Part of the purpose of our School of Family Life is to explore the current societal perceptions of marriage and divorce, and ways that strong marriages can be encouraged and protected. Through the offering of three undergraduate degrees in human development, family studies, and consumer sciences, various graduate and doctoral degrees in marriage and family therapy, and numerous research projects exploring the various challenges to and facilitators of successful family life, faculty in that department strive to enhance the quality of life of individuals and families within the home and communities worldwide.
Their research, as explained in part in two recent essays entitled “Capstones vs. Cornerstones: Diverging Blueprints for Modern Marriage” and “Permanence vs. Divorce: Finding a Safe Place to Keep Our Hearts,” provide solid tips for marital success. In a time when the societal value and definition of marriage are in a state of flux, these tips are that much more important.
A Successful Marriage is Based on a Sound Foundation
In explaining the importance of premarital decisions, professors Dean Busby, Jason Carroll, Alan Hawkins, and Brian Willoughby point out that “when the bricks that build families are placed awkwardly, the structure is rickety.”
“We can do more to teach young people,” says Busby and his co-authors, “to give them the knowledge and skills and motivations needed to form a healthy marriage. This teaching needs to start in adolescence when ineffective relationship skills and patterns are already forming. And it needs to continue in young adulthood, when risky relationship trajectories often are set.
Pre-engagement cohabitation can cause those marital bricks to be placed awkwardly, according to Busby et-al’s research, as it “appears to be a risk factor for future marital problems.”
When couples commit to marriage, we can provide better premarital education to build a stronger foundation for a healthy, enduring marriage (or help a couple realize they are about to make a mistake). The reality is that the relational seeds of most divorces are present even before the marriage begins,39 so we need to improve couples’ skills at dealing with those issues from the start. Once couples marry, more educational services could help them fight off the inevitable forces of marital entropy and keep their relationships vital.
Overall, we can build a smart marriage culture, with a strong understanding that healthy, stable marriages are built on a known foundation of correct knowledge and motivations, as well as a set of effective skills that can be learned, practiced, and improved.
A Long-Term Mindset Makes All the Difference
While it may sound cliche, the importance of positive mindsets in successful marriages cannot be understated. Couples have to choose to not make divorce an option. Karl Pillemer, a professor of human development at Cornell University, says that couples avoided divorce when they “really had the mind-set they wanted to stay married.”
Busby states: “couples can approach a marriage like seasoned, long-term investors who ride out the frequent market undulations knowing the likelihood that a good investment will pay off in the long run. Marriage, like financial markets, is no place for the short-sighted or impatient.”
It may easily be argued that today’s individualistic society often corrupts the principle that marriage is the unification of two individuals. Interestingly, research conducted by Busby and other School of Family Life faculty states that
The capstone model of marriage emphasizes achieving certain milestones and getting your life together before making the big commitment to a life-long union. But what about those who struggle to get it all together? Among the educated and well off, marriage rates are high and divorce rates are low. But this is not the case among the disadvantaged.11 Nearly 25% of U.S. men and 20% of U.S. women ages 40–44 have never married. Thirty percent of men and nearly 25% of women with just a high school diploma have never married by the time they reach their 40s. And more than a third of Black men and women have never married by age 44.12 One research organization projects that 25% of today’s young adults will never marry by about age 50.13
Conversely, the “cornerstone” model of marriage emphasizes “a mutual growing together beginning in the more formative, soft-clay years. A cornerstone model of marriage emphasizes molding a “we-dentity” rather than connecting “I-dentities.” In mathematical terms, a cornerstone model of marriage is closer to 2 ÷ 2 = 1 than 1 + 1 = 2.”
Anything that is worthwhile requires effort. Busby says: “soul mates are created more than they are found.”
Another School of Family Life research project, American Families of Faith, demonstrates that “marriage benefits not merely from sharing the same faith, but from sharing similar levels of involvement and commitment.” Through various presentations and publications, the project endeavors to teach families of all faith how to:
- avoid and resolve marital conflict
- strengthen youth
- have meaningful conversations about religion
- learn from (and emulate) other faiths
- balance faith and family
The Benefits are Plentiful
Marriage, while entailing much effort, also provides great benefits, not the least of which are better health, wealth, according to Liscombe. Greater still, though, are the emotional and spiritual benefits: a happier life with greater hope for the future.