the golden age of marraige

One of the great pleasures of serving a church that’s been around a while is that every few months or so I get to invite a couple to the front of the congregation to celebrate their 50th or 60th anniversary.

An article in the Sunday paper this week suggested that in the coming years these kind of celebrations are likely to be less frequent given the changes in marriage patterns since the “golden years” of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

This is certainly something to be a little bit sad about. In the article we meet Herm and Flo Dorian, 92 and 94, who have been married for 70 years. They are honest about their ups and downs, but love one another and wouldn’t have it any other way.   It’s a wonderful portrait, and I think those of us who have a few years to go before their 70th anniversary (my wife and I are 66 years away, but give us time) can learn much from them.  I think that as a community we get a lot of wisdom and guidance from couples who have been together so long, and if we have fewer of them in the future we’ll be missing something.

Marriage rates have changed since the 1940’s, though. According to the article’s census data, people entered “new marriages” in 1946, at the end of the war, at about twice the rate that they do now.  People now wait longer to get married. Fewer marry at all. The divorce rate has plateaued, but the rate of children born to single parents is higher.

Written by Anita Creamer, the syndicated article in the Greensboro News and Record makes a fascinating reference to the entry-point of our statistics and expectations of marriage, which of course corresponds to the time when folks now celebrating 50, 60 and 70th anniversaries got married.  These are the folks who grew up in the depression years, fought the Second World War, and hungered for (and deserved) the stability and economic prosperity of the postwar years.  As a result, marriage rates weren’t just solid; they were remarkably high.

Economic forces have an impact on marriage rates:  “during the early Depression years,” Creamer writes, “the marriage rate languished…but after World War II, when jobs were plentiful, marriage boomed.”

She follows with this comment from someone named Migliaccio:  “’We look at the 1950’s as a golden age of marriage, but it was a statistical anomaly…a one-income family wage was possible for more families at all class levels.’”  (I find this extremely fascinating but unfortunately can’t find anywhere else in the article where this “Migliaccio” character has either a first name or a title. Perhaps He or She is simply the “Cher” of marriage and family research.  Thanks, News & Record.)

The point is that if we look at this time period as the “golden age” of marriage, or rather as a time by which we should judge all eras, we may not only sell ourselves short in nurturing healthy marriages now, but we will have an even harder time addressing the very real challenges presented by high rates of divorce and children born to single parents (especially those who lack the support to raise those children).

My grandparents were married in that time period, and my grandfather died just a few years shy of their 50th anniversary.  I loved him dearly, but could both he and my grandmother have used a few years of maturing before entering this commitment? Perhaps, but understandably that idea was not a part of the conversation at the time.   When the war generation returned from the Europe and the Pacific, I suspect that as a culture we lacked the tools to address the considerable pain that those who had survived the depression and the war carried. This type of work may have done much to strengthen marriages at the time, and given more couples the chances to better experience 50, 60, and 70 years of mutual growth.

And of course we have many couples who married then and did very well together, and have much to teach us now about their lifelong commitment to one another.

Reading the article, I clearly identify with folks who “waited” to get marry.  I can give about a thousand reasons why, for me, this was the right path. (Exhibit A, of course, is: “have you met my wife?”)  And I have friends who married in their early 20’s, and couldn’t be happier.

The important questions for me are not, “How do we make sure that more people make it to their golden anniversaries” or even “how can we match the postwar rates of marriage,” but rather, what can we do to be sure that couples today are embarking on a process of mature, faithful growth? How do we elevate marriage to a place of sacramental self-giving?  And how do we honor and celebrate those who choose not to marry?

I think we can start by celebrating and listening to those folks who are or who had been married for so many years.  If “Migliaccio” is correct in saying that postwar marriage rates are a bit of an anomaly, then let’s give thanks to God that we have such an anomaly to give us a vision of what lifelong fidelity can look like.

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About bernardowens

I'm an Episcopal priest in Greensboro, North Carolina.
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