Happily Married with Children

by Trudy Bush

Trudy Bush is a CHRISTIAN CENTURY associate editor.

This article appeared in CHRISTIAN CENTURY January 31, l996, pp. 109-112. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Reviews of two pioneering studies into patterns of marriage and divorce in American society.

The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts By Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee. Houghton Mifflin, 352 pp., $22.95.

The Good Divorce: Keeping Your Family Together When Your Marriage Comes Apart. By Constance R. Ahrons. HarperCollins, 301 pp., $23.00.

I am absolutely convinced that children need to be brought up in a family where they see a man and a woman in a good relationship together," said Judith Wallerstein in a recent interview with the CENTURY. Constance Ahrons would agree, though she argues that such a relationship is possible not only between married couples but between those who have achieved a "good divorce." Wallerstein and Ahrons are both psychologists with teaching and research appointments at major universities. Both base their books on what they consider pioneering studies of American families, as well as on their own experience. Amid the countless books and magazine articles offering advice on marriage and relationships, these works stand out for their emphasis on character and virtue.

Wallerstein (whose book is coauthored by journalist Sandra Blakeslee) addresses marriage and family life with a sense of urgency. Her earlier study of the long-term effects of divorce convinced her of the need to identify and describe happy marriages. She is engaged in a 25-year follow-up study of youngsters whose parents divorced in the early'70s, when American divorce rates began to rise. "A whole lot of them are saying that they have never seen a single happy marriage. That began to scare me more and more.

"Our culture has become skeptical about marriage. One of the unintended side effects of our high divorce rate is that many of our young people are avoiding marriage." Yet Wallerstein contends that as the stresses and demands of the workplace increase and people's sense of belonging to an extended family and to a community decline, people will need a happy marriage more than ever.

Her book is a strong counterargument to Tolstoy's dictum that all happy families are alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way -- as if unhappy families were more interesting than happy ones. Trusting the intelligence and sophistication of readers, she does not write a "how to" book, but rather presents case studies of good marriages, noting the commonalities and differences. Though Wallerstein is aware of the stresses on modem marriages, she sees this period as one of great opportunity. "People have a lot more freedom now to build the kind of marriages they want. They don't have to fit into their grandmother's traditional mode. I was surprised to find that very few of the couples I studied wanted marriages like their parents had had, even when they realized that their parents had been very happy in those marriages."

Wallerstein's conclusions are drawn from in-depth interviews with 50 couples from the San Francisco Bay area. All had been married for at least nine years (rates of divorce peak in the seventh year of marriage), had at least one child and had marriages that both spouses considered happy, lasting and good. She has been criticized because her sample is not only small but drawn almost entirely from the white middle class. Wallerstein replies that this is a hypothesis-generating study that can lead to further investigations of other groups-such as ethnic groups in which the extended family plays a larger role, or same-sex couples. Still, she thinks many of her findings will prove to be true across the board.

Wallerstein's conclusions upset a number of conventional beliefs. One such belief is that romantic love inevitably fades as couples face the realities of everyday life. About 15 percent of the people in her study had marriages that remained intensely romantic even after 20 or 30 years. In such marriages, partners continue to feel that their union is magical, that it transcends time-and their sexual relationship remains passionate and central. This finding will comfort those who have never been able to agree with such writers as C. S. Lewis, Erich Fromm or M. Scott Peck, who think it inevitable -- or, for Lewis, even desirable -- that romance and passion metamorphose into a steady, sober, everyday kind of love. (The compensation, they argue, is that one can then direct one's primary energies to other things: careers, friendships, improving the world, tending the garden.)

Wallerstein also challenges the notion that it is better for couples not to idealize each other. Idealizing one's beloved and holding high expectations of marriage are necessary, she believes, if people are to have the energy to build strong unions. Happily married people develop a double vision: they see each other realistically, as flawed and aging people, but also idealistically, as the wonderful beings with whom they first fell in love.

Such idealization must not be a form of self-deception. if, like Dorothea Brooke in George Eliot's Middlemarch, one sees a pedantic old scholar engaged in useless research as the Milton of his age, one is bound to be disillusioned. But spouses who think of each other as good and virtuous people encourage each other to live up to that ideal. The first man Wallerstein interviewed had, before he married, been for ten years a single, affluent man-about-town involved with many pretty women. He talked about how he adored his wife because she had principles and a morality. People need to feel that both they themselves and their spouses are worth loving.

The "romantic" marriage is only one type of good marriage. "Companionate," "rescue" and "traditional" marriages can each be happy -- and each offers its own challenges. Conflicts are especially inevitable in the companionate marriage -- the most common form among younger couples -- in which husband and wife are both invested in their careers and try to share family roles equally. Many of the choices they must make defy compromise. It is impossible to live in New York for his career and in Chicago for hers, or to have half a child. Because people in this kind of marriage are often worn out by multiple demands and the difficulty of juggling all the aspects of their lives, these marriages are especially fragile.

For each kind of marriage, Wallerstein describes an antitype -- a particular way it is likely to go off course. Those in companionate marriages who do not give enough attention to maintaining their life as a couple can become more like brother and sister than spouses. They live amicably side by side, with little passion or romantic attachment. Traditional marriages, in which the man is the primary breadwinner and the woman devotes herself to childrearing, homemaking and providing comfort and emotional support, are still fulfilling to many couples, young and old. The danger here is that couples may focus so much on their children that they find themselves distant from one another and with little in common after the children leave home.

One of Wallerstein's surprising and encouraging findings was that even people who had suffered terrible abuse or neglect in childhood could still form happy and satisfying "rescue" marriages -- marriages that healed the hurts of the past and enabled people to raise their children lovingly and well. She describes two such marriages. In one the partners knew each other's story well and had great respect for the partner's suffering and strength in overcoming adversity. In the other marriage the partners fought frequently and vented the feelings that lingered from their distressing childhoods yet were careful not to physically hurt or lose their loving concern for each other. In rescue marriages spouses strongly identify with one another and help each other avoid repeating destructive patterns from their pasts.

Rescue marriages in particular illustrate people's capacity to learn, change and grow throughout their life-times. In good marriages of every kind, Wallerstein finds, learning often takes place intuitively. People learn to understand and feel with each other, and adjust their actions accordingly. Regarding the common wisdom that good communication is crucial to marriage, she says, "I would be annoyed if I had to constantly explain what I was feeling. If a man can't tell what I'm feeling, he should work at it."

Working at marriage means, among other things, negotiating a predictable series of tasks. Wallerstein provides a chapter on each: separating from the family of origin; building togetherness and creating autonomy; becoming parents; coping with crises; making a safe place for conflict; exploring sexual love and intimacy; sharing laughter and keeping interests alive; providing emotional nurturance; and preserving a double vision.

"When I sit down with a couple that's divorcing, the first question I ask myself is 'Was this ever a marriage to begin with?"' Wallerstein states. "Was there ever a capacity to identify with the marriage, or have these two people just been living side by side? People in good marriages have the ability, out of love, of empathy, of some imaginative quality that is high in young adults, to create what I think of as the third person in a marriage -- the marriage itself, as a separate entity worth considering and fighting for. When facing problems or decisions, the couple asks not just 'Is this good for me, or for you,' but 'How will this affect the marriage?"' Many people have never created this sense of marriage as a "we-ness" worth nurturing and protecting. Marriages without such a sense are seldom strong enough to survive the trials' and crises of life.

Wallerstein describes a husband and wife whose house burned down. Afterward, each behaved in ways the other considered bizarre. The wife wanted to bake cookies and to buy flowers for their dining room table, though both the kitchen and the table had been destroyed. The husband became obsessed with filing insurance claims. They fought more fiercely than ever before. But they saw what was happening to their relationship. "They said, 'My God, the marriage is going to be a casualty, like the house, unless we can stop.' And they did stop. They said, 'We don't want to do this to each other.' In contrast, the people I see in divorce keep scapegoating each other because they don't see the marriage as a separate thing that must be protected."

Wallerstein gives an example of this sense of priority from her own life. "I know that if we were in an earthquake, an explosion, or any other kind of disaster, my husband would find me before he did anything else. I and our marriage would be his priority. And this sense of family, rather than a mother living at one end of town and a father at the other, is what children need."

Good marriages, Wallerstein finds, can sometimes survive infidelity, but they can't survive love affairs. When the people she interviewed talked about infidelity, they talked about "one-night stands, on the road, far away from home. I think the conclusion to be drawn is that we've underestimated the consequences of doing a lot of business travel. One of the men in my study spent every other month on the road. The absolute priority claimed by the workplace and what that does to marriage emerged very clearly in my study. We've become aware of how the workplace cuts into the parent-child relationship, but we haven't thought enough about what it does to marriage. The people in my study became very upset if they discovered an infidelity, but they could distinguish a brief affair from what they regarded as the central importance of the emotional commitment of the marriage. They did recognize that people sometimes slip." She states, "In my book, I'm trying to present models of men and women who are friends and lovers, who respect and trust each other, who get mad and scream at each other and who settle their arguments and go on. You don't need to be a saint in order to have a good marriage."

Though Wallerstein's book does not talk much about religion, in conversation she expresses concern about the church's role in preparing young people for marriage and in helping people as they go through divorce. She suggests that churches evaluate their premarital counseling efforts by calling couples a year after their marriage to ask two questions: "What do you remember about what was said to you as you prepared for marriage?" and "What would you have liked the pastor or rabbi to say that wasn't said?"

"That's just the beginning of what we need to find out," she states. "We need to think about how we can prepare young people for marriage without scaring them away from it. I wonder if just before their wedding is the best time to talk to people about marriage. Should we begin talking about relationships earlier? Should we continue to offer counseling after the wedding?"

Wallerstein is also concerned about the reluctance of religious institutions to deal with divorce. "I keep scolding ministers because they don't visit divorcing families," she says. Adolescents especially need help at such times-particularly in dealing with the moral issues involved in their parents' divorce. "When a 15-year-old boy comes to my office and says he wants to talk about whether his father, who has left the family, is still a good man, he's in the wrong place. That's a question pastors, not clinicians, are trained to deal with. The churches have really not understood how lonely and in how much of a moral quandary people are during a divorce."

When Wallerstein told a meeting of professional women that she intended to write a book about good marriages, they responded with skepticism. Our culture often seems to view marriage as stifling for women and divorce as a necessary step of growth and self-fulfillment. In The Good Divorce Ahrons takes a very different approach from Wallerstein's, but it's one that also evokes skepticism. When she talks about how to structure healthy divorces, many people in her audience immediately wonder, Can divorces be good?

Ahrons argues that "good divorce" is not an oxymoron. She is convinced that divorce is normal, that it is here to stay, and that it follows predictable patterns. Only when we accept current divorce rates as she suggests, will we tackle the hard task of making our divorces "good."

Underlying this loosely written book is a simple argument: high divorce rates are inevitable in modem society; parents who divorce are capable of creating and maintaining a harmonious relationship with each other; therefore people must be encouraged to build, and society must validate, a new kind of family structure, the binuclear family. A binuclear family is one that has "split into two nuclei, two households, each headed by one parent."

Divorce is a normal response to changing social and economic conditions, says Ahrons. It is one of the ways in which our families are "trying to survive and evolve within a rapidly changing society." She cites many reasons for divorce: romance fades, and marriages built on love alone are inherently unstable; women's new social and economic freedom makes them unwilling to put up with abusive or uncommunicative spouses (which explains why between two-thirds to three-fourths of divorces in Western societies are initiated by women); people change and grow, and marriages that suited them at one stage of their lives may not suit them at another; and increasing life expectancy permits us "to live many incarnations within a single life span," making serial monogamy a sensible pattern. Since these features of life are not about to change, divorce will remain an intrinsic part of married life, marriage and family are no longer synonymous, and we must aim not so much to prevent divorce as to prevent divorce's "negative consequences."

Ahrons studied 98 families randomly selected from the divorce records in one Wisconsin county. She concluded that about half the families have "good" divorces. She types divorced parents "according to their style of communication and interaction" as Fiery Foes, Angry Associates, Cooperative Colleagues and Perfect Pals, and attempts to show how people can be Cooperative Colleagues. (Perfect Pals, she admits, is a category out of reach for most people who divorce.)

Two people who have a child together can never stop being kin to each other, she asserts. If they choose not to be married, they must nevertheless devote themselves to remaining a family for that child. Whether they can succeed in raising their children well depends to a large extent on their ability to form a good postdivorce relationship. Such a relationship requires learning to manage anger well and to develop empathy and good will toward one another. Even the most antagonistic couple, Ahrons contends, can learn to form a civil, friendly limited partnership for raising their children. A bonus for those who build such a postdivorce relationship is that they are more likely to have happy second marriages.

In the binuclear family that Ahrons envisions as the dominant family form of the 21st century, children will rotate between two loving households, and they will find the arrangement enriching. Their parents will be creative in finding satisfying patterns for binuclear family life. Mothers and fathers may spend alternate weeks in the family home. If a job takes one parent to another location, the children might live with their mother one year, their father the next. Parents who share custody will each keep a calendar of their children's activities on the kitchen wall. When parents remarry, children will benefit from a greatly expanded kinship network. When children graduate or marry, three or four proud parents may hold hands and celebrate with them.

Though Ahrons is well intentioned, this vision seems utopian. With all the good will in the world, blended families often do not function smoothly -- which is one of the main reasons why second marriages end in divorce more frequently than first marriages. Many children do not adapt well to moving back and forth between families and homes. And having four parents and endless siblings is likely to be as disorienting as it is stimulating to children. Ahrons herself admits that it took many years before she and her former husband could overcome their mutual hostility and anger so that they could function well together as parents. Years of their children's lives passed before they were able to become a good binuclear family.

Parents who divorce certainly should strive to understand and respect each other, and surely they should put their children's welfare first and cooperate to that end. But it seems dangerous to accept high divorce rates as normal, as Ahrons suggests. The divorce cases Ahrons cites give further cause for uneasiness. She refers to the man in his 40s who divorces his wife because her commitment to church and to gardening and her dislike of tennis make him doubt that she will be a sufficiently amusing partner to cheer his retirement years; a young mother who admits that her husband is her best friend, but who divorces him because she no longer feels very romantic toward him; a woman who marries someone she doesn't especially like because she fears she may never find anyone better and then, after having several children, does find someone more to her liking. Rather than accepting such divorces as inevitable, we might teach people to choose more seriously and wisely, and encourage couples to change and solve problems together.

Ahrons does not downplay the amount of emotional maturity and effort a good divorce requires. But this part of her argument raises another question: If people's love for their children can motivate them to make heroic efforts to be good parents after divorce, couldn't the same amount of effort be expended to make many of the marriages work in the first place?