Friday, February 16, 2007

Faith Works 2-17-07
Jeff Gill

Love Can Last, Not So Statistics

It was when Mike Huckabee said it that I was startled.

For years, the casual observation has slipped into everyday conversation and general media reports: one out of two marriages end in divorce.

Everyone knows that.

And like most things everyone knows, it isn’t true. Usually social conservatives, like the aforementioned former governor of Arkansas (born in Hope, no less) who wants to be the next Republican president, are up to speed on social data.

But this non-data datum is so pervasive that maybe a candidate, wanting to point to cultural decay and their proposed fixes, can’t resist using it. They should, though, because I worry about how this sounds to young couples. "We got a fifty-fifty shot at lasting, no? Let’s just move in and keep it simple."

So to take apart misconception number one – the reason the "one in two" figure is so readily accepted, is probably something you’ve noticed in the pages of this very publication. You see thirty marriage license application listed, and fifteen divorces and dissolutions. One in two, Jeff, what’s your point?

That’s where actual statistical analysis comes in. When George and Martha have been married for 57 years, that’s one marriage. In the same period, Fred and Ethel marry and break up. That’s a divorce, one out of two; meanwhile, Fred marries and divorces three more times and Ethel twice. How do you count that?

Well, pollster Lewis Harris in his 1987 book "Inside America" wrote that "the idea that half of American marriages are doomed is one of the most specious pieces of statistical nonsense ever perpetuated in modern times." Add in couples that divorce and get back together (not a great many, but more than you might think), and it turns out that an accurate number for the "marriage success rate" is very hard to find.

Our competition over at the New York Times did a detailed demographic analysis two years ago, and concluded that "the percentage of all marriages that end in divorce" peaked at 41% in 1980, and today is at or below 30%.Is a 70% success rate for American marriage better than 50%? It’d sound like it to me if I was 23 and looking at setting a wedding date. Some studies push that number closer to 75%, meaning you could say with perfect accuracy "three out of four marriages last a lifetime."

What makes this info even more critical among couples starting out is the dramatic skew with education and socio-economic factors. Women who have completed college divorce around 20% of the time, while those with less education are divorcing in close to 40% of their marriages. Add in the more than twice that number skew for "out-of-wedlock entirely" births, and you see – well, you see Vickie Lynn Hogan. You see the sad story of Anna Nicole Smith (her stage name), but almost always without the millions or the fame. Just the bad choices leading to disastrous outcomes for the children who become ping pong balls in adult disputes.

The danger of this "well, you only have a one in two chance of making it, anyhow" logic is that those least able to deal with added stress and complication in their lives, the poorest and least educated, are thinking they hear a cultural signal of "it don’t matter nohow." The reality is that their better educated sisters are getting fewer partners, abortions, single pregnancies, and divorces. The wealth gap, which is growing in America, may have more to do with these trends than even NAFTA (and I’m not saying NAFTA doesn’t).

Or did you know that, according to a national survey in 1995, having just one sexual partner, outside of the one you’ll marry, increases your odds of divorce by half? And just a second (that’s only a lifetime total of three partners, if you’re keeping score at home), bumps that figure up another 10%?

So this St. Valentine’s week, as you can probably tell, I’m feeling pretty passionate about us telling the truth to each other about the state of marriage, the role of monogamy, its advantages, and why people of faith have a stake in both family and the economy to say so. Loudly.

And yes, I sent the Huckabee campaign got an email from me. If I hear anything back, I’ll let y’all know.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; send him your tale of faith and life in Licking County at

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