In case you were wondering, I am still not married. Thus, I still keep my eyes and ears open for marriage advice to tuck away for later (thanks, secret Pinterest boards!) and for advice on how to become unsingled. That’s like a conscious uncoupling, but in the other direction.
Not all of the advice I gather is specifically religious. As many popes and Catholic scientists have reminded us, the Church is not opposed to science. Even Pope Francis studied chemistry. In the “soft” sciences, I’ve always been fascinated by research done in psychology and sociology, although I have no desire to enter the field myself. I seek to understand humanity on an empirical level as well as a spiritual one.
I’m learning plenty about building strong spiritual foundations for a lifelong marriage. Unfortunately, investigative data into what makes a marriage last until death (i.e. not end in divorce) is hard to come by. As University of Denver researcher Dr. Scott Stanley points out, in addition to the problem of all the subjects outliving the researchers, by the time anyone gets the results, the generation they apply to will already be dead or divorced. That’s actually the goal, in a backwards sort of way: in order to see whether a specific group of marriages end in death/widowhood or divorce, you have to wait until almost everyone dies. When you finally have results, they apply to a generation that is mostly dead. Thus, the “half of all marriages end in divorce” statistic literally does not apply to people marrying today. But it’s not zero, and that’s not good. So, scientifically, what can we do to aim for the best camp, the marriages that last for a lifetime?
Looking at the brighter side, Stanley offers a list of advice for singles about how to lower the risk of divorce. That’s right up my alley. He summarizes the conclusions from research, his own and others’, regarding factors for risk of divorce. Compared to reading all the studies yourself, his articles are a piece of cake.
My three highlights from the list of individual and couple risk factors for divorce are age, cohabitation, and religion. First, as far as the research is concerned, “marrying young” means before college graduation. Once your age doesn’t end in “-teen,” your risk of divorce based solely on age is negligible. Second, contrary to prevailing opinion, living together before marriage does not lower risk of divorce. Failing a wedding, engagement seems to be line between normal and increased risk. Catholics should not live with their romantic partners until after the wedding, but even secular couples should toss out that “test drive” concept. Third, couples who belong to different religions are at a higher risk of divorce. Based on the non-scientific research I did when I worked in marriage prep, couples of different religions can sustain a marriage for life when neither or only one partner is religiously involved. If the other gets more involved in a different religion, that can be a significant source of conflict. Those are things to keep in mind for secular and religious couples alike.
Stanley goes on to provide specific advice for singles who want their best chance at a marriage that lasts for a lifetime. My favorite is the cornerstone of his research, a phrase you may have heard before: sliding versus deciding. Many couples slide into marriage instead of making a conscious decision to marry. From a research point of view, the primary risk of cohabitation is that it makes splitting up much, much harder. You want to have every opportunity to figure out if this is the right person to marry and every escape path if you decide not to marry. Cohabitation makes that decision and escape much tougher.
When you’ve signed a lease with someone, you’re still responsible for the rent after you break up. When your home is full of “our” furnishings, you might be left with nothing of your own but some throw pillows, an armchair, and a pile of clothes. When you’ve been living together for so long that your friends forget you aren’t actually married, separation can eliminate your social circle. People are more likely to marry their live-in partners even when they can identify factors they would have rejected in a spouse before they moved in with that partner. That’s not good, and these are all practical reasons to avoid cohabitation, to say nothing of the spiritual risks of fornication and scandal.
But all is not lost! Marriage is still a positive estate, and you can still make it last a lifetime. Stanley writes:
Some people avoid marriage because of their fear of divorce, but avoiding marriage won’t really reduce one’s chances of experiencing heartache and family instability. To really avoid the possibility of such pain, one would need to avoid love, sex, and children altogether. For some, avoiding marriage may actually increase their likelihood of experiencing the very thing they fear—heartache and break-up—because marriage can be a potent force for clarifying and reinforcing commitment between two people.
So don’t slide into marriage. Decide to make that commitment. Know your risk factors, but believe in the power of the sacrament to smooth over your rough edges. There is hope for us single folk yet.