JANE GLENN HAAS: The divorce boom continues

Here's new census data that should give us all pause: Men and women who married in the late 1970s had a less than even chance of still being married 25 years later.

"We know that somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of marriages dissolve," says Barbara Risman, executive officer of the Council for Contemporary Families.

"Now, when people marry, everyone wonders, is this one of those marriages that will be around for a while," she says in a New York Times article on fragile marriages.

About 80 percent of first marriages that took place in the late 1950s lasted at least 15 years. But by 1961, only 61 percent of men and 57 percent of women were married 15 years later.

The survey by the Census Bureau confirmed most Americans eventually marry, but they are marrying later and are slightly more likely to marry more than once, the Times reports.

That means the expensive wedding you give your daughter might be money down the drain.

That means the grandchildren produced by your children have a pretty good chance of growing up in a single-parent home.

That means, despite all our rhetoric about family values, Americans are not practicing what they preach.

There are statistical differences on the basis of race and ethnicity.

Among men over 15, the percentage who had never been married was 45 percent for blacks, 39 percent for Hispanics, 33 percent for Asians and 28 percent for whites.

Among women over 15, it was 44 percent for blacks, 30 percent for Hispanics, 23 percent for Asians and 22 percent for whites.

"America has just about the highest divorce rate in the world," says Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College, Olympia, Wash.

Coontz, also an officer with the Council for Contemporary Families, says part of the problem is the high expectation of marriage that is common today.

For about 4,000 years, women were not considered equal partners in marriage, she says.

"Now, the women expect equality and that means, among other things, faithfulness on both sides.

"Also the American romance industry has created many expectations of marriage, including the idea you will be happy all the time."

What's a man – or a woman – to do?

One solution may be to pick the time to marry.

A study on the determinants of divorce (Becker, Landes and Michael 1977) suggests there is a "window of opportunity" for entering stable marriages, with individuals who marry earlier or later facing a higher risk of divorce. The study shows a U-shaped pattern of marital stability.

Marriages contracted in the early to mid-twenties had lower divorce rates than those taking place before or after those ages. But economist Evelyn Lehrer from the University of Illinois at Chicago, says the "maturity factor" is the issue.

"People who marry at later ages ... are less likely to make mistakes in the choice of a spouse," she writes in an article for the Council on Contemporary Families. "In addition, people who marry late tend to do so when they have completed more schooling, which is another stabilizing factor."

Here's what Lehrer thinks is going on: Women who marry at an older age than average, such as in their 30s, are likely to break other "rules" of marriage as well. They are more likely to be unconventional – marrying a younger man, someone of a different religion or educational level or race or even someone who has been divorced.

Lehrer thinks these marriages may be more solid than earlier age marriages. Perhaps. But the data seems to indicate Americans get starry-eyed about marriage, live the "coupled" life for less than a decade, get divorced and often stay divorced.

Further, women, in particular, are less interested in remarrying after children have left home, the analysts agree.

Clearly, in addition to our own 50-plus relationships, we need to be concerned about the future for our children and grandchildren. Should we begin by rewriting our definition of "family values"?