How Does Your Marriage Stack Up?

Today’s younger Philly couples are not only waiting longer to say “I do”; they’re dealing with a whole different set of issues than their parents—from Facebook-stalking to who gets to pick the love seat. Can marriage survive it? An intimate look at an institution in flux

Picture a man and a woman. Let’s call them Michael and Jennifer. Michael is 30 and has a college degree; he’s worked hard to get ahead at the office and been rewarded with promotions. Jennifer, who is 28, puts in long hours at work, too, and also has a college degree. They’re ambitious. By the time these two meet, they’ve enjoyed single life for several years and dated with abandon. They make each other laugh and fall in love and have sex and plan a wedding (not necessarily in that order). The Big Day might have religious, cultural and family traditions incorporated, or it might just be what they think of as a big blowout for all their friends and kin.

[sidebar]Michael and Jennifer are partners, as we like to pronounce today. If they haven’t yet lived together—and chances are high that they have, because according to a recent Pew/Time survey, more than half of all adults ages 30 to 49 say they’ve shacked up—they’ll then have to merge two very fully formed lives and careers, along with families, friends, contents of condos (pillows, tchotchkes, furniture, artwork), sleeping habits and approaches to household chores. (One modern development: Thanks to iPods, they no longer have to mix music—no one’s fighting over record collections anymore.) When the merger’s complete, they’ve got something they can both live with. They hope.

“You come with all your baggage. It seems almost impossible, doesn’t it?” poses Monica Mandell, director of the Philadelphia branch of upscale matchmakers Selective Search. “The whole concept seems silly.”

This from a woman who’s dedicated to the business of partnering up the Michaels and Jennifers of the world.

WHAT DO YOU think when you picture Michael and Jennifer?

Lucky girl! I wonder what her wedding dress looked like.

Well, those two have a 50-50 shot at making it.

Michael’s taken the plunge. Now he’s stuck with the old ball and chain.

I wonder when they’ll have kids?

How narrow-minded! What about Michael and Michael? And Jennifer and Jennifer?

Whether or not you identify with—or pity, or get pissed off by—Michael and Jennifer, they are today’s most typical young couple, according to a report released at the end of last year called “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families,” based on a joint study by Time magazine and the Pew Research Center (the Washington think-tank arm of the Philly-based Pew Charitable Trusts).

They’re older than their parents were when they got hitched. One or both of them probably have parents who divorced. They both work. They’ll most likely have children. And they’ll both continue to work. Though the country they live in is still debating the legalization of same-sex marriage, they themselves are as likely as not to be for it. The Pew/Time poll found that 46 percent of 20-somethings think “the growing variety of family arrangements is a good thing.”

When Michael and Jennifer have dinner at Parc with friends—say, three other married couples—they believe that statistics dictate two of the couples at the table will divorce. Turns out they’re wrong. The oft-repeated 50-50 gamble falls to just 25 percent when you look at college-educated couples, which is great news for the 38 percent of adults in the Philadelphia region who have degrees—and the 70 percent in Center City.

Still, maybe thanks to the perceived high breakup stat or the fact that they experienced plenty of divorce growing up, when those younger than 50 answered the Pew/Time surveyors’ question of whether marriage is becoming obsolete, 43 percent said yes. So are they right about that?

Civilization has bemoaned the decline of marriage for more than 2,000 years—seriously, the ancient Greeks worried about it—but take the current widespread belief in a gloomy divorce rate and the storm over the legalization of gay marriage, and you can see that, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, we might be smack in the middle of a pivotal moment for the institution as we know it.

“The traditional version of your parents’ marriage is gone, finished,” Mandell says. But whether this means marriage itself is on the way out is harder to say. On one hand, younger generations seem to be taking a more practical approach to marriage, which could strengthen their unions; waiting yields more adults who think they have a better grip on what they want in a lifelong mate. On the other, there are real challenges to blending two fully formed lives. Plus, all at once, society’s growing acceptance of divorce puts less pressure and more pressure on every “I do.” Pile on Facebook cheating, still-shifting gender roles and the pervasive notion that just about nothing’s permanent, and you start to wonder why anyone even bothers anymore.

Will marriage look familiar to us 30 years from now? Can we stare down the divorce statistic? Should we move beyond the concept of “till death do us part” and view marriage as just another phase in life, one in which two adults come together for the purpose of raising a family? The Michaels and Jennifers of Philly could very well decide.

"I HAD THREE LONG relationships before this, and with each one there was a problem,” John* says. “Nicole and I were a perfect match. We liked traveling and cooking. We were exactly the same.”

John grew up in Delco and Nicole went to Villanova, but the two didn’t cross paths until they were both 25 and working in New York City. John, then living with a roommate, invited friends over before a night on the town and asked them to bring along Nicole, who was just moving into her own apartment. They began dating, and two years later, when John’s lease was about to end, they decided he’d move in with Nicole. “It made sense,” John says. “Especially when rent is so high in New York.”

Nicole admits she “could have been 40 and single and that would have been fine, if I hadn’t met John.” The recent economic downturn threw off their timing when John was laid off from his pharmaceutical job. But he found a new position last year, and the two were married in January. (They now live near Rittenhouse Square.) Both agree they’ve got a different approach to marriage than their parents. “My mom got pregnant a few years in and stopped working,” says Nicole. “I’m much more independent than my mom. My dad paid the bills. For me, it’s important that I’m involved in that.”

“My sister followed in my parents’ footsteps and got married to someone from high school and had children right away,” John notes. “Now she’s almost done with her divorce.”

Though marriage is never far from the headlines (see: Gingrich, Newt; Aniston, Jennifer; and Royal Wedding, William and Kate), “The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families” spurred a flurry of stories in the news—many with an emphasis on decline. Among the stats: Fifty years ago, almost 75 percent of American adults were married; today, only about 50 percent are.

Part of this is due to divorce, but the lower numbers are also due to John and Nicole’s generation not rushing into marriage. While 50 years ago two-thirds of 20-somethings were married, three years ago only a quarter were. The median age at marriage has risen more than five years since 1960—for men, the number stands at 28; for women, 26. And when you think about it, even that seems kind of young these days, doesn’t it?

Not surprising, really, that those born in the 1970s and ’80s, when the divorce rate begin to skyrocket (it peaked in 1981, with 5.3 divorces for every 1,000 people), have been a little bit more careful before marrying. The mantra, particularly reinforced with young women, who are now attending college in higher numbers than men: Go to college. Get your degree. Wait to settle down. There’s no rush.

“They’re approaching marriage more mindfully, more maturely,” says Philly-based therapist Edd Conboy from the Council for Relationships, a nonprofit counseling center with 13 offices in the Philadelphia region. “This generation is much more careful about commitments.” Conboy has seen an uptick in couples going for therapy before getting married and has several newlyweds as patients, not for specific problems but for what they call “preventive maintenance.”

“We knew everything about each other,” John recalls. “There were no surprises.”

Could it be that marriage, after a detour through romance and love, is coming back round to practical? Men and women began marrying more for love starting in the late 1700s. Before then, the institution was predominantly business-minded, allowing families to amass wealth and build community ties. In Marriage, A History, researcher Stephanie Coontz points out that “no sooner had the ideal of the love match and lifelong intimacy taken hold than people began to demand the right to divorce.”

No one’s advocating arranged marriages or forsaking the heart, but among younger Philadelphians, there’s a distinct skepticism about romance these days, and an intense focus on partnerships. We live in a world where therapists encourage couples to have “business meetings.” Forget cheesy self-help à la Men Are From Mars that instructed couples to embrace gender differences. Now we look for advice in books such as this year’s Spousonomics, coauthored by two Wall Street journalists who apply the discipline of economics to marriage—everything from “moral hazard” to “supply and demand.” Remember in the 1990 movie Green Card when Andie MacDowell married Gérard Depardieu so he could live in the U.S.? She falls in love with him, of course. Today, there’s what 20-somethings casually refer to as “insurance-married,” which has young couples heading to a City Hall judge so one of them can get on the other’s company health insurance plan. “I have health insurance and he doesn’t,” says one single gal from Fairmount. “I think we’ll eventually get insurance-married and then in the future have a real wedding.” Ah, young love.

Conboy points out another advantage of marrying with experience: “People are more understanding of how much pressure there is to stay monogamous.” As a result, he thinks younger couples have an advantage when it comes to working through affairs. “They’re generally more forgiving because they have more of a personal history of relationships. They have sexual histories. I can’t think of the last time I met a couple under age 40 that this was their first partner.”

ANNE AND HER HUSBAND of three years, Matt, live in Montgomery County. She laughs when she describes the start of their relationship as a “senior fling” in college: “We had a class together, but I didn’t realize that. He came up to me in a bar and said, ‘Hello, Anne.’ And I said, ‘Hey … you.’ But he gave me a seat at the bar, so I figured I’d give him a chance.”

After graduating, they headed in different directions—Matt to join his family’s business in Philadelphia, Anne to live in Hoboken. The two dated long-distance for two years before Anne moved to Montco. “I lived by myself for a year, and then he moved in,” she says. “It was a test run to see whether or not we would be good together.” Two years later, they got married, at 28. They’re 31 now, and Anne is expecting their first child this summer.

Anne brings home a bigger paycheck than Matt and says, “He made a change for less salary, but he’s a happier person. We’re supportive of each other and don’t want either of us to be stuck in a career that we don’t like.” The plan is that they’ll both continue to work; Matt will stay home one day a week with the baby.

Generally, today’s 20- and 30-somethings had one of two child-rearing experiences: They had stay-at-home moms (not all women laced up their Reeboks in the ’80s), or moms who aimed to have it all and got stretched thin and worn out along the way. Neither model is perfectly applicable in today’s gender-equality-driven world. The first mass of working women definitely laid the groundwork, but younger generations are now left to give it shape and rules. They’re the ones trying to puzzle out how to act once we’ve all accepted that hunting and gathering is a relic and all that’s left is to fight over is what color to paint the kitchen.

“We definitely share household chores,” Matt says. “If the dishes are sitting there, I’ll do them and surprise her. We share a lot of the stuff. I’m definitely not a male chauvinist asshole.”

He’s not alone. Steve is 40 and lives with his wife and two children in Springfield Township. Though he and his wife didn’t live together first, he says their seven-year-old marriage is different from that of his parents. “They have very clear boundaries as to who does what,” he says. “My wife and I, we’re like a two-man volleyball team. If one is down, the other one picks up. My dad will never cook dinner. Both of us pull our weight. We’re not the Cleavers.”

Yes, the 21st-century post-Iron John man watches Lidia Bastianich, pours the Cascade into the dishwasher, and has traded in his briefcase for sports-themed analogies about marriage, but he and his wife still grapple mightily with how to apply widespread equality to day-to-day life. Best to bury traditional sensibilities that dare to surface and mock male chauvinism and the Cleavers (mind you, all while fetishizing a show like Mad Men that depicts gender inequality as de rigueur).

“Equality creates more opportunity for conflict and power struggle, and men and women don’t deal with issues around power and control similarly,” says Rita M. DeMaria, a senior staff therapist at the Council for Relationships’ Spring House and Wynnewood offices. “If we’re partners, and each of us has a healthy self-esteem, then we also have a strong point of view. This is harder; you need more conversation. How do you share power?”

Chances are good that more women are wondering about this than men these days. The struggle to get guys to pitch in around the house has been surpassed. Now, to the horror of young wives everywhere, husbands want a say in what goes on around that house they’re helping to dust.

“The first time our young marriage got strange is when we went out to buy a couch,” says 28-year-old Rob, who lives in the city and has been married for a year. “Suddenly it’s our money, and we’re buying a couch together. I realized I needed to take her opinion. She didn’t expect me to care about a couch, and she was surprised that I had an opinion. But I know what I like. So what happened is, we just don’t decorate.”

One well-known paint company recently called a local therapist and asked her if she would consider being its “couples consultant,” because so many marrieds were having trouble when it came to redecorating their homes. Go ahead, bring up the topic of home decor—specifically paint—and everyone seems to have a story.

“I remember when I was painting my son’s bedroom,” recalls Steve. “The neon blue gives you a headache; it’s like a tanning booth, it’s so bright. She didn’t like it, but I said, ‘Here’s the deal. It’s going to take days to fix it, and I’m not going to do it.’ I know the next people who buy this house will walk into this room and throw up.”

Beyond what seem like superficial quibbles, therapists note most couples still face many familiar issues—sex, communication and money, especially—albeit filtered through a new equality and a growing reverse inequality. With more women finishing college and earning more in the workplace, and more men laid off in the latest recession, or mancession, labels like “alpha wife” have surfaced. In 1970, four percent of husbands had wives who made more money; in 2007, 22 percent did. In fact, money is one area where couples who fancy themselves trés progressive might stumble. According to the Pew/Time poll, 67 percent of people think it important that a man be able to support his family; only 33 percent hold women to the same standard. “I’d like to say I’d be totally cool with it, but I know I would feel like less of a man,” Rob says of the idea of his wife outearning him.

For now, many young marrieds take the practical route of keeping some, if not all, money separate. Anne says that while she and Matt pool their money to pay household bills, they each keep individual bank accounts as well, a practice that’s common among her friends. If they put their money in one big pot, she says, “I’d lose my mind.”

WHEN FORMER U.S. TREASURY and Homeland Security employee Jim Zogorski Sr. started Digital Forensics Consultants in Newtown a few years ago, he expected most of his work to center on litigation cases. Instead, at rates starting around $1,500, almost 40 percent of his clients are distrustful spouses.

“They all are looking to find financial records, hidden assets, evidence of Internet dating, like e-mails or photographic evidence of an affair, or porn on the computer,” Zogorski says. A wife will wait for her husband to go to work, then load the family PC into the Volvo and head to Zogorski’s offices. Sometimes, she’ll just bring the family camera. “Even if images have been deleted, I can find them on a camera card,” he explains. He also has a special program to pull up deleted Web-browsing history to uncover Internet dating or access hidden accounts.

Even couples who have complete trust tiptoe through discussions about sharing passwords. Do you look at your husband’s e-mail? Casually thumb through your wife’s text history? “People have been able to find out things about their spouses through Facebook and dig up information about each other. Stalking is socially acceptable now,” says 28-year-old Rachel, who lives with her husband in Center City.

You’d think Zogorski’s stints with the government would have exposed him to the ugliest underbellies, but even he admits “there’s some scary stuff out there” when it comes to spying on your spouse. Yep, there’s an app, even for that. Install one (brand names range from FlexiSPY to TigerText) on your spouse’s phone and—voilà—you can track movements, listen in on calls, and even remotely turn the phone into a mic to eavesdrop on conversations.

“With the technology change, there are a lot more conversations around what is or isn’t cheating,” explains Oxford Valley-based psychologist Ken Maguire. “For some people, if their partner is flirting with someone over the Internet, it’s not cheating. But some people see that as cheating. Is an affair something that requires the people meeting?”

Whether or not iPhones are busting up marriages, most couples are texting, sext-ing and Skyping from date one. Later, as spouses, they rely heavily on modern technology to sort day-to-day logistics. “In the first few years, it was page-long e-mails every half hour—which couldn’t have been good for work purposes,” John jokes. “At this point, we’re e-mailing throughout the day, but they’re one-liners. In the morning, she might say she enjoyed dinner last night, or we go back and forth about what we have to do before we get home and what we might pick up for dinner.”

But Conboy warns of a digital distancing—when couples who text, e-mail and IM frequently think they’re communicating plenty but most of their connecting is done through devices. “I’m torn. I like getting a text update, but I still like to hear his voice,” confesses Nadia, 33, from Jenkintown. “He has a relationship with his phone that is unbelievable. I’m thinking of making it a rule that there’s no phone at the dinner table.”

THE ACT OF WEDDING is the making of a unit, but now more than ever we place a premium on a certain brand of selfishness. Whether this is another practical way to avoid misery or disaster in the making, well, we won’t know until we look at the divorce stats in 30 years. The goal of today’s couples is definitely to avoid the self-sacrificing mistakes their parents made. “My wife and I put a lot more emphasis on making time for ourselves than I ever saw my parents do,” says Rob. It’s probably a safe bet that Rob’s grandparents would laugh their asses off at the concept of “date night,” or the idea that selfishness is key in a happy marriage. “I think every wife should have two nights a week when you know your husband won’t be home,” Rachel proclaims. “I love having a few nights a week to myself.”

“Couples today expect lifelong passion and friendship. That wasn’t the expectation so vividly once,” says DeMaria. But if the heat fizzles, they’re not opposed to going their separate ways. Again, it’s just being practical. “Marriage became a choice, and divorce became a choice. So it’s easier, if things are rocky, to divorce.”

Indeed, while everyone wants to believe his or her blissful union is the exception, most people are accepting of a certain amount of impermanence around the institution of marriage. “You need to do what’s best for you and what’s best for your children,” Matt says. “I’m glad people are getting divorced if they aren’t happy, because life’s too short.”

The trend toward this acceptance worries people like Penn law professor Amy Wax. “It’s not hip to come to the defense of marriage as an institution. The self-image of educated people is, that’s too old-fashioned. It doesn’t square with quasi-bohemian individualism.” We turned out okay, think today’s younger adults who grew up in an era of rampant divorce.

“As long as we’re trying and things are getting better, that’s great,” Rachel says. “But if things aren’t getting better, then why stay together? I hope we love each other until we’re old and gray, but if that would change, we owe it to ourselves to be happy. I don’t think you should have it in your head that you’re depriving your child if you get divorced. It’s not our lot in life to be miserable for our kids.”

With the divorce option firmly established, can the choice to never legally marry be far away? Ask any guy you know if men want to get married. He’ll probably say “no” in a blink. For now, at least, especially among the affluent and college-educated, there’s still a lingering pressure from family and community. “I think society tells men they have to get married, and [there are] family pressures,” confesses Matt. “If you’re dating a girl for five years, it starts to become rude that you haven’t asked.”

Rude. Well, what happens when our manners are no longer so impeccable? When college-educated, independent women start feeling equal ambivalence about the institution? The time might not be as distant as marriage proponents would like. Take away romance, religious guilt and societal pressure, and the most compelling reason to marry is children. Although everyone seems to have a story about a brilliant, successful woman who is proudly pursuing parenthood solo, the Pew/Time survey showed that 69 percent of people consider the single-motherhood trend “a bad thing for society.” Sixty-one percent think a child needs a mother and a father “to grow up happily.”

“I think it’s about children. If neither one of us wanted children, it would be different,” Nicole says. “I have friends who have lived with their partners for 10 to 20 years, but you have no rights when you aren’t married, in terms of health care and financial support.”

Among those with whom marriage is still in vogue, the link between children and the institution is overwhelming. Just get married and see how many people ask you, in, say, the first three months, about children. Are you planning to start a family soon? Mom will nudge. So, when are you guys having kids? mere acquaintances will press.

Of course, marriage could become just another phase of life. Men and women might begin to get hitched for the practical purpose of raising a family, then, unless they’re wildly happy, go their separate ways. Think of the recent “gray divorce” trend, and this doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.

Or younger generations might forgo a legal pairing altogether. After all, if we begin to accept that children aren’t a reason to stay married, how long before we accept they’re not a reason to get married? That stat about single motherhood? Put the questions only to 20-somethings, and only about half believe a child needs a mother and a father to grow up happily; 44 percent reject the idea completely.

As careful as younger generations are being about their own marriages, our live-and-let-live attitudes mean we feel less invested in the marriages around us. Nobody wants to believe his or her marriage will end, but if the neighbors end up in Splitsville? That’s life.

“The decline in marriage has not occurred, but we could easily shift,” says Wax. “Marriage is in danger because people don’t think about it as something valuable to be preserved. It’s every man for himself. You do what you think is best and think it’s all going to work out in the end.”

Whether or not younger generations will consider marriage an institution worth saving has yet to be decided. But there’s still hope for the traditionalists, the moralists and the romantics—even if that hope is based on fading cultural norms.

Or the thrill of belonging to a special club. “My husband says he feels like he walks a little taller because he’s a husband now,” 34-year-old Jessica confides. “There’s an achievement and a feeling of accomplishment. Being able to say I am a card-carrying member gives me some power.”

Or good, old-fashioned word of mouth. “Now that I’m married, I’m that guy who says ‘Why don’t you just do it?’ to my friends,” Rob says. “Before, I couldn’t stand that guy. Now I am that guy. But I want to tell them: It’s not bad.”

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