Are Today’s Marriages Better Or Worse Than They Used To Be?

newly married couple sitting on the stairs

I’m pro-happiness.   If you want to sleep with strangers on the first date, it makes no difference to me. If you never want to get married, I’m cool with it. Whatever works for you.

I’m also pro-science. Science illuminates our own biases and hypocrisies.

Science tells us that 50% of kids born to 20-30 year olds are born out of wedlock and that kids born out of wedlock are more likely to struggle in life.

Science tells us that women who engage in the hook up culture are less likely to be happy, on the aggregate, than women who don’t.

Healthy marriages have realistic expectations, healthy communication and a sensitivity to each others’ needs. Everything else is just noise.

Science tells us that there is a 75% divorce rate for couples who marry under the age of 25 and that there is a 10% divorce rate for college educated couples who marry after 30.

Which is why I really appreciate the work being done by Eli Finkel at Northwestern University. According to Finkel, “Perhaps the most striking thing I learned is that the answer to whether today’s marriages are better or worse is “both”: The average marriage today is weaker than the average marriage of yore, in terms of both satisfaction and divorce rate, but the best marriages today are much stronger, in terms of both satisfaction and personal well-being, than the best marriages of yore.

Consider, for example, that while the divorce rate has settled since the early 1980s at around 45 percent, even those marriages that have remained intact have generally become less satisfying. At the same time, consider the findings of a recent analysis, led by the University of Missouri researcher Christine M. Proulx, of 14 longitudinal studies between 1979 and 2002 that concerned marital quality and personal well-being. In addition to showing that marital quality uniformly predicts better personal well-being (unsurprisingly, happier marriages make happier people), the analysis revealed that this effect has become much stronger over time. The gap between the benefits of good and mediocre marriages has increased.”

To sum up, happy marriages make happier people. Dissatisfying marriages make for unhappier people. Sounds like common sense, but common sense goes out the window when you’re talking about something as emotional as love.

When I get emails from angry women who complain that men suck, marriage sucks, and nobody’s happy, what they’re really saying is that THEIR man sucked, THEIR marriage sucks and THEIR friends chose bad husbands, and therefore men and marriage should be avoided. This is a false conclusion based on limited evidence.

Remember, a happy marriage makes people happier than being alone. So how does one find a happy marriage? Is it just a happy accident? Not at all. Everything I do as an online dating coach is supposed to lead you down that path – including taking a (slightly) longer time to have sex, a longer time to get engaged, and a longer time to assess whether you not only have chemistry, but long-term compatibility as well.

For some folks, that’s really hard, because they don’t want to wait. They want to have sex NOW. They want to fall in love NOW. They want to get married NOW. And they’ll deal with the consequences later. Unfortunately, those consequences are a 45% divorce rate and a lot of unhappy marriages – all due to a lack of patience, understanding, and realistic expectations about what a marriage (and one human being) can realistically provide.

Some folks don’t want to wait. They want to have sex NOW. They want to fall in love NOW. They want to get married NOW. And they’ll deal with the consequences later.

According to  the article, “Since around 1965, we have been living in the era of the self-expressive marriage. Americans now look to marriage increasingly for self-discovery, self-esteem and personal growth. Fueled by the countercultural currents of the 1960s, they have come to view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfillment. “You make me want to be a better man,” from the 1997 movie “As Good as It Gets,” could serve as this era’s marriage ideal. In the words of the sociologist Robert N. Bellah, love has become, in good part, “the mutual exploration of infinitely rich, complex and exciting selves.”

In short, our needs have changed, and as they’ve changed, marriage has fallen short for many people who don’t address those changes.

“Americans are investing less in their marriages – to the detriment of those relationships…Relative to Americans in 1975, Americans in 2003 spent much less time alone with their spouses. Among spouses without children, weekly spousal time declined to 26 hours per week from 35 hours, and much of this decline resulted from an increase in hours spent at work. Among spouses with children at home, spousal time declined to 9 hours per week from 13, and much of this decline resulted from an increase in time-intensive parenting.”

Finkel’s suggested solution? “First and foremost, couples can choose to invest more time and energy in their marriage, perhaps by altering how they use whatever shared leisure time is available. But if couples lack the time and energy, they might consider adjusting their expectations, perhaps by focusing on cultivating an affectionate bond without trying to facilitate each other’s self-actualization.”

This is why healthy marriages aren’t based on the “Eat, Pray, Love” model. Elizabeth Gilbert even acknowledged that herself in her follow-up book, “Committed.” Healthy marriages have realistic expectations, healthy communication and a sensitivity to each others’ needs. Everything else is just noise.

Your thoughts, below, are appreciated.

Join our conversation (9 Comments).
Click Here To Leave Your Comment Below.


  1. 1

    The article repeats that: ‘happy marriages make happier people.’   The reverse is also important: Happy people make happier marriages. On entering marriage, a person free from the intention to be ‘filled up’ by the union will be in a much better place to start a partnership; allowing his/her own positive state to overflow into it rather than beginning with the limiting intention – to become ‘happy’.  

    1. 1.1
      Just Saying

      +100.   Marriages work best when both in a marriage are already fulfilled and seeks to make the other happy.  

  2. 2

    I agree with Jay.   One needs to be happy and complete on one’s own going into marriage, but too often we expect it to complete us and it falls short of what we expect.   I only know because I’ve made that mistake, not because I’m any smarter or better.   Drs. Les and Leslie Parrott have just come out with a book called “Making Happy; the Art and Science of a Happy Marriage”.   Happier marriages lead to stronger families, which leads to a more stable culture.

  3. 3

    The Finkel article is fascinating and it seems that this whole discussion ties back to your blog about whether there should be classes for relationships.   I read another columnist and he occasionally talks about how marriage is a “people growing machine” and he quotes psychologist David Schnarch, author of A Passionate Marriage.
    Here is a link to one of the columns that you might find interesting:

  4. 4

    Very true. Marriages are better when people start happy and dont have the expectation of being “Filled” by their partnerMarriage is wonderful when with the right person.

  5. 5

    My wife and I have been married almost thirty four years, with good and bad and tough times together.   I can honestly say that we are happier now than we have ever been, and that the hard times we shared probably made our relationship even better, we are openly in love, but more important, my wife and I   can depend on each other and we completely trust each other.

    1. 5.1

      I agree with you I look at my Aunts and Uncle’s who’ve been married for 40 and 50 years and they have staying power they just didn’t run when the going got tough. I believe that is the difference between then and now. They took the bitter with the sweet and they all tell us (the family) not only are they happy, they are very blessed as well.

  6. 6

    The rate of divorce today is significantly higher for those with only a high-school education. As the article says, “The problem is not that poor people fail to appreciate the importance of marriage, nor is it that poor and wealthy Americans differ in which factors they believe are important in a good marriage. The problem is that… unemployment, juggling multiple jobs and so on – have also made it increasingly difficult for less wealthy Americans to invest the time and other resources needed to sustain a strong marital bond.” Wealthier and better educated people are also more likely to marry in the first place.

  7. 7
    Dina Strange

    Monogamy is a relatively recent phenomena. Mainly related to the fact that men want to ensure that their wealth goes to their offsprings rather than anyone else. That was the whole point of marriages, to ensure that wealth stays in the family.
    Now regarding whether marriages become better or worse. In my opinion they became worse, mainly because we destroyed community which kept people trying to work out problems. With individuality and lack of responsibility and strong family examples (so many people now are from broken families) more and more people have no idea what is it to have a healthy family and how to compromise with a person.

    On the other hand, women now have more opportunities not to be stuck in bad, abusive marriages. So in that sense…its better. Overall though it seems that more and more people are dissatisfied with their relationships.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *