Resources from Marriage Savers: Columns
The Marriage Index
October 7, 2009
Copyright © 2009 Michael J. McManus
"What helps us the most to thrive, as individuals and as a society?
Money or marriage? Assets or relationships?"
These provocative questions are the opening words of an important new
report, "The Marriage Index," by the Institute for American Values and
the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting.
It argues that the status of our marriages influences our well-being at
least as much as our finances. Yet we regularly note America's leading
economic indicators, such as unemployment - and have no comparable
marriage indicators, measuring America's marital health.
The first marriage indicators that come to my mind - the divorce rate
and marriage rate - are not the yardsticks proposed by the report,
perhaps for good reason. Divorces tripled in just 19 years, from 1960 to
1979, but have fallen 30% since. That may give a false sense of
progress, since America's divorce rate is still 2-6 times that of Canada
The report proposes five yardsticks which are less obvious but
1. Percentage of Married Adults (aged 20-54): On one
hand, 59 percent of women under 24 have already cohabited! In fact,
three-fourths were either married, a single parent or had cohabited. Yet
a new study by Dr. Norval Glenn of the University of Texas reports that
adults who married between 22 and 25 report the happiest marriages!
Thus, contrary to conventional wisdom, nothing is gained by postponing
marriage to a later age.
How strong is marriage according to this yardstick? Millions
consider marriage "less attractive." In 1970, 78.6 percent of adults
were married, but by 2008 only 57.2 percent.
Divorce is part of the reason for this drop, but a bigger factor is
cohabitation, which has soared 16-fold from 439,000 in 1960 to 6.8
million last year. Many cohabitants have children who grow up outside of
marriage, and are least likely to succeed.
2. Percentage of Married Persons who are "Very Happy:" Couples
who are happy raise children who fare better on every measure of child
well-being. Marital quality matters, not only for adults but for their
With more couples getting divorced, are the remaining marriages
happier now than in the past? Sadly, no. There's been a modest decline
from 67 percent who were happy in 1970, to 62 percent in 2008.
3. Percentage of Intact First Marriages: What percentage
of couples experience the ideal of marriage for life? Due to rising
divorce rates, the percentage dropped from 77.4 percent in 1970 to 59.9
percent by 2000. However, it rose to 61.2 percent by 2008, a tiny ray
4. Percentage of Births to Married Parents: In 1970, nine
out of ten children were born to married parents, but that figure has
plunged to only 60.3 percent. No measure of marital health has
deteriorated so precipitously.
Out-of-wedlock children exhibit behavioral problems as young as
age 3. Half of those born to cohabiting parents will experience a
dissolved parental union by age five, compared to only 15 percent of
those born to a married couple.
5. Percentage of Children Living with Own Married Parents:
Many studies report that children raised by their own married parents
will fare best. Children of divorce have weaker relationship with their
fathers. Children of one-parent families are three times more likely to
be expelled from school or to become pregnant as teenagers.
What about those who have two parents, but one is a stepparent?
The report says children in stepfamilies appear more like children of
single parents than those raised by their own married parents.
The report concludes with 101 excellent suggestions on what could
be done to improve The Marriage Index, such as reforming divorce laws to
require a "one or two-year waiting period for unilateral divorce," or
making "mutual consent the basis for divorce in long-term marriages and
marriages with children."
It suggests "organizing religious congregations into Community
Marriage Policies" which was gratifying since my wife and I have helped
10,000 clergy create 227 CMPs.
No strategy can do more to reverse negative trends. On average,
Community Marriage Policies reduce divorce rates 17.5 percent in seven
years. Cohabitation rates also fall by a third in CMP cities compared to
carefully matched communities without this initiative. Furthermore,
cities such as Evansville, IN report a 16 percent increase in marriage
In Modesto, CA, the first city with a CMP in 1986, divorce rates
in this decade have been half of what they were, and marriages have
doubled. The result? Teen births are down 30 percent and dropouts fell
by a fifth.
The Marriage Index offers an important yardstick to measure the
health of marriage - the foundation of a healthy culture.