We've all heard that 50% of marriages end in divorce, but the figure is actually lower: Four in 10 couples are expected to divorce before their 40th anniversary, according to the Center for Disease Control's National Center for Health Statistics in Atlanta. And although this number has declined over the past 30 years, experts agree that it's still too high. "We can undoubtedly save more potentially healthy marriages than we do," says Stephanie Coontz, the Olympia, WA-based co-chair of the Council on Contemporary Families in New York City and author of The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms With America's Changing Families.
A conversation with Coontz—who is now writing a new book, The History of Marriage—yielded some fascinating insights on how we, as couples and as a society, can do just that.
Be flexible. Though men are adjusting to the fact that women expect men to help around the house and take care of the children, they need to be more prepared to shoulder their share of the work, says Coontz. Women, for their part, must avoid giving what can appear to be contradictory messages: "You can't say you want your husband to help around the house and then tell him he's doing it wrong," she says. Besides, it pays to involve men. Research shows that when they are heavily involved with household chores and childcare, wives' satisfaction in the marriage increases greatly—and the husbands' satisfaction doesn't decrease.
Don't believe that falling into traditional gender roles will alleviate stress. Take a common scenario, in which a couple has a baby and decides that the mother will quit her job to stay home full-time and care for the child; the father will work extra hours to make up the financial difference. This has obvious benefits, but the drawbacks can be devastating: The woman faces a huge loss of participation in the outside world," says Coontz. "For the man, it's a loss of participation he'd expected to have with his child. She can't understand why he's not more sensitive to her situation, and he can't believe she's not more appreciative of his efforts. They both feel extraordinarily cheated.
Speak up for better parental leave policies. The United States lags way behind other nations that have far fewer resources but higher family priorities," says Coontz. Paid maternity leave is a basic social right in most European countries. In fact, it's compulsory in the weeks just before and after childbirth (Germany gives women six weeks off with pay before and eight weeks off after giving birth, for instance). Sweden has a smart way of encouraging paternal leave: Mothers and fathers get the same amount of time off—but if the father does not take it, the mother cannot.
Talk to your human resources department and your local legislators about instituting more family-friendly leave policies. "Our social policies are archaic and way behind those of every other major industrial society," says Coontz. "Unless we do something to agitate the country into starting better programs, our problems won't go away."
Let yourself—and your spouse—off the hook. The conditions of marriage have changed all around us, but we haven't changed our attitudes about or support systems for it," says Coontz. "We're dealing with an economic and political structure that is absolutely unresponsive to the needs of parents and couples." So instead of pitting yourself against your spouse because you're not getting the help you need, try to look at it this way: We're in this together against a society that's giving us little support. In the end, that may go a long way toward helping you appreciate—and preserve—your union.