Advice on achieving wedded bliss likely began when Adam and Eve passed their hard-won wisdom about the first marriage down to their children. But since then the quality of marital advice has varied considerably. Too often, recommendations about what is necessary to create and maintain stable and happy marriages are based more on old wives tales than on supportable evidence.
Here, for example, are three myths about marriage that Americans continue to believe and pass on to young people.
Myth #1: Marriage is inherently unstable, and about half of marriages end in divorce.
Although this claim has been debunked for decades, the idea that close to half of all marriages end in divorce remains all too common. A related belief is that while the statistic is no longer true, it was the reality at an earlier time in American history. The truth, though, is that there has never been a time when half of marriages even came close to ending in divorce.
The most common metric for measuring divorce is the divorce rate, a measure of the tendency for divorce to occur within a specific population. The divorce rate is calculated in any given year by dividing the number of divorces occurring within a population over the year, by the average or mid-year population for that year, expressed times 1000. For example, in 2019 there were 14.9 divorces for every thousand marriages. This was the lowest rate in nearly 50 years.
A low divorce rate means that people are staying married longer. Census data reveals that the median duration of current marriages in the U.S. in 2019 was 19.8, which means about half of marriage lasted longer than that, and half lasted less.
Where did the myth originate? It’s likely a result of people calculating the marriage to divorce ratio. In 2020, the rate was 2.2 marriages for every divorce. That’s almost 1 divorce per every 2 marriages—close to 50%. But as Dan Hurley of The New York Times explains:
[R]esearchers say that [using the marriage ratio] is misleading because the people who are divorcing in any given year are not the same as those who are marrying, and that the statistic is virtually useless in understanding divorce rates. In fact, they say, studies find that the divorce rate in the United States has never reached one in every two marriages, and new research suggests that, with rates now declining, it probably never will.
Myth #2: If you want to stay married, wait to get married until you are in your 30s.
A common view in America is that to have a successful marriage a person should marry later in life, presumably when they are more mature and have established some stability. That is almost always a reliable truth if the person is considering marriage in their teens. Research has shown that delaying marriage from the teens until the early 20s produces the largest declines in divorce risk.
And it also used to be true of people who waited to marry until after age 30. But that seems to have changed in the past 20 years. Recent analysis (since 2002) shows that prior to age 32 or so, each additional year of age at marriage reduces the odds of divorce by 11%. However, after age 32 the odds of divorce increase by 5% per year.
Myth #3: If you want to stay married, live together first.
One of the most persistent myths about developing a stable marriage is the idea that a couple should live together—cohabitate—before tying the knot. A study by Barna Group found that a majority of Americans believe in cohabitation (65%) and 84% of that group do so because they believe it provides a test of compatibility prior to marrying.
The reality, though, is that there is almost no greater predictor of divorce than cohabitation. Living together before marriage increases the probability a couple will split up. For example, a 2018 study found that cohabitation before marriage was associated with a lower risk of divorce in the first year of marriage but a higher risk thereafter.
One of the reasons may be that the experience of cohabitation makes people more open to divorce. A study from Europe found that once people married, they were less tolerant of divorce. That was true only for those who had not lived together first. If a couple had cohabited prior to marriage, they were more tolerant of divorce than they had been when they were single. The experience of being in a less-than-committed living arrangement carried over in attitudes even after the wedding.
Even for those who do not divorce, cohabitation can reduce marital satisfaction. One study found that almost half of people who cohabited before engagement (43.1%) reported lower marital satisfaction, dedication, and confidence as well as more negative communication with their spouse.
Some actual good advice
What contributes to a successful marriage? Here are three pieces of advice that actually help couples create a happy marriage:
Share faith in Christ: When asked about what kinds of things are important for a successful marriage, 44% of adults surveyed by Pew Research said shared religious beliefs are “very important.” By this metric, notes Pew, shared religion is “seen as more important for a good marriage than shared political attitudes, but substantially less important than shared interests, good sex and a fair division of household labor.” Follow the Apostle Paul’s advice and “Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14)—especially in marriage.
Share a pew: Spouses should have a shared faith in Christ and then share a pew in church. Research has found that couples are substantially more likely to report being happy in their relationship when both partners attend church regularly than when neither partner does. Couples who attend religious services together are also happier in their relationships than are their peers who don’t regularly attend church.
Share prayer and Christian friends: Evidence shows that couples who attend church together enjoy significantly happier relationships, in large part, says family researcher W. Bradford Wilcox, because they socialize with friends who share their faith and especially because they pray with one another. “In other words,” adds Wilcox, “those couples who pray together are happiest together.”