Item from the Smart Marriages Archive, reproduced in the Divorce Statistics Collection

July 20, 1998

Can Generation Xers--many of them the children of divorce--make their own
marriages last?
By Kendall Hamilton and Pat Wingert

Daphne Dyer and Greg Owens didn't meet in an exotic foreign land.
never galloped bareback along a moonlit beach. And when the marriage
came, it wasn't something you'd read about in a Harlequin Romance. Dyer,
and Owens, 28, had known each other seven years--first as friends, then as
band mates in a jazz-rock combo, then as roommates, then as lovers and,
finally, just as friends again. Or so they thought, until they sat one
last December on a park bench in Piedmont, Calif., talking about finding
roommates to share their quarters. "I don't want to move in with another
roommate," Dyer said. "When are we going to do our thing?" Owens turned
serious. "Do you think we should get married?" Dyer says her heart
skipped a
beat as she heard herself answer, "Yeah, I think so."
It may not be much of a tale to tell the grandkids, but for Dyer, a
auburn-haired opera singer-artist-housecleaner, it was a moment of
elation--tempered by terror. Scenes from her stormy family life flashed
her eyes. "I had watched my parents' marriage fall apart, and I didn't
know if
I could keep one together," she says. The couple wedded in May, in an
ceremony in a Rhode Island bog--but only after Dyer sought therapy to
her confidence. Even for the burly, red-bearded Owens, whose parents have
together 30 years, the union was a daunting prospect. "If you flip on the
you don't see families anymore. Family life is not part of the canon," he
says. "It takes a lot of faith to reinstate marriage into your vision of
And never has more faith been required. "Generation X" is a term often
loosely to denote the post-baby-boom generation; as far as demographers
concerned, it covers people born between 1965 and 1976. That span of years
corresponds precisely to a doubling of the annual American divorce rate,
2.5 to 5.0 per 1,000 population. As Generation Xers march two by two down
aisle and on into married midlife, they will face the same formidable
obstacles--money hassles, infidelity, conflicting career priorities, the
stresses of parenthood--that tripped up their parents. They will also
have to
overcome hurdles more particular to their generation.
More Gen-Xers are the product of divorced parents than any previous
generation, leaving many of them emotionally conflicted about
marriage--and at
greater statistical risk of divorce themselves. Since many children of
have never seen a successful marriage up close, they're bereft of role
And some measures that Gen-Xers are counting on to protect themselves from
divorce--marrying later and living together before marriage, for
of dubious value. Premarital counseling has never been more popular, but
often inadequate. And from a purely societal standpoint, marriage has
been less necessary: no longer is it widely seen as a prerequisite for
living together or even, increasingly, having children.
But despite their misgivings --and ample cause for pessimism--Gen-Xers
haven't turned their backs on tradition. In many respects they're more
conservative than their parents, more likely to value the stability that
marriage can provide, and they are, they say, determined to succeed where
their parents have failed. In a survey last year by the market-research
Yankelovich Partners, 73 percent of Gen-Xers said they'd favor a return to
more traditional standards in family life. (Only 56 percent of baby
asked that same question in 1977 felt the same way.) A 1994 study by the
University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, meanwhile, found
that Gen-Xers were the age group least likely to say that divorce is the
option for troubled couples.
"This is not a cynical generation," says divorce researcher Judith
Wallerstein, who has tracked 116 children of divorce since 1971. "They
turned their backs on commitment, they're just scared of being abandoned."
University of Denver psychologist Howard Markman, currently in the midst
of a
study of 300 newly married couples, says Gen-Xers score higher than
generations in interviews designed to gauge how committed they are to
relationships. "They know marriage is risky, but there's a stronger sense
commitment--more than we saw in their parents and grandparents," he says.
bad news is, they don't have a clue how to make their relationships work."
Sean and Jennifer Spector know what a difference family history and
models can make. Sean, 30, wed Jennifer, 29, eight months ago after an
year courtship. When the Los Angeles couple were introduced by mutual
Jennifer was recovering from a car accident. Her jaw was wired shut--but
was no barrier to romance. "I knew she was the one for me from the moment
saw her," recalls Sean. "She couldn't talk, but it was still like I had
the second half of myself." They did complement each other in one sense:
very different backgrounds represented both poles of possible childhood
experience. "My parents showed affection for each other, and their fights
never lasted more than one night," says Sean. "They showed me how great
it is
to have a fulfilling, happy marriage." Jennifer was less fortunate. "I
know if my parents were divorced or what. I don't think they were ever
married," she says. But if there's one thing Sean and Jennifer share,
it's a
determination to avoid splitting up. "I grew up thinking divorce is huge
that I would never get one," says Sean.
For many Gen-Xers, the first teetering bridge to cross is the decision
wed at all. When Dyer decided to marry Owens that night on the park
bench, it
set off a torrent of self-doubt. "This is such a huge, scary
she recalls thinking. The idea of a lengthy union--no matter how much she
wanted it--seemed distant. "I didn't think anyone could like me for that
long." Her apprehension was typical, says Wallerstein. Many children of
divorce seem to recover over time from the trauma of the split. But when
contemplate their own marriages, "all the ghosts rise from the basement,"
says. "The nagging questions: 'Will I be abandoned? Will I be able to
where my parents failed?' They're terrifying."
Lisa Concepcion's parents split when she was 3, part of a wave of
that swept her family in the '70s. "It was like a rite of passage," she
"Turn 26, get divorced, dye your hair and hit the discos." Now
Concepcion, 27,
a voluble, dark-haired New York public-relations account executive, plans
marry her boyfriend of seven years in September. She's optimistic--but
"I am in no way entering my marriage thinking it will last forever," she
admits. "I know what the pitfalls are, so I'm very realistic and eager to
avoid those problems." One step she's taken to head off trouble is
marriage, "to get the early-20s fun out of my system." That's a common
approach, and traditionally, later marriage has meant a lesser chance of
divorce. The problem for Gen X is that in recent years, even as the age of
first marriages has risen, the divorce rate for people in their 20s and
has held steady. "We would have expected the divorce rate to go down under
those circumstances," says University of Wisconsin demographer Larry
"It implies that people marrying at later ages are divorcing at higher
than they used to."
More couples than ever before are living together, too, whether as a
prelude to marriage or a substitute for it. In the early '80s, 39 percent
women under 44 said they had lived with someone before marriage. A decade
later that figure had hit 53 percent, and it's still on the rise. Ask
about cohabitation, and you'll hear, over and over again, that it's a key
stage on the road to marriage. "Living together is crucial," says Sean
Spector. "It's make-or-break time." Unfortunately, there's ample research
suggest that couples who cohabit are more--not less--apt to split
"People like to call it a trial marriage," says Michael McManus,
president of
Marriage Savers, an advocacy group based in Bethesda, Md. "It would be a
better idea to call it a trial divorce."
McManus applauds efforts to make the road to marriage more rigorous.
80 percent of religious organizations now require some form of premarital
counseling, and increasingly, state and local governments are considering
measures that would encourage, if not mandate, counseling for couples
to wed. Last month, for instance, Florida enacted a law that offers
marriage licenses to couples who can prove they've undergone four hours of
premarital counseling. It's a nice idea, though the incentive seems
small. And
even when counseling is mandatory, as it is for most religious weddings,
can be inadequate. Too often, clergy members spend more time discussing
ceremony than conflictresolution skills, says psychologist David Olson of
University of Minnesota. What's more, "too few use a research-based
Given the cloudy outlook, one might be tempted to ask: why get married
all? The answer may not be surprising, but therein lies what is perhaps
greatest hope for Gen X. When you have every reason to fear marriage, when
there's little societal pressure to wed, when every historical indicator
stacked against you and you know it--yet you still choose to take that
leap of
faith, there may be a better chance you're doing it for the right reason.
Allison Brody, for one, certainly never pictured herself at the altar.
7, Brody asked her parents if they were going to get divorced. "Not now,"
the decidedly unreassuring reply from her mom. Five years later her folks
split. "The only thing real to me was chaos, crisis and endings," Brody
Through her first three and a half years of college at Harvard, she dated
Wrong. At one point she began receiving suggestive notes from a
professor. "I
was disgusted with the male species," she says. "I sure didn't expect or
marriage." It was in her last semester that Brody met Bentley Boyd. His
parents, too, were divorced, and he, too, had bounced through a tumultuous
love life on campus. "We had a magical two weeks, just like in fairy
says Boyd. "With Allison I wasn't lost. I never wondered what I should say
next, or what Allison was thinking. I have no fear with her." They wed
years ago, and today the couple, both 31, live with their two children in
Williamsburg, Va., where Brody works as the communications director for a
philanthropic organization and Boyd is a cartoonist and stay-at-home dad.
"Much of my faith in this world and this life is having found Bentley and
having my children," says Brody. "We didn't go for marriage because we
to be married," Boyd adds. "We went for marriage because we found each
Love may not conquer all, but it could be the most powerful weapon they
With Nadine Joseph in San Francisco, Andrea Cooper in Charlotte, N.C.,
Tara Weingarten in Los Angeles

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