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The Missing Element in Marriage Today

Written By: Jim Swanson  |  Posted: Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

I grew up in a middle class home in the Midwest. Thinking back on my elementary school days in the 50's, I can only recall one child in my class whose parents were divorced. I recently looked up the statistics and, sure enough, in the twenty years following that time, the divorce rate doubled and has remained high every since. In 1948, Parents' Magazine reported, ". . . the average couple starting out today may expect to spend close to 40 years together." According to several sources, today the average length of a marriage that will break up is seven years.
Further evidence of a problem is seen in the increase in single parent homes. In 1960, a report published for the Golden Anniversary of the White House Conference on Children and Youth stated, "In 1953 and 1955, there were 5.8 million children living with one parent. In 2000 the figure is 19.2 million, or 27%." It is abnormal today for the average school child to be living with both his or her biological parents.
Though the list of causes of marriage breakdown vary, most have these elements in common: poor communication, financial problems, sexual problems, differences in culture, abuse, a lack of compatibility, the presence (or absence) of children. But are these the root causes? I suggest they are not.
A deeper cause of divorce , simply put, is a lack of commitment. Couples forget or ignore or excuse what they promised at the altar. If you were typical, you said something like this when you were married: "I, (name), take you (name), to be my lawfully wedded (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish; from this day forward until death do us part, so help me God." Did you mean until death parts you, or until something better attracts you? Did you mean for better or for worse, or until the 'glow' wore off?
The lack of commitment between individuals is highlighted by the drastic rise in the number of couples who are cohabiting before marriage. "You have to live together for a while before marriage to know if you're compatible or not." The purpose, then, is to have the privileges of marriage without the commitment. The goal is to see if one can tolerate the other over a period of time before being committed to that person in marriage. Does this work? The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development reports: "Cohabitation, once rare, is now the norm: The researchers found that more than half (54 percent) of all first marriages between 1990 and 1994 began with unmarried cohabitation.... Cohabiting relationships are less stable than marriages and that instability is increasing, the study found." Besides violating God's moral standard, then, cohabiting actually adds stress to a relationship rather than resolution. Further, it fails to take into account that people and circumstances change over time. What will couples do when the factors they did find compatible change later on?
Another evidence commitment is becoming a foreign word in marriage is the increase in 'prenuptial agreements.' This is a legally binding agreement as to how their assets will be divided if their marriage doesn't work out. Three percent of couples will have a prenuptial agreement in 2010, up significantly from one percent reported in 2002. I imagine a much greater number will wish they had one when things sour and they give up. Those who go this route are not planning to part, but they are planning ahead in case they do. The back door is kept unlocked.
Does practice, then, make perfect? Do people whose marriage failed learn the need for commitment in a second relationship? Unfortunately they do not. In America today, 41% of first marriages end in divorce, 60% of second marriages, and a staggering 73% of third marriages end in divorce! Experience seems rather to be teaching how to get out of marriage, not how to make it last.
When we were married over forty years ago, my wife and I were naïve enough to believe we could and would work through our differences because we were committed to each other, as we said, until death parted us. As a result, splitting up has never been an option to solving differences in either of our minds. This has forced us to either work through difficulties or love each other in spite of them. Recently a newly married husband said to me, "When I married my wife, I was committing myself to her strengths and weaknesses, to her good and bad traits, to all of her no matter what that means." That is the basis of a sound foundation.
God's design is that marriage is a commitment of two individuals to each other for a lifetime. It is a solemn vow, a covenant before God between a man and a woman. Whether or not you meant that at your wedding is immaterial. You were married in the sight of God and are held responsible for that promise. Instead of looking for ways to cut your marriage short, take steps to make it last. When the back door is locked, a greater effort to live together in love and peace will result.
James Swanson, M.Div., M.R.E., is the Director of the Eau Claire Bible Training School and is the author of Some Aspects of Sowing and Reaping. He and his wife Ruby have seven children, sixteen grandchildren and live in Eau Claire.

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