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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 3,2002

Marriages quicker to fall

By Karen S. Peterson
USA Today

 •  Young adults and marriage

About twentysomethings and marriage:

• One in three experienced a parental divorce before they were 17.

• About half of Generation X was married as of 1999.

• About 94 percent are looking first for a "soul mate" in marriage; 86 percent expect to find theirs.

• About $38 billion is spent annually on weddings.

• The divorce rate for all new marriages is about 43 percent.

Source: "The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony"

Divorcing before you're 30 is becoming so common that it is creating a demographic phenomenon: the starter marriage. The union lasts a few years and ends before children arrive, a new study says.

Women today generally marry at 25; men, at 27. Young couples may be together months, not decades, as divorce occurs progressively earlier.

Even though the divorce rate actually leveled off in the 1990s, from about 50 percent of new marriages to about 43 percent currently, a 2001 survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 20 percent of divorces in first marriages now occur within five years.

Statistics on marriage and divorce are difficult to come by. But Pamela Paul, 30, an editor at American Demographics, says her research shows that "the most common time for a marriage to end in divorce is in the first five years. And of those early divorces, about one-quarter end within two years."

Paul's findings are in a new book, "The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony" (Random House, $24.95).

Not everyone is content with her take on early divorces. Paul has identified an unfortunate trend, many experts agree. But they find the fallout for society to be more troublesome than she does.

"Divorcing in the first couple of years is a common pattern," says David Popenoe, a sociologist at Rutgers University and a founder of the National Marriage Project. But labeling starter marriages a trend or a phenomenon isn't helpful, he says. "It establishes marriage as a low-commitment relationship, and that is exactly what most people do not want."

Says Maggie Gallagher, co-author of "The Case for Marriage": "There is no need to redefine this as starter marriages. The more you think of it that way, the less you think of it as a permanent bond."

The twentysomethings who marry do expect it to be permanent, Paul says. "They are not testing the waters and intending to trade up for something better later. This generation is extremely optimistic about marriage," she says, even though they have seen marriages shatter all around them. "Generation X believes they can do marriage better."

Yet many unions crumble like stale wedding cake in less time than it takes to plan the nuptials, Paul says. "These couples devote 1 1/2 years to planning the wedding, this huge party, and don't give a thought to the idea they will be with this partner for 50 years." (Paul's own starter marriage ended when she was 27, after less than one year.)

Risk factors

The young adults are not a pack of losers, Paul emphasizes. She interviewed about 60 veterans of starter marriages from 30 states — predominantly white, middle class to upper middle class, and mostly college-educated. Although some had endured problems from alcoholism to infidelity, most seemed to have it all together, appearing from the outside to be overachievers and "power couples" on their way to happily ever after, she says. But still, they sank into a sea of problems.

Some of the risk factors for having a starter marriage, according to Paul:

  • The divorces of parents: "These are the first children of the divorce generation," Paul says. Their parents split in the "spike of divorces in the early '70s," after states began changing their no-fault divorce laws, making ending marriages easier. These parents didn't serve as role models for staying together.
  • Lack of guidance from parents: Aware that they themselves had divorced, parents backed off talking about what makes marriage work, Paul says. The parents' mantra became, "Whatever makes you happy."
  • Culture of impatience: "We are a one-click culture," she says, "an impatient generation in an impatient society" that wants to download life quickly. When the young hit a pothole, they abandon the road. "It felt easy to move on, especially if they felt they were nipping something bad in the bud."
  • Immaturity: "Many said, 'We just met, but we were totally in love.' They rushed to the altar."
  • Living together: Many didn't rush to the altar, trying instead to switch from a "trial marriage" to a real one, believing that seemed the next logical step. It didn't work. Divorce rates are higher for those who have lived together — some studies show up to 48 percent higher — than for those who have not cohabited. Reasons vary, from conflict over where the relationship is going, to a union of two non-traditionalists who basically don't believe in marriage.
  • Pressure to marry: Paul cites a "marriage culture" that promotes "matrimania." "Not only is it a lonely world out there on your own, but choosing to be there is downright un-American."

The message to marry is everywhere, she says. "Weddings have morphed into massive extravaganzas," costing from $20,000 on up, she writes. And while couples may choose a wedding planner, they don't know anything about planning for the marriage.

Rewarding benefits

Paul does not want to see these marriages crash and burn. She does not advocate early divorce. "Nobody wants to see a marriage fail. And for somebody who has been successful, gone to the right school, has the right job, to fail in such a public way is traumatizing."

But there is an upside if the starter marriage leads to future stability. "Those coming out of starter marriages really learn about themselves, how they function in a relationship, about what marriage really means. And they divorce before there are kids, making a purposeful decision if the marriage is getting worse."

Paul calls for support from parents, religious leaders and married peers who can provide "a better understanding of marriage" and reduce unrealistic expectations for lifelong wedded bliss. "If we don't know how to get married appropriately or stay married once we do, perhaps our culture and society are failing to teach us," she says.

Diane Sollee praises Paul's identification of a generation at risk for starter marriages. And she faults the "grown-ups" for providing "young adults with such messed-up messages, such faulty and flawed operating instructions" for how to make marriage work.

A former marriage therapist, Sollee is founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. Her Web site, www.smartmarriages.com, provides a guide for relationship courses for couples.

Both Paul and Sollee applaud what they say Generation X wants: a marriage of equals, in which "both men and women do the work of the marriage," as Sollee puts it.

Is Paul optimistic about the future of matrimony?

"Let's say I am a realistic optimist," she says. "People who have had starter marriages, myself included, still firmly believe in marriage. Having an ally to go through life with, and raising a child in marriage, for me, is the ideal."