The National Marriage Project: The State of Our Unions is a joint publication of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and The Center for Marriage and Families at The Institute of American Values. I have provided a link to download a PDF of the study above and urge everyone to scroll through the document. This publication is an astonishing depiction of the trends in our country that highlight both the ever-increasing disparity between the affluent and the less affluent and the “highly educated” from the “moderately educated” to the “least educated” social classes and the impact on the institution of marriage.
The Terms: Though I cannot offer an easy summation of their findings, I can focus on the role of education and marital health. The term “highly educated” refers to those who receive a college education. For the “moderately educated” high school graduation completes their formal education. The least educated drop out of high school.
The title of this year’s “State of the Union” publication, “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat From Marriage In Middle America”, does not then refer to “middle America” as a political or geographic section of our country, rather to the educational level and lifestyle choices of the largest segment of the American population, those with a high school only education. Historically this group was deeply tied to the institution of marriage but increasingly has chosen other options. They also have a rising divorce rate and non-marital childbearing rate both significantly higher than their more educated peers, as well as being less likely to use birth control and more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol than their highly educated peer group.
The statistics for this group are rapidly mirroring those of the least educated, the high school dropouts in our culture, which leads us to the question, “Do You Need an Education To Stay Married?” Apparently the greater the educational achievement, the more likely you and your partner ascribe to values that help to sustain marriages.
The Success Sequence or The Soul Mate: The study identifies two different concepts of the role marriage plays in our lives. “The Success Sequence” incorporates the bourgeois values and virtues of delayed gratification, self-control, focus on education, and temperance which follows a sequence whose first step is the acquisition of an education, then work opportunities, followed by marriage, and finally childbearing. In general this is the pathway chosen by the highly educated. The moderately educated are trending toward the “The Soul Mate” model of marital partnership which is couple-centered, where the relationship is viewed as the vehicle for personal growth, rather than personal growth leading to partner selection, and whose survival is based on the happiness of both partners without the requisite sequencing steps of the highly educated model. Both models are couple-centered and value happiness but the “Soul Mate” model does not have the economic foundation nor the opportunities of the “success sequence” model and is therefore more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of financial instability such as unemployment, unplanned pregnancy, substance abuse, infidelity and divorce.
Process and Communication: I am neither a sociologist nor a political scientist. The relevance of this study for my work as a psychotherapist rests on an examination of the attributes outlined in the study that act to strengthen marital stability and satisfaction. Four emerge that match my observations clinically:
- The ability to delay immediate gratification (a cornerstone of “the success sequence model) in the journey to reach a longer-term goal;
- The role of education which in my view, enhances both conceptual thinking and communication–that is, the exercise of expanding understanding and the requirement of communicating knowledge and understanding to others;
- The involvement in process leading to outcome over time (again the success sequence model) which relies on the ability to await results and the belief that working at something over time bears fruit;
- Later marriage and childbearing, and in that order, all leading to more secure employment and financial stability which reduces stresses that challenge marital stability.
Couples Therapy: Couples therapy relies on the values of and belief in communication and process, as well as the ability to delay immediate gratification, i.e. not finding solutions quickly. When I see a couple able to handle the anxiety of strife and the pain of hurtful words and realities in the session, while allowing me as a therapist to act as a translator who explains to one the emotions and notions of the other, I know that these folks have the necessary “muscle” to use therapy to better their marriage, over time. All marriages or relationships get into trouble at some point or points. Those Coupledoms that have developed expressive language skills can more easily learn to identify and clarify feelings with each other, in their homes or in a therapist’s office, and can ride out very difficult times without seeking immediate relief either in a substance or another person. Those who have few experiences with the virtues of process or have no faith in the benefits of delaying gratification are more likely to take flight from problems before reparative tools can be tried.
Encourage Your Children To Stay In School: I have written about the importance of education in a prior post. The disturbing findings of this report reveal that those who are members of the lesser educated middle America”grouping suffer greater disruption in their family lives with significant negative impact on their children’s future. All this is carefully documented with statistics in the report. Not surprisingly, the attributes that enable couples to profit from couples therapy match those that enable families to stay together, sustain marriages and have a great chance of avoiding the destructive consequences of substance abuse, unemployment and severe financial distress. That middle America has lost faith in marriage as a protective and useful institution, and the highly educated are leaning the other way, toward preserving their marriages more now than even ten years ago, speaks to many factors. But whatever the beliefs that underlie these trends, the results are clear: higher education is a hedge against some of the most harmful forces impacting family life.
Unequal Opportunities: Our country does not offer equal access to higher education. That vicious cycle of affluence leading to more affluence, and less to less, is often at play here as in many other aspects of our culture. However, valuing the attributes noted above can raise the likelihood that a family can provide a stabilizing environment needed to allow even the less affluent to reach educational goals in spite of the obstacles. Delaying gratification, utilizing the “success sequence model” and eschewing immediate gratification are attributes anyone can acquire, with the right guidance and values in place in the home.
©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2012