Good news for matrimony; Marriage is strong and gaining ground, two experts say

Marriage is alive and well. What's more, it is getting healthier all the time. that's the brave assessment of two marriage experts --who are married to each other.

Dr. Thomas Lasswell, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California, and his wife, Dr. Marcia Lasswell, who is with both the California state university system and USC, say their studies show that alarm over a rising divorce rate eclipses other marriage statistics that give a broader and more stable picture.

"People don't understand that there is more to marriage statistics than meets the eye," Marcia Lasswell says. "Two-thirds of first marriage last, and nearly two-thirds of second marriages last also."

The Lasswells do not ignore the high divorce rate, but Marcia points out that percentages are driven up unrealistically by such factors as the smaller number of "serial" marriages, where a person is married three or more times.

The Lasswells contend that the quality of marriage is also improving. The "critical" length in a marriage, the time in which it is most likely to break up , has been shortening. One report says it is now 13 years, but Thomas Lasswell says it has shrunk even further, partly because of the two-year rise in the age of first marriage for women, and the ease of divorce.

"Those people in truly miserable situations, who were married too young and to the wrong person, can get out," says Marcia Lasswell. "We are going to see a lot of 50-year marriages that are actually second marriages."

Patience is a vital ingredient when considering marriage, the Lasswell say. The older a person is and the longer he or she has known the other before marriage, the better equipped he or she is to make the marriage last. An overwhelming number of divorces are between people under 30, says Thomas Lasswell. Half of all women who get divorced do so by the time they are 27, and two-thirds are divorced by the time they are 30.

The Lasswells applaud statistics reporting that the age for first marriage is rising.

"I think it is fairly clear that the pressure on young people to marry, before they are actually into their lifework, takes its toll," Thomas Lasswell says. "The 20s are a hectic time in one's life."

Only 15 percent of marriages today fit the traditional stereotype of husband who works, wife who stays at home, and two children, Thomas, says. He has seen a big change in more focus on parenting and affection, rather than on marriage as an economic unit, with one spouse providing money and the other the housekeeping. Part of this change is due to influences such as the women's movement and increased affluence.

"The whole ethos has changed," he says. This brings about institutional changes, such as dual-career couples. Mrs. Lasswell notes that young women seek partners who will share responsibilities equally.

"It is hard to operate in a one up, one down situation," she says.

The Lasswells stress adaptability as an important quality in a marriage. Too many couples expect that their marriage will stay exactly like it was when they were first married."

"They feel there is an implicit contract," Thomas says. The fact is that people change. He tells of a couple from Georgia that held off having children while the wife taught and the husband went through law school. When the husband was settled into a career, he announced that now they could start a family.

"She told him she had changed her mind," Mr. Lasswell reports. both were convinced that he or she was in the right."

"It is sometimes hard to separate the real issues from the competitive issue of being right," he says. the situation can be damaging when the couple argues just to see who can win, instead of trying to solve the problem. the Georgia could did care enough to listen to each other, and they resolved to work out their problem.

He says that "complementarity" is often overlook in a marriage. As he points out in lectures to his students, it takes a good team to open a jar of pickles -- someone with large hands to unscrew the lid, and someone with small hands to get in the jar. He tells of a couple that fought each other because the wife was a compulsive accountant and the husband was a expansive spendthrift.

"She kept track of every nickle, and he wanted to spen money on every project that came along," he says."They fought for years until they were brought to realize that if the wife were married to someone as thrifty as she, she would live in tarpaper shack with loads of money buried underneath. If he were married to someone like him, he would be bankrupt.

"They balanced each other out nicely. They had made a lot of money, but she saved him from his wildest schemes. After they saw that, they quit fighting."

The Lasswells see many students, both men and women, who ask how they will be able to combine career and family. some peopple predict a return to more traditional times.

"I don't think people want to go back to a distant time, but to keep the good from those times," Marcia Lasswell says. "We did lose sight of some of the good values in the middle of all the change. Now people want to integrate those values back into the new marriages."

The Lasswells have been married nearly 31 years. They have three children, two of them married. And except for a five-year respite when Marcia Lasswell did not work, they have always been a dual-career couple.

"My husband has been wonderful," she says. "Even in our more traditional time he was a good helper. And as our marriage has evolved -- we truly do not have any jobs with masculine or feminine tags."

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