Keeping your marriage strong means shifting your focus from yourself and your own happiness to your spouse and marriage and to keeping intimacy alive.
“Gray divorce” has surged in recent years as older couples are increasingly ending their marriages at an alarming rate. News outlets from The Wall Street Journal to NPR have featured stories on this heartbreaking phenomenon.
These stories reference a 2012 study called The Gray Divorce Revolution, co-authored by sociologists Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University and I-Fen Lin. In 1990, one in ten divorces occurred in couples ages 50 and older. In 2009, that number doubled to two in ten. For those previously married, it has skyrocketed to one in four, a 250% increase. (In 1980 45% of singles were divorced. In 2009, that percentage increased to 58%. The marriage failure rate is historically much higher for multiple marriages.)
While general societal acceptance of divorce and the increased earning power of women are both sited as key factors influencing the rise in gray divorce, I only see these as enabling factors. The root cause lies elsewhere. In fact, the root cause of gray divorce later in life is also a key cause of reduced marriage rates among younger generations.
The Problem of Self
The baby boomer generation, to which I belong, is also called the “Me Generation” That’s a fitting but sad moniker and also a key to understanding the gray divorce epidemic. But the problem of self-centeredness isn’t isolated to my generation. No, it’s rampant throughout society.
Dr. Brown describes the attitudinal shift concerning marriage that occurred with baby boomers – an attitude which has only strengthened in the generations since. There is now “a focus on marriage needing to make individuals happy, rather than on how well each individual fulfilled their marital roles.” She goes on to say that the problem “springs at least in part from boomers’ status as the first generation to enter into marriage with goals largely focused on self-fulfillment.” In other words, with the “me generation,” marriage became all about me and my happiness, rather than living as one under the covenant of marriage and loving and serving one another – and it’s pervasive today.
Here is a great quote that gets at the very heart of the problem.
Destructive to marriage is the self-fulfillment ethic that assumes marriage and the family are primarily institutions of personal fulfillment, necessary for us to become “whole” and happy. The assumption is that there is someone just right for us to marry and that if we look closely enough we will find the right person. This moral assumption overlooks a crucial aspect to marriage. It fails to appreciate the fact that we always marry the wrong person.
We never know whom we marry; we just think we do. Or even if we first marry the right person, just give it a while and he or she will change. For marriage, being [the enormous thing it is] means we are not the same person after we have entered it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married.
Stanley Hauerwas, Duke University Ethics professor
A New Happiness Paradigm
I shared in this post my three rules of happiness in marriage:
The primary purpose of your marriage isn’t to make you happy
You need to take responsibility for your own happiness
Love and serve your spouse as if their happiness depended on you
Happiness best viewed as a by-product rather than a goal. A relationship that has personal happiness as its main goal is going to miss some deeper things that underlie a long-lasting marriage. Selflessness, surrender, intimacy, joy, peace, and holiness all come to mind as worthy goals. These also tend to produce happiness as a result.
In addition to my three happiness insights, I suggest that if you choose to be happy now by choosing to focus on the good dimensions of your marriage and spouse, you actually stand a better chance of achieving the happiness you so desire.
More Than Roommates
As Dr. Hauerwas points out above, “Learning to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married” is a really good idea.
The problem is that many couples who choose to focus their efforts toward each other in early marriage, eventually, through inattention, devolve back into strangers many years later. If they don’t grow so far apart as to become strangers, many wind up as little more than roommates.
Intimacy is the antidote for the roommate syndrome that wrecks so many marriages. Intimacy reaches its zenith when we are fully known (weaknesses, warts and all) and completely, unconditionally loved. Intimacy is the main goal of every marriage (in all forms: emotional, spiritual, sexual, financial, etc.) God built us with an innate desire for intimacy; intimacy with Him and intimacy with our spouse. I also believe God designed us with a huge capacity for intimacy and that we can continue to grow closer together regardless of how long we’ve been married.
There is always more intimacy available in your marriage than what you are experiencing right now. To keep your marriage on The Path of Intimacy, vigilantly guard your connection to each other. Focus your efforts on allowing yourselves to be deeply known and on loving each other well in little ways every day.
Don’t buy the lie of inevitable marital decline. It doesn’t have to be that way. My wife and I have been married 35 years, and we are closer and more in love now than we have ever been. And we believe that the best is yet to come!
Next week I’ll share a few other ideas on how to keep your marriage strong for the long haul. (Sign up here to get my posts in your inbox so you’ll be sure not to miss these important posts!).
PS Please understand that I do not mean to imply that everyone who gets divorced does so because they are selfish.