washingtonpost.com
The Kids Are Gone. Now What Is Marriage All About?

By Abigail Trafford
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The American family is aging -- and the institution of marriage is all shook up.

Today, the majority of families do not have young children at home, according to a population survey released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau. In the early 1960s, almost 60 percent of families had children younger than 18 living at home; that percentage has now dropped to 46 percent.

Contrast those figures with 1880, when researchers estimate that 75 percent of couples in the United States had children at home.

The huge demographic shift, the result of longer life spans and falling fertility rates, calls into question some basic wedding mystiques.

Till death? That was easy to promise when life expectancy was relatively short. As Thomas Detre, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburg School of Medicine once quipped: "Marriage was designed for men who went to sea at 25 and women who died in childbirth."

Today, the vast majority of women survive childbirth. Both men and women may go off to work, but they're home most nights for dinner. Death usually comes at an advanced age.

Meanwhile there are other kinds of partings. The divorce rate approaches 50 percent of marriages -- and most people who get divorced, remarry. At older ages, many men and women who are widowed also find new mates. In a life of 80 or more years, having more than one partner may become the norm.

Staying together for the sake of the children? What children? They are gone, many of them raising children of their own.

For centuries, a major premise of marriage has been to reproduce and raise a next generation. It still is: The hands-on rearing of children remains a main focus of marriage. But that focus dominates only the early decades of a relationship. What is the agenda for a couple after the child-rearing stage?

"This is a massive experiment. People have to try to sustain marriage long past the time people were expected to live, long past the time of childbearing and rearing," said historian Stephanie Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy; or How Love Conquered Marriage."

The census survey, taken every year, sampled 100,000 households. The findings illustrate how much demographics have shaped destiny. Not only have women by their 40s had fewer children than their parents, but an increasing proportion of married couples are older. In 1968, less than 30 percent of married men were 55 and older. Today nearly 40 percent are that age; the percentage of married women 55 and older has increased from 22 to 33 percent.

These older, maybe wiser, men and women are pioneers in finding new ways to love in an era of longevity. In the process, they are raising the quality bar on marriage and relationships.

After the traditional tasks of child-rearing are completed, the main agenda for gray marriage is mutual satisfaction. Couples who have been together for decades have usually learned how to resolve conflicts. But that is not enough. What predicts happiness for older couples is the presence of positive elements: joy, playfulness, humor, adventure, caring, empathy and common interests, says John M. Gottman, author of "The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work."

For many couples, this new stage of life after the kids are grown heralds a renaissance in the relationship. They discover why they fell in love in the first place. They kick up their heels and have some fun. But others may have slipped into an empty, flat-lined marriage. Therapists agree: There is not a lot known about unhappy couples who stay together in the later decades.

Divorce is relatively rare among older couples. Why now, after all these years? Yet anecdotal evidence suggests that some men and women are starting to say: Why not? They look ahead and see they have a future, longevity's gift of time.

Gregg Herman, a family lawyer in Milwaukee, had a 96-year-old client who wanted to divorce his 89-year-old wife. It was a second marriage of 19 years.

He told Herman: "I don't want to live the rest of my life being married to her."

Comments:

mytime@washpost.com.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company