A silver anniversary isn't what it used to be. I know this from experience, having celebrated mine last month, but the data speaks for itself. According to a 2005 U.S. Census Bureau report, only 33 percent of us reached the milestone 10 years ago, whereas 70 percent of those who married in the late 1950s did. For previous generations, a 25th wedding anniversary was as much a simple consequence of time as it was cause to celebrate. Surrounded by as many divorcing and non-marrying loved ones as I am, I was a little embarrassed to draw attention to our special day. And like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son, I harbored some resentment about this fact.
My husband and I have been through a series of potentially marriage-destroying events in recent years, and I would have appreciated some salutations acknowledging our accomplishment. On Facebook, where I shared photos from our wedding day to mark the occasion, only a few long-married female friends and one never-married person posted well wishes. We received one card in the mail, from my parents. Perhaps we should have thrown a party, but that would have been insensitive given that two of our siblings finalized divorces in 2009. Of the 15 middle-aged siblings and step-siblings in our combined families, only 4 of us are currently married.
A recent Pew Research Center / Time magazine study indicated that over the past 50 years, "a sharp decline in marriage and a rise of new family forms have been shaped by attitudes and behaviors that differ by class, age and race," with lower levels of income and education correlating with lower marriage rates.
The executive summary further states that "even as marriage shrinks, family—in all its emerging varieties—remains resilient." But wait. More respondents said they would feel "very obligated" to help a parent (83%) or adult child (77%) in need than said this about a stepparent (55%) or a step or half sibling (43%), and only 39% would feel similarly obligated to a best friend. The old definition continues to have traction when it matters most.
The key finding of a 2010 study conducted by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia is that divorce, non-marital childbearing, and unmarried cohabitation have led to a dramatic increase in "fragile" and "typically fatherless" families over the past five decades. The executive summary includes this dire warning: "Today's retreat from marriage among the moderately educated middle is placing the American Dream beyond the reach of too many Americans. It makes the lives of mothers harder and drives fathers further away from families. It increases the odds that children from Middle America will … lose their way." As marriage increasingly becomes an institution aligned with wealth and eduction, the divide "threatens the American experiment in democracy and should be of concern to every civic and social leader in our nation."
In a blog post about the Pew study, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler declared, "Marriage was given to us by our Creator as the central institution for sexual relatedness, procreation, and the nurture of children. But, even beyond these goods, God gave us marriage as an institution central to human happiness and flourishing. Rightly understood, marriage is essential even to the happiness and flourishing of the unmarried. It is just that central to human existence, and not by accident."
I believe this. So, although my 49-year-old husband is unlikely to ever work again because of a physical disability that has fundamentally changed both our marital and financial health in ways I didn't anticipate, divorce is no more an option than it ever was. What is a daily choice is how we live together in light of these and other challenges. Not only do love and faith constrain us, so do the above cited personal and professional stats.
I am simultaneously compelled to resist the encroaching pressure of the easy out and feel a deep obligation to model fidelity and stability to the next generation in light of it. This is no easy task. I vowed to love my husband in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer and can say unequivocally that rich and healthy is a whole lot easier than sick and poor. I can also affirm that hardness of heart is the fastest route to marital decline (Matt. 19:8).
Penn State sociologist Stacy J. Rogers is co-author of Alone Together: How Marriage in America Is Changing. She explained the National Marriage Project findings to the Huffington Post by saying that education, first marriage, no children from previous relationships, and financial health produce fewer external stressors. She also concluded, "We put a lot of emphasis on the marriage to make us happy, and fulfill our lives. We're victims of unrealistic expectations."
As much as I affirm lofty marriage ideals like Mohler's, I believe discipleship in our age inevitably involves putting unrealistic expectations to death. Consider how we enthusiastically memorize a verse like Psalm 37:4 because it tells us that if we delight in God, he will fulfill our desires. We would do well to keep reading. Verses five and six add, "Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun."
When my husband and I were in pre-marriage counseling, our pastor noted our mutual realism as an indicator of relational health. Twenty-five years later, reality is much more insistent and the truths of 1 Corinthians 13 are much more compelling.