What is a “successful” marriage?

Whenever I speak about “alternative” relationships, or relationships involving some form of consensual nonmonogamy such as those of polyamorists, swingers, or in open marriages, someone in the audience inevitably asks, often with a smirk:  “But do those relationships last?” 

This is a valid question.  Most people are concerned with the longevity of their relationships and still pledge to stay together “‘til death do us part”—even if they do not follow through.  No one wants to become a divorce statistic.  In religious terms, of course, longevity is primary because marriage is a spiritual obligation.  The pursuit of happiness, self-fulfillment, or similar goals are not enough on which to base a marriage; nor, in this view, are such desires enough to justify ending one.  Longevity is also prized culturally, as divorce rates tend to be lower in countries where marriage is seen as a way to expand kin networks, organize household production of children or resources, or transmit property through the generations instead of a personal decision leading to a “happy ever after.”

The assumption underlying the question, then, is that it is best to stick to traditional arrangements if there is a possibility that these kinds of relationships fail, or if they fail at a greater rate than more traditional marriages.  After all, in the public imagination as well as in much academic research, the primary measure of marital success remains that of lastingness—even if the union is wracked with infidelities or hostilities, or the emotional ties between partners hang in shreds. 

On the other hand, relationships of all kinds fail.  The divorce rate in the United States is one of the highest in the world.[1]  The probability of divorce is often said to be around 50%, and although the accuracy of this number is debatable, the prospect of divorce haunts modern couples even as they approach the altar.  Vast social changes in the last few decades have impacted interpersonal relationships in the U.S.—changes in the legal system, more women in the workforce, strides towards gender equality, changing patterns of mobility, greater acceptance of cohabitation and premarital sex among some groups, and delayed marriage and child-rearing, to name just a few.  Sociologists now refer to “starter marriages,” or unions that end in divorce after just a few years, usually having produced no children.  Social and economic barriers to leaving unhappy marriages have been eroded for some groups of people and especially for women—something that even the critics of marital dissolution will grudgingly admit is potentially a positive development. 

Among many contemporary married couples in the U.S., the fact is that people are already valuing other aspects of marriage over the longevity.  Even in the earliest sociological musings about American culture, the tension between individualism and commitment has been a hallmark concern, manifesting in worries about the lastingness of marriage.  Increasing individualism has been blamed for the “breakdown” of the family and for the ephemeral nature of contemporary commitments.  Couples whose marriages last in such a social context may derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from this achievement. 

Yet interviews with married people show that there are multiple ways to evaluate a relationship, with lastingness being a major—but by far not the only—concern.  Individuals make decisions to leave marriages based on boredom, incompatibility, changing emotional needs, and feelings of “growing apart,” in addition to economic and geographic considerations.  People sometimes remain in marriages for financial reasons, out of guilt or fear, or because they feel they have no other romantic options—not because they value their commitments or are emotionally bonded to their partner.  The realities of split or blended families constrain geographical, financial, and emotional commitments that can be made in second marriages and also change basic practices (how holidays are celebrated, how important decisions involving children are made, or how one plans for retirement).  As everyday practices and expectations change—even in such small ways as when a preschool teacher does not assume the last name of a child matches her parents’ names—so too do the things people expect and want from their intimate relationships.  Similarly, the meanings of sex, love and marriage—which were once tightly intertwined—have diversified.  Sex might be viewed as an act of “love” or a type of recreation.  Regardless of what dominant cultural models prescribe, then, people are already living in ways that challenge those models.

After studying marriage for over a decade, I have come to believe that what we need now is a way to talk about—and study— these other considerations people use to evaluate their marriages without automatically passing judgment.  Part of the problem in doing so is methodological.  After all, how do we know if any particular marriage lasts?  Studying longevity in marriage requires following couples over time—a task that while not impossible, is expensive and difficult.  It would also probably require multiple researchers, because even if one researcher follows a series of couples over her career of thirty or forty years, in order to really know if a marriage “lasted” a couple would need to be followed until their deaths.  A divorce after 50 years is still a divorce. 

Unfortunately, what we end up with are “cross-sectional” studies, where married couples are interviewed at a single point in time and (sometimes) compared with divorced couples who are also interviewed or surveyed at a single point in time.  The problem with asking a survey or interview question about marriage at one point in time is that it is like stepping into a swiftly moving stream to observe the water—one may collect a sample but unless one continues to flow with the current, there can be no definite sense of what really lies ahead.  People also reinterpret their emotions and their decisions as life goes on.  A divorced individual, for example, might tell a researcher, “Now I know I never really loved him” or “The marriage was a mistake.”  But had they been interviewed prior to the split, the story might have been completely different. 

Despite these problems, longevity does have a clear, operationalizable definition—are the partners still together at T2? T3? until the end of their lives?   But other ways of evaluating a marriage are more nebulous.  How might we define “successful” in other ways?  How do we define a “good” marriage, or a “happy” marriage?  While survey instruments examining marital satisfaction or marital quality exist, they are primarily used in studies of married people—not those who divorced.  Could a marriage ever be studied retrospectively?  Can a “good marriage”—if we define “good”—still end, for example?

We need to explore the diversity of ways people currently live their marriages, not to decry a loss of commitment or preach a return to a monolithic model, but to understand how marriage still fulfills particular needs despite social changes.  Instead of asking if alternative marital arrangements “last,” then, we may be able to actually consider new and potentially productive questions:  Which arrangements are personally fulfilling to the spouses?  Do certain arrangements help or hinder people’s abilities to provide for their families?  What are the problems faced by individuals in traditional or “alternative” relationships and what are the tradeoffs they perceive?  Marriage may be a source of great joy or a source of misery; perhaps it is best to examine this range of experiences and reevaluate whether prizing longevity over other factors results in the kinds of lives we want to live. 

1 Statistics are unreliable given different record-keeping practices around the world and selective presentations of results; however, the United States consistently falls in the top ten countries.  www.nationmaster.com/graph/peo_div_rat-people-divorce-rate

Katherine Frank