And the answer is a resounding, No. Having tolerated the relationship until the last launched from high school, these women stayed for the kids.
Sociologists Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin crunched the numbers and found that in 1990 only one in 10 people over fifty divorced. By 2009, the number multiplied to one in four. Strangely enough, the divorce rate fell in other age brackets.
And not as many people are marrying at all, lately, which makes some of us wonder about the fate of the institution. Is it is destined to survive? Other types of commitment are possible, and marriage appears to be a contract that is difficult and expensive to break.
It is quite socially acceptable, too, avoiding marriage altogether, moving in together, even having children sans contract. We couples therapists, however, always have a sprinkling of such couples who come to see us to resolve differences about that kinda-sorta marriage, the as what state. (Come with me, I have a great job in Seattle. . . As what?) One of the two partners in these cases wants to get married.
The investigators of the new study conceptualize marriage in the past century as having evolved, the endpoint of that evolution being its own demise. Prior to the 1940's, the arrangement was institutional, marriage an economic necessity. Then in the fifties and sixties, successful marriage meant successful role playing-- women were to shine as mothers and wives; men, as providers.
Children of the seventies ushered in an era of self-fulfillment and individualization. The Me Generation, according to Brown and Lin, leaned toward selfishness, which apparently undermined their relationships. Voila, reaching maturity in their fifties, they divorce and go their separate ways.
Now who would have ever thought that? Self-centeredness leads to divorce. But there's more. The plot thickens, according to Susan Gregory Thomas, the Wall Street Journal:
For many boomers, it is not their first marital split. Fifty-three percent of the people over 50 now getting divorced have done so at least once before. . . .Having been married previously doubles the risk of divorce for those ages 50 to 64. For those ages 65 and up, the risk factor quadruples. For boomers who have had trouble maintaining commitments in the past, hitting the empty-nest phase seems to trigger thoughts of mortality—and of vanishing possibilities for self-fulfillment.That finding alone gives us pause, me, anyway. Couples who weather the storm once, may not have to weather it a second or third time. This is not an argument against divorce, understand, but it is an argument that the selfishness, or need for self-fulfillment, isn't behind the rise in divorce statistics.
The theory about self-fulfillment a marriage buster leaves much to be desired. In a good marriage seeing to the happiness of the other is what partners do, have done for generations. Other factors, and they are numerous, wear down relationships. That much we know.
Defining a generation as self-absorbed, selfish, especially the gen that thumbed its nose to the materialism of its parents, is a very broad stroke. This is my generation we're talking about, and we spread evenly on that normal curve. Traits of a population always distribute evenly in every generation.
That means that any one of the Me Generation, on average, is selfish or generous, some of us more than others. I would like to see the group comparison study that indicates ours is somehow quantifiably different in selfishness than the generations before. Define this self-absorption, selfishness, and show me the t-scores, the f-scores. One thing to theorize such things. Quite another to prove it.
So what is going on?
It is the elephant in the room, and it won't make me popular to say it, and no, I can't quote a study, it is only an opinion, and yes, there are countless exceptions. But what might hold couples together, values, also likely pulls them apart, differences in values. Couples who share what is important (and these often come from religion, seeking guidance from elders or God) are more likely to stick it out. Following the rules, respecting one another (that 51% positive communication factor we talk about here) tends to make people better partners.
As a social scientist, however, I would frame that, having shared values, as stacking the odds that problem solving in marriage will be successful. It is the very essence of marriage and family therapy, problem solving, and surely, successful conflict resolution renders marriage not only tolerable, but intimate.
Argue with one another, empathize, and resolve. If we do that, growing old with together doesn't feel scary at all.
Post Script: Again, not every marriage can succeed, and certainly problem solving is dependent upon a certain emotional maturity, and a psychological-disorder-managed system, to say nothing of those in-laws.