were “happily or very happily” married, while 47% of married couples across class were “very happy.”  According to the 2010 report “The State of Our Unions”, 69% of college grads were “very happy” with their marriage by 2000, as were 57% of high school grads and just over half of high school drop-outs. Across class, our marriages are happier these days than they were in the supposed “golden age” of the 1950s. (Did you know that the 50s was the first time that Americans started promoting the idea that people should be having fun in their marriages? That might have helped us some!) Remember that today’s happy marriage figures include the less-stable baby-boomers, and would likely be even higher without them. (Read more: Go to College, Earn a Happy Marriage.)
All in all, we cheat less, we divorce less, and more of us are happier in marriage. Even the poorest people in our nation are more likely to be happy with their spouse now than they were in 1947. Sounds to me like marriage is getting better, not falling apart because we have a few more decades on our hands.
In fact, I’m willing to say something wild: If you haven’t reached your fiftieth birthday, I actually think that NOW might be the best time in history for you to have a happy marriage on today’s terms.
So get out there!
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 Stephanie Coontz (2005). Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, p. 224.
 Stephanie Coontz (2005). Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, p. 237.