Everyone hopes for the best as they watch the couple march down the aisle and head to the altar, but many privately wonder, “Will they last?” The conventional wisdom (which is so often wrong) is that half of all marriages end in divorce. That haunts every wedding, but success or failure in marriage is not “a random coin flip,” according to Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman. At the time of a couple’s wedding, there are factors already at work that can raise the odds of divorce to as high as 70 percent, or lower it to nearly 20 percent, according to Bronson and Merryman.
Bronson and Merryman’s New York Magazine articles on the science of parenting have won the magazine journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and a Clarion Award. Their articles for Time Magazine have won the award for outstanding journalism from the Council on Contemporary Families. Prior to collaborating, Bronson authored five books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller What Should I Do With My Life? Merryman’s journalism has appeared in The Washington Post and The National Catholic Reporter.
Contrary to what many conservative commentators say, the divorce has been dropping since 1980, and has now stabilized. An average couple that makes it to their 15th anniversary (and about 57 percent do) means most will round that final corner of “til death do us part ” together.
Bronson and Merryman group the risk factors into three categories:
1) the couple’s relationship, 2) their money, and 3) their family history.
The couple’s age matters. The couple just out of high school faces an uphill climb, but the odds improve dramatically if the partners are at least 25. However, marrying at age 35 is not any better than age 25.
Most couples today cohabit before they marry. Those who cohabit before marriage with the full intention to get married are in a better place than those who move into together because “it was the logical thing to do, since he was always at her place anyway.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom (which holds that living together is a “trial period” that helps prevent bad marriages because the couple can break up before taking an oath to each other) cohabitation does not improve marital success. The odds suggest the opposite; cohabiting couples divorce more. “Very likely, whatever it was that made them not want to get married in the first place ended up becoming a problem long-term,” say Bronson and Merryman.
The groom who substantially helps with the housework, cleaning, and cooking improves the odds for a successful marriage. The man who shares in the housework is also going to be involved in childrearing — another major benefit to the couple.
A second trip down the aisle for either bride or groom increases the odds of divorce because second timers often carry baggage from the previous failed marriage: uncooperative former partners who fight about custody and visitation and stepchildren to raise, but this risk is often overstated, according to Bronson and Merryman, who say that a middle-class second marriage has only 3 percent more risk than a first marriage.
Religion doesn’t make the couple happier with their marriage, but it does mean they might try a little harder to stick it out. Among the major religions, Catholics get divorced the least; Protestants the most. The religion is not as important as its practice. When the bride wants to be married in the chapel, and the groom wants a wedding at the beach at sunrise, the couple may have trouble down the road.
Money helps, but a relatively small amount of money goes a long way. The couple that earns a modest $50,000 as a family, their odds of seeing their 15th anniversary jumps to 68 percent. By and large, well-off couples divorce over personality conflict; poorer couples divorce over alcoholism, physical abuse, and money problems. Infidelity wrecks the marriages of both the rich and the poor. The bride and groom who are house hunting are in a better position because homeownership adds permanence to their lives and a community connection. The house is also a roadblock to divorce, being hard to divide, but homeowners are not happier in marriage than renters.
The children of divorced parents are at higher risk of divorce when they marry. It’s quite significant — it raises their odds of divorce by 14 percent. Children who grew up in homes where the parental conflict was “kept behind closed doors ” are more at risk than children who heard and saw their parents battling.“ Growing up in a home where they thought everything was fine — until their parents suddenly announced their divorce — leads those children not to trust their relationships.”
Women with poor relationships with their fathers are more likely to get divorced from their husband. That’s not the case for the groom — the quality of his relationship to his father does not impact his odds.
Risk factors can seem overwhelming because there’s very little an engaged couple can do to help themselves. They can’t reverse their parent’s divorce, and they can’t elevate their financial status overnight. However, a couple can improve their odds by waiting until the partners are 25, for instance. A young man can learn to scrub a toilet, roast a chicken, and change a diaper. If the bride does not get along with her father, she can create a strong bond with the groom’s family counteract their risk.
The couple’s expectations are a huge factor in the longevity of their marriage. Couples who attend premarital classes or counseling cut their odds of divorce by almost a third. No one knows if the classes actually change the couples, or if those couples are already realistic and savvy to the danger, which is why they were smart enough to take the class, but premarital counseling might be the best wedding gift any newlyweds can receive.