Trends in marriages, divorces

March 09, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

A couple has a lot to think about before they get married. Judith McLean of Family Life Counseling offers couples the following tips:

Communication: Know how to talk to each other.

Conflict resolution: Problems will arise. Work them out together.

Intimacy: It's more than sexuality. Affection, sharing and closeness must be there first.

Finances: Work out a spending plan that is good for the couple and each of the individuals. Even young people should think about having a retirement fund.

In-laws: They tell a lot about a spouse. Getting along with them is important, too.

See also: Tri-State differences in marriages, divorces

-- Divorce laws by state

Would you stay married to Christopher Reeve after he was paralyzed in an equestrian accident? What if he weren't a famous actor?


Judith McLean poses these questions to couples who see her for premarital counseling at her practice in Washington County. Many don't know what to answer, she said.

cont. from lifestyle

"They get a dumbfounded look on their faces," said McLean, who also is an interfaith minister.

For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. Love, devotion, faith.

McLean said the marriage vow is a powerful pact, one that too many couples haven't deeply thought through.

Without communication, without a financial plan and without a deep commitment between partners, marriage quickly can lead to divorce, McLean said.

In the United States, divorce has become more acceptable and much more common in just one generation.

Over a 26-year period, the number of adults in the United States rose by almost 50 percent, while the number of divorces jumped by more than 325 percent.

In 1996, the U.S. Bureau of the Census reported that there were 193.2 million people at least 18 years old. This was an increase of about 46 percent from 1970, when there were 132.5 million.

Over that same time, the number of divorces more than quadrupled - from 4.3 million to 18.3 million.

McLean thinks she understands one of the fundamental causes.

Couples that lived through the 1930s and 1940s relied on a survival mentality, and their relationships weren't particularly close or emotional, she said.

Their maxim, she said, was something like: "Let's just get on with life."

"Baby boomers are dealing with the subconscious ramifications," McLean said. "People never discussed the Depression. They never discussed World War II. They dealt with the physical. They didn't deal with the emotions.

"Now, with the baby boomers, the trend is getting counseling, finding out who they are."

People may be getting in better touch with themselves, but not necessarily with their spouses. Time and again, a lack of communication is mentioned as one of the most fatal flaws for a marriage.

"It takes two to make a relationship," said Kathryn Williams Marks, a pastoral counselor and licensed clinical professional counselor in Hagerstown and Frederick, Md.

The Census Bureau's 1996 report described another pattern, a rise in the age of people getting married for the first time.

The median age for men was 22.6 in 1955, and it went up to 23.5 in 1975. But, by 1996, the median age went up to 27.1.

For women, the median age rose from 20.2 in 1955 to 21.1 in 1975 to 24.8 in 1996.

McLean said she also has seen this pattern.

"Instead of people 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, a lot of people (getting married for the first time) are 26 to 30 years old," she said. "They have finished school. They're thinking a little about getting their careers established ... I think it's a definite trend with college people, that they're getting married later."

Marks said her clients usually want to save their marriages.

The nature of the problem determines how likely that is. Even when one spouse has cheated on the other, it doesn't automatically lead to a breakup, said Marks, whose husband, an attorney, handles divorce cases.

"Sometimes people step outside of the relationship because they're frustrated," she said.

"There are couples where one or the other thinks they have been so wronged, and it's all the other person's fault," she added. "That's harder to work with."

Careful cooperation

To mend a rift as big as infidelity takes careful and sensitive cooperation.

"If the trust is totally blown away, that is very hard to put back," said Marks, who works more with women than couples.

For couples who choose to stay together, Marks recommends extra attention and signs of devotion, such as phone calls to the other spouse during the work day.

"Or the spouse must come home at 6 and not go back out," Marks said.

For 25 years, McLean lived in Columbia, Md. She said it was one of the wealthiest areas in the country.

"Most households had college graduates, or (people with) higher degrees," she said. "They were commuting to Washington, D.C. It was more accepted that they'd get married later."

From there, she moved to Baltimore, where poverty was significantly higher.

"I worked with predominantly African-Americans," McLean said. "There was a very high divorce rate, high abandonment rate. I saw a lot of early marriages, usually because of pregnancy. Baltimore has always had that reputation. African-American girls didn't see much in the way of career options. Divorces there were related to domestic violence and financial problems."

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