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What happens when stats about successful marriages meet a real marriage?

A new study published by professors at Emory University tries to scientifically prove what it takes to be in a successful marriage. But what happens when real life doesn't stand up to the stats, and a marriage is successful despite the numbers?

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    A pair of Neil Lane platinum wedding bands, designed for contestants of the reality TV show "The Bachelorette."
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Our seventh wedding anniversary has just come and gone. We have two young children so our expectations, and our budget, were low. We spent an unseasonably warm day at the beach with friends, with a late lunch at a farm stand afterwards – our only nod to our day was stopping on our way home to visit the seaside church where we were wed.

Our wedding was as simple as this anniversary – and according to a new study by Economics professors Andrew Francis and Hugo Mialon of Emory University, this is a good thing.

Their study has been getting lots of press as it attempts to debunk the “Diamond Is Forever” fairy tale touted by the wedding industry. Mr. Francis and Mr. Mialon studied the marital longevity of more than 3,000 couples in their extensive research. So how would my own marriage hold up against the data?

According to the study, couples are almost 40 percent less likely to divorce if they date for three years before saying, “I do.” We dated for six weeks before getting engaged and got married just shy of our two year dating anniversary. It’s important to know one another well, certainly, before you commit to a life together and dating for three years or more should give you a clear understanding of what to expect in your life together.

So, even though we don’t hit this marker, we did know each other well. We had been friends for thirteen years prior and we didn’t realize our first date was our first date until after our unexpected first kiss. It didn’t take us long after that to know that we wanted to be lifelong partners.

Given our first example, we would stand with the 60 percent of married couples more likely to divorce given that we didn’t date for three years prior. However, like all statistics, these are flat pieces of data that don’t take into account any variables, like a long friendship leading up to the dating situation – a history with someone that makes a strong foundation prior to getting hitched.

We have never approached the metric in the second data point – apparently the more money you have, the happier you are together. If we made $125k per year or more, we’d cut our divorce risk in half? What am I doing being a writer?! I better take a crack at that law degree again if I want to stay married. Of course, that still only gives me a 50/50 chance of not splitting up with my spouse.

Perhaps the unwritten piece here is that money stress can be a big factor in divorces and certainly we have experienced that. However, when the worst happened in terms of our financial life, the year we lost all of our money in a failed business venture – we actually became closer and our marriage was stronger than it had been before. I guess it would follow that it’s not what happens to you but how you respond. Everything after this low has seemed so insignificant that even though sometimes we’ve had petty fights about money, nothing on this count has been truly corrosive.

It makes sense to me that the next piece of data would stack up the way it does. Couples who attend church together are almost half as likely to get divorced. On the one hand, having a spiritual practice can be a very unifying commitment to share with your partner. Believing in a power beyond yourself, having a supportive spiritual community and sharing a belief system is certainly binding. But not getting divorced doesn’t necessarily equal a happy marriage. How many people stay in unhappy marriages because they feel bound to by a religious doctrine that frowns on divorce?

Couples who said looks or money were very important to them also didn’t fare well, and both groups were fairly equal in terms of ending up eventually uncoupled. That caring about money or looks over other virtues creates problems should come as no surprise. I find my husband attractive – a lasting and meaningful physical connection is important – but it wasn’t the thing that won me over. His friendship, kindness, support, and a shared connection and love were the real ignitors and the qualities that have helped our relationship go the distance. Most of us already know that though physical attractiveness can be fun and money can alleviate some concerns, these two things rarely, if ever, solve any deep-seated issues. We don’t have a lot of financial security, but we’ve also both chosen to follow our passions, put our family ahead of career success while our children are young and try to keep our cost of living down.

It’s interesting that this study references the size and cost of the wedding as an indicator of success in marriage. Oddly, the data found that a larger wedding equaled more success than smaller gatherings and elopements, but only when the relative cost per guest stayed low. And by low I mean almost impossibly low. According to the data, you’d have to have 200 of more people in attendance at your ceremony and reception while spending less than $1,000 total.

Here are our wedding stats. Cost: just shy of $5k (funded mostly by my husband and me). Attendance: 70 people, all family and close friends. According to the study's authors Francis and Mialon, keeping our ceremony costs down means we’re 18 percent less likely to divorce. We are also 100 percent more likely not to go broke. Eighteen percent isn’t cutting our risk much considering that one could interpret this statistic as a marker of fiscal restraint. Our wedding budget didn’t begin to approach the industry mean which is now at a tidy $30,000 – even if we had that much money we still probably wouldn’t have chosen to spend it on our wedding – we would have put a down payment on a house or used that money to travel more. Maybe couples’ expectations of marriage soar right along with lofty wedding budgets.

According to the research, the best thing we did was to choose to have the wedding at all: According to the numbers we are 69 percent less likely to divorce than if we’d followed our original plan to elope at City Hall. I find this statistic shocking! Could it really be so significant to gather family and friends together for your big day? Perhaps when you surround yourself with the love of your community and your focus is not on an extravagant celebration, you ground yourselves most in what the event is supposed to celebrate: your marriage. My husband and I did have to remind ourselves of this often when we were planning our wedding – it was a solid, lasting marriage we wanted, not just one glorious wedding day.

Finally, whether or not you went on a honeymoon seems to be a fairly large marker of marital success. Just over 40 percent of couples who honeymooned stayed married. So go ahead, book that Tahitian vacation. We did. But it was two years after the big day. The actual honeymoon we took the day after the wedding cost approximately $78. We spent a week at a friend’s cottage on a lake in Maine (for free) and went out to eat only once.

The benefits of the honeymoon are to unplug, to disengage from everything, focus on each other, and recuperate from the intense experience that is having a wedding and the monumental choice to become married. The 60 percent who choose not to do this (or can’t because of other limitations) might have to work just a little harder to find that post-wedding time to connect and unwind.

Like any study, one (or two) can only find meaning in the interpretations of the statistics – depth of connection, level of commitment, having substantial priorities together.

The study leaves out significant binding factors and marital stressors like shared values, communication, and childrearing – all of which have been critical to our continued marital success and major new challenges for us in one way or another.

We have struggled, we still struggle, and really seven years isn’t much. I think in any good marriage you have to admit there are difficulties and find the most loving and gentle way to work through issues together. When my sweetheart and I are conscious, caring, and deliberate in that way, we experience the most lasting peace together.

Ultimately, no marriage is immune to divorce – we hold between us a meaningful connection that has to be gently cared for. Humor helps a great deal and so do small, thoughtful acts, and lots of gratitude.

We have a long way to go compared to couples who have been married even a decade, or a quarter century. Our relative inexperience means we have to remain even more humble and more vigilant. If we want it to last for decades, I suppose the best tactic to take is this advice my mother once quoted me (source unknown) about her own long marriage: “We never wanted a divorce on the same day.”

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