(Photo: Shaunti Feldhahn)
Many of the most demoralizing beliefs about marriage, especially when it comes to discouraging statistics commonly passed around, are just not true, says social researcher and best-selling author Shaunti Feldhahn.
"A subconscious sense of futility about marriage is everywhere, as everything we hear says marriage is 'in trouble,'" states Feldhahn. "And while some of the bad news is accurate (for example, 41% of children are born out of wedlock), many of the most demoralizing beliefs just aren't true. For example, the notion that half of all marriages end in divorce or that the divorce rate is the same in the church… neither are anywhere close to true."
The Christian Post recently conducted an interview with Feldhahn, whose recently released, The Good News About Marriage, is the result of an 8-year investigative study that she believes reveals the truth about the state of marriage and divorce in today's culture and churches. Below is the interview.
CP: What compelled you to do this study?
Feldhahn: I started learning just how much of our discouraging conventional wisdom about marriage and divorce was wrong – and how much it was killing marriages.
In all my own research with individuals and couples for my books like For Women Only I kept seeing that whether a couple "made it through" a tough time was directly tied to whether they had a sense of hope or a sense of futility. If someone thought, "We're going to make it," it was a completely different situation than once they started to think, "This is never going to get better." So the sense of futility was killing marriages – and yet, I noticed, we have a culture-wide feeling of futility about marriage. Everyone thinks of marriage as being "in trouble." Everyone just knows that "fifty percent of marriages have ended in divorce." Everyone just knows that "the rate of divorce is the same in the church as it is outside the church." Everyone who has ever been divorced just knows that "60 percent of second marriages don't make it."
And yet I started coming across all this data that seemed to completely contradict the conventional wisdom. Like that according to 2009 Census Bureau numbers, 72% of people are still married to their first spouse – and the 28% who aren't, includes people who were married for years until a spouse died!
When I would share some of those numbers with people, the reactions were sometimes dramatic. Standing in front of me, I saw the difference between being defeated and feeling hopeful. People were grasping the good news like a life-preserver! I felt like this study had to be done.
It started pretty casually, but it became a drive for me and Tally Whitehead, my senior researcher, to understand and dig out any good news that was there. And to get enough clarity to publish The Good News About Marriage, it ended up taking eight years!
CP: What was some of the most important good news that you learned?
Feldhahn: The most important big-picture truth: contrary to popular opinion, most marriages are strong and happy for a lifetime. That doesn't mean most marriages are perfect; there are still plenty of legitimate concerns out there. But for our culture as a whole, the marriages that are unhappy, the ones that don't make it, are the exception rather than the rule.
To prove that, we debunk five different discouraging pieces of conventional wisdom about marriage in the book. Let me just mention two here.
First, is the idea that, half of all marriages are ending in divorce. While some high risks groups (like those married as teenagers) may have a 50% divorce rate, we've never come close as an overall average. After looking at dozens of studies, I believe one of the most meaningful statistics is the one I mentioned earlier: 72% of people are still married to their first spouse.
Now, that is only an overall average at one point in time, and the real question is what the numbers are for people who have had many years of chances to get divorced. And that is where I was really astonished. The highest-risk age group today is baby boomers, and many of that group have had thirty years of chances to get divorced. And among those who have only been married once, even seven in ten baby boomers are still married to their first spouse! Among those on their second and third marriages, the divorce numbers in that group are higher, but still: overall, this is good news!
Another very important finding was that the rate of divorce is not the same in the church. That is a misunderstanding of Barna Group data – because Barna was not trying to study divorce "in the church." They were studying beliefs, so those who said they held Christian beliefs had the same divorce rate as those who said they didn't. But since Barna wasn't studying actions, the researchers didn't include worship attendance in the analysis.
So I partnered with Barna and we re-ran the numbers: and if the person was in church the prior week, their divorce rate dropped 27% compared to those who weren't! Many studies have found that church attendance drops the divorce rate 25-50% compared to those who don't attend. It also increases happiness in marriage and has several other dramatic life and marriage outcomes that we cover in the book.
CP: When couples and pastors discover the "true state of marriage and divorce" how do they first react and how do they move forward with this information?
Feldhahn: Let me describe the responses of the pastors first since they are on the front lines and are the leaders who most need the hope before they can share it with others. I've privately briefed probably 40 or 50 leading pastors, therapists and ministry leaders over the past year, and after I give them about a 15-minute overview of what I've been finding, there's usually a long pause, and then they say something like this (actual quotes): "I'm staggered;" "This is pretty astounding stuff;" "If this is true, the implications are enormous."
There's an explosive sense of interest and hope. Many of these pastors say something like, "I knew that what we were hearing about the Barna data couldn't be the whole story, because it didn't match what I saw in our network of churches," or "I thought that more people were probably happy in their marriages."
These pastors would describe feeling like they had been, as one put it, "held hostage to bad data I couldn't contradict," and a sense of being liberated to say with confidence what they had always felt had to be true: that doing what the Bible says does matter to your life. That getting yourself in a church community does matter to your marriage.
The responses of couples have been similarly hopeful and explosive, but even more personal. Among the ones that are struggling, there's a sense of life and hope that comes back into their faces. It is like the difference between feeling, "Man, we're struggling, and half of all people can't make it through this," and feeling, "Yeah, we're struggling, but most people get through it so surely we can too."
But even among those who have fine marriages, there's excitement about this. Let me explain a really cool thing I've seen with a lot of congregations.
My favorite speaking format is doing pastoral interviews on Sunday morning as the sermon time, usually when a pastor is doing a sermon series on men, women, sex or relationships and wants me to share things like what women need to know about men, or what makes relationships work best, from the research for For Women Only or The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages.
But since I've been telling the pastors about my Good News research the last few years, often the pastor will say "You know, lets end our time together with having you share this as the conclusion." And every single time when I share these encouraging facts, this buzz sweeps the congregation as people start whispering to their neighbor "What did she say?" and the pastor and I can see their faces just light up. Half the time, people start clapping.
It is so tremendous for me to see that reaction among the people there – but even better to see the encouragement it injects into the pastor. These pastors are on the front lines and they need this encouragement.
CP: How can the church learn from this study/book?
Feldhahn: We wrote The Good News About Marriage to be a small, easy read – the first half is the key points, and the second half is the more technical stuff for those who like that sort of thing – so that anyone who cares about marriage can quickly come up to speed on the essentials.
We hope every pastor will learn the five main points – especially the truth about the difference church attendance makes. Then we hope pastors will equip their people to lead the way in bringing this truth and life and encouragement into the places that they live, work and play.
We hope every person in the congregation will be aware enough of these key truths that when Sarah and Abby are having coffee, and Abby cynically asks "why shouldn't I just live with him, when half of marriages are miserable and end in divorce anyway?", Sarah can say, "Well, actually, believe it or not, that is a myth. Most marriages last a lifetime."
The church can lead the way in changing the paradigm about marriage in our culture, from one of discouragement and futility to one of hope! From the current conventional wisdom that says marriage is in trouble, to the conventional wisdom that says that this institution God created… it still works!
On the Web: www.goodnewsmarriage.com