Marriage is one way to house and rear a population. It also works as an effective constraint: turning people into husbands and wives makes them more dependable, largely by limiting their choices. For these reasons alone, marriages are supposed to endure.

And in the past, they generally did. Two people could grow accustomed to each other, if only by building routines. Romance, conversation, and mutually satisfying sex were seldom expected or experienced. At the same time, many couples counted themselves happy. Still, it was a subdued affection compared with what we ask for now. We also know that many marriages were miserable. There was a high incidence of brutality, and desertions were far from uncommon. (The West was won by men who had run out on their wives.) Yet for all that, marriage was not considered a “problem.” Most couples stayed together. And that was all society asked.

What has changed, as everyone knows, is that marriages no longer last. This is one current development hardly anyone is ready to applaud. We may agree that some people are better off parting. And there are cases where divorce will widen a person’s horizons. Still, these are second-best solutions. Most of us would prefer that marriages succeed. Yet we realize the odds against this happening.

Because my focus here will be on marriage, much about family life will have to be bypassed. Nor will I go into “living together,” if only because such arrangements tend to be tentative, a fact both parties realize. Becoming married is still a ceremony involving a lifelong promise. As we know, many living-together couples eventually end up marrying. They usually expect to have children and seem to need that pledge of permanency. Finally, I will omit supra-marital arrangements. We are told that increasing numbers of Americans have liberated life-styles, ranging from ménages à trois and spouse-swapping to omnisexual orgies.1 At this point no one really knows whether most experiences of this sort can persist with any depth or duration.

Husbands and Wives is an extremely useful book, despite its very frustrating format. It is less than it purports to be, but much of its material is very impressive. Anthony Pietropinto, a Brooklyn psychiatrist, and Jacqueline Simenauer, a syndicated columnist, persuaded 3,880 married people to fill in a form with 50 questions coded for 384 possible answers. Thus respondents were given 14 adjectives to describe their spouses (dominant, anxious, methodical), ten choices to indicate the frequency with which they had oral sex (more than once a day, less than once a month), and nine choices for their “worst crisis.” In addition, they were invited to expand their answers in writing. This they did with a will. So much so that throughout most of the book the authors stand aside and let their respondents do the talking. What they say is thoughtful and frequently touching. If nothing else, it shows people engaging in some serious thinking about their own and other people’s marriages. This is especially evident with the women.

Still, the book has definite drawbacks. Despite the large size of its sample, it is not a statistical study. If those 3,880 forms passed through a computer, they never emerge as columns or tables. Occasional figures appear in the text, but in no discernible pattern. We are told that almost a third of the persons sampled said they had contemplated divorce, certainly an important statistic. However this finding is not clarified by age or other identifying factors. We learn the respondents used 1.7 adjectives to summarize the average spouse, a figure worth some pondering in its own right. Even so, the authors omit particulars on the possible permutations. (How many anxious and methodical, as opposed to affectionate and irresponsible?) Nor is our curiosity satisfied on the incidence of oral sex. (Among those on a biweekly schedule, who does what to whom?)

Their reliance on the written replies also produces some problems. The questions were simple, encouraging people to speak their minds. Like: “Why did you decide to marry?” Or: “Why did you happen to choose your particular spouse?” As one might expect, the answers are brief but beguiling:

He was so handsome, a big stud, and he wanted me of all the girls he could have had.

He did not drink, smoke, or swear.

I was irresistibly drawn to her.

We just sort of happened.

I got pregnant.

I was young and stupid.

These are certainly “reasons” people would give if you asked them “why” they got married. And they have a poignant ring of truth. However difficulties arise when you ask people “why” they did something, especially if you are content to settle for their answers. Yet this is just what Pietropinto and Simenauer do. They seem to accept their respondents’ self-analysis, and as authors they intervene only to set up categories. Unfortunately this method has no way of dealing with what people fail to say. Even with a sample of 3,880 much will not rise to the surface or be reported on the forms. If no one actually says, “I married her to humiliate my mother,” or “He was a weakling I could control,” or “I wanted a cocoon to escape a menacing world,” are we to suppose that such factors never were present?


Nor does the survey method entitle us to draw deductions from brief but suggestive responses. Take the husband who said he married because he was “young and stupid.” Therein obviously lies a tale we can loosely reconstruct from the other responses in Husbands and Wives. He married in his early twenties or even earlier, as most Americans do. The typical groom is twenty-four, with his bride thirty months younger. The chief reason they decide to do so is that the disadvantages of being single have begun outweighing its satisfactions. (This starts sooner with young people than we are often apt to think.) So they move toward marriage, as a permissible alternative.

For this reason, the partner they select is usually incidental. Put another way, there is not much “selection” involved. When young people reach a point where they feel ready for marriage, they find it easy enough to fall in love with one of the next people they meet—especially when many of those they encounter tend to share their general desire for a change. (Premarital pregnancies help the process along, for not all are entirely accidental. Even today, a quarter of young brides have a baby on the way.) Of course “young and stupid” didn’t say all this. And neither do Pietropinto and Simenauer. But it is the most likely reason why he married a girl he hardly knew.

More often than not, Husbands and Wives combines its men’s and women’s responses in almost a random way. Unfortunately this tends to suggest that gender is extraneous to people’s perceptions of marriage. It was Jesse Bernard who reminded us that every couple can and should be seen as two separable entities.2 “His” marriage differs from “Hers” in every major particular. Failure to heed this warning means we hear from individual wives and husbands, but we catch no glimpse of their marriages.

As it happened, among the 3,880 respondents were 869 married couples. An intriguing chapter could have compared various responses from these 1,738 people. Many of the questions seem tailor-made for such a treatment: “Do you consider your marriage successful?” “How have children affected your marriage?” “What is your spouse’s biggest sexual difficulty?” It is not often that a book forgoes so many opportunities.

Still, I hold to my view that Husbands and Wives can be an extremely useful source for understanding modern marriages, although it requires considerable effort on the part of the reader to achieve its utmost value. One project—calling for scissors and a pot of paste—would be to realign several hundred quotations according to the sex of the respondents. Once this has been done, a quite different book emerges. It could be called Husbands Versus Wives, with plenty of supporting data.

The dichotomy begins as men and women embark on marriage for radically different reasons. His is usually a desire to “settle down,” which means a more orderly domestic setting. Hers is a more romantic vision, with daily affirmations of “love.” Of course he loves her. However, a man’s love for a woman differs from hers for him. He loves her as a creature not quite his equal, and the endurance of his affection requires maintaining that disparity. Her love depends much less on status. It is a more complex emotion, because it occupies a larger part of her life. And to all this should be added that she has been preparing herself for marriage since her very earliest years. Girls fantasize about being a wife, as boys never do about becoming a husband. Thus women are ready to transform considerable portions of themselves; men anticipate going on much as before. We know a lot has changed in recent decades. Even so, the asymmetries just outlined (and exaggerated) are still very much in evidence. And they can be found in Husbands and Wives, if the reader is willing to make the effort.

Indeed, marriage means more to women, even as it gives men a greater share of its benefits. Not only that, women think more about it and what they say is much more interesting. Pietropinto and Simenauer asked their sample to comment on the rising rate of divorce. It is hard to improve on some of these women’s answers:

People expect too much.

Couples grow apart.

People are selfish and self-centered.

There is too much “I” in the relationship.

People do not have a realistic expectation of what it is to share another’s life.

Women are generally the major cause. They no longer treat their man like the head of their house.

Couples do not communicate with each other.

The view that women are “the major cause” of much marital discord can be interpreted not as assigning blame but as a coolly descriptive statement. What it suggests is that most men still expect deference from their wives, an attitude behooving those inherently inferior. Women are the ones who are changing, asking to be seen as equals—a fact they always knew, but saw fit to mask in the past. Men find it difficult, often impossible, to adapt to this new climate. They may say they want wives who are accomplished and independent. But they also want them docile. It is the women, not the men, who are vivid in our present phase of domestic history. They are the force unsettling men, a consequence that can only weaken marriage.


Or the observation that “couples do not communicate with each other.” This term was used much more by wives than husbands to express marital complaints. The term is of course very vague, with a wide range of meanings. It can include nonverbal awareness of a partner’s moods and wishes, as it does in the best of marriages. Still, “communication” also means talk and conversation, of some frequency and seriousness. At least it does for an increasing number of wives.

Most husbands, on the evidence of Husbands and Wives, do not regard their wives as conversational companions. The refrain “why don’t we ever talk about anything?” means she wants a discussion partner, that their marriage should be more a seminar. Expanded education has had this effect on women to a greater extent than men. Women tend to take liberal arts seriously, not simply as a prelude to later professional training. A rather sad study by Pamela Fishman underscores this disparity.3 She induced three college-educated couples to let tape recorders run in their living rooms over an extended period. What was heard, again and again, were attempts by the wife to start a conversation and the husband’s refusal to return the ball. (However, she would respond to all overtures of his, grasping at any chance for interchange.) While a sample of three is hardly earthshaking evidence, it is true that more and more women want their marriages to involve an exchange of ideas. It will be interesting to see how many men can contribute to such a setting. Being asked to talk with women as equals is an experience at odds with most of their prior training.

The wife who remarked in the Husbands and Wives survey that “there is too much ‘I’ in the relationship” gets close to the heart of the matter. For any marriage to succeed, its members must become quite different kinds of people, compared with what they were before. They must be willing to merge much of their individuality into a collaborative life. This is not simply a matter of give and take and compromise. What is often required is a qualitative change in character: the exchange of one valuation of freedom for another quite different conception: from the freedom of personal choice to the constraints and possibly the discoveries of collaboration.

Most American women have been raised with this understanding. They are able to envisage assimilation to another person as men seldom can. Women are indeed less bound up with “I” than men, more willing to define themselves through a collaborative life. Most men feel threatened by such a prospect. And by the time they marry, it is too late for most to create that kind of capacity. What it comes down to is that women are far better fitted for marriage than the men they generally marry. The implications of this should be obvious.

All these considerations emerge in a (now obligatory) chapter on infidelity. Here, again, the reader must do the realigning for a significant picture to appear. Thirty percent of the husbands and 17 percent of the wives admitted to having affairs. The disparity does not entirely result from the women’s having fewer opportunities. More important is that women usually view outside sex as having a lover, a more involved experience than the man’s typical fling. Indeed, the “needs” filled by extramarital sex differ between husbands and wives. Both may be seeking reaffirmation. But for her it is, again, as a collaborative person. For him, it is to endorse his independence.

Lewis Yablonsky declines to call these affairs adultery in The Extra-Sex Factor. “Cheating” and infidelity, he writes, are also “value-charged” terms and thus should be avoided. So he speaks of “extra sex” and says he has “no special biases as to whether it is good or bad.” As it turns out, he describes adultery as rather healthy, at least for the men who get away with it. His study presents, he says, “clear evidence” that nine out of ten philanderers “want to maintain their marriages.” Not a few of the husbands he says he interviewed claimed that extramarital sex was “a vital adjunct to the harmonious maintenance of an excellent relationship with their wives and families.”

Yablonsky, a sociologist at California’s Northridge campus, says that at least half of America’s married men engage in outside dallying. His “randomly administered” sample of 771 husbands brought forward a remarkably voluble group, with stories primed for the tape recorder. (“When I see a nice firm young ass, I have to try and get it.”) Somehow his random selection of respondents managed to net “a major league baseball player,” “a well-known film director,” and “an internationally famous fashion photographer,” plus “a sex therapist at a growth institute” and “an editor in a New York publishing house.” Some sociologists have all the luck.

Whether Yablonsky intended it or not, his husbands come across as an unpleasant lot. Most are locker-room braggarts (“I would bolt the door and fuck her right on my desk”) with little insight into what they want for themselves or how they are treating their wives. We might muster some sympathy for them if they said they had awful marriages. However 83 percent claim their home life is good or excellent.

There are many obvious motives for adultery, including adventure, romance, boredom, pleasure, and revenge. Even so, the main reason for men hasn’t changed since the commandment not to commit it. Many men feel a need for repeated assurance that they are talented and attractive. Winning a wife can serve that purpose; unfortunately not for very long. An ability to charm other women into bed affirms you are still the man you would like yourself to be. Why so many men are so unsure of themselves is one of life’s oldest puzzles.

There is, I suppose, justification for all our concern with adultery. Many people make it an acid test. They permit people to covet to their heart’s content: not only their neighbor’s spouse, but anyone they pass on the street. All of us fantasize at a truly prodigious rate. Indeed, most of the nation’s pornography goes on in people’s heads. So fidelity means keeping your hands to yourself, not to mention other parts. People demand it from others as a symbolic act of will, a sign of ultimate respect for your spouse. Even a so-called “meaningless” romp can put an indelible scar on a marriage. Yablonsky’s men tell us all the pains they go to to conceal their affairs from their wives. However it never occurs to them to put themselves in the place of those whom most of them claim they love.

In an aside, Yablonsky admits that “in almost all cases, the wives are deeply hurt when they find out.” Infidelity is a particularly sharp insult. It is a harsh slap where a spouse is most vulnerable. Too heavy a stress on jealousy can obscure the basic issue. Knowing that the person you married has been unfaithful diminishes your sense of worth. As they had sex, in that very act they also were pitying, patronizing, and probably ridiculing you. It used to be said that men were “cuckolded.” But that mainly referred to their pride, which was probably too vain anyway. We have no parallel term for women. Mainly because the wound goes deeper.

There is not much sign that we are adjusting to adultery any better than our forebears. Self-esteem is as strong as ever, and hence our capacity for being hurt. Still, most wives do not file for divorce when they learn of their husbands’ affairs. Given their emotional and economic bind, few feel they can afford to. Yablonsky says his extramarital men don’t want divorces either. They are “enormously protective of their marriage and home.” They like maintaining a nest, and it doesn’t mean they are chastened. Half said they have had at least twenty different affairs. And this from a sample where the average age is only thirty-six.

The double standard I alluded to earlier—that while marriage means more to women, men get most of its benefits—is supported by Census statistics. Every other year, its Marriage and Family division surveys a large sample of Americans, from which flows a fascinating series of reports. Most of the figures that follow come from these documents.

To begin with, women have fewer marriage opportunities than men. Things start out well enough, as young people pair off. By the age of thirty, nine out of ten young women have been married at least once. Their problems begin when divorce and widowhood set in. What happens can be illustrated by looking at how matters stand once people reach the ages of 40 to 44. By that time there are 300,000 fewer men, due to death or disappearance. As a result, among the 2.1 million unattached Americans in this age range, there are 137 women for every 100 men.

However within the category I have called “unattached” we find sharply varying groups. Among those who are (currently) divorced and not (yet) remarried, there are 141 women per 100 men. For those who are separated, the proportion is 213 to 100. And there are 644 widows for every 100 widowers.

In only one respect do women between 40 and 44 seem to have an advantage. There are in this group 371,000 “single” men (i.e., who have never been married) as against 266,000 single women—for a ratio of 72 to 100. However the majority of these men are not in the marriage market. We know, for example, that men who have been divorced are three times more apt to remarry than never-married men in their forties are to marry at all. Many may be homosexuals; others what used to be called “confirmed bachelors.” Moreover, fewer women could be called the female counterparts of those categories. So if we exclude never-married men from the reckoning, as people enter their forties there are 233 unattached women for every 100 men.4

The typical divorce occurs when the parties are relatively youthful. The median age for him is 29, and she is 27. Two-thirds of first divorces involve women still in their twenties. Even so, two-thirds of these young women have children at the time of their divorce—as do 72 percent of all divorcing women.

The younger a divorced woman, the greater her odds of remarrying. If common sense tells us that, we need the Census for the percentages. Among those in their twenties, 76 percent do. For those in their thirties, the figure is 56 percent. By their forties, it has fallen to 32 percent. And at 50 and older, fewer than 12 percent will remarry.

A similar pattern follows concerning children. A childless divorced woman stands a 73 percent chance of remarrying. With two children, her odds are 63 percent. With three, 56 percent. However age is a more important factor than whether a woman has children. A woman in her twenties with three children has a better (72 percent) chance of remarriage than a childless woman in her thirties (60 percent).

The major element in these equations is that when men remarry, they move toward younger women. In the typical first marriage the husband is about two and a half years older than his bride. However when he remarries, he looks for someone at least five years his junior, a preference that holds even when his second wife has herself been married before. However to speak of a five-year difference conceals much of the story. Most remarriages take place not long after youthful divorces, with the couples closer in age. Men who divorce later—say, in their forties—are more apt to pick brides ten years younger than themselves.

So even if they weren’t in shorter supply, men would still have more marriages than women. They achieve this by entering a second married life, while their original wives must settle for one. This situation is only fractionally offset by women’s remarriages to younger men. Whereas half of remarrying men marry women at least five years their junior, only 14 percent of previously married women marry men that much younger than themselves. To put it another way, of all remarriages with a disparity of five or more years, men are the senior partners in 81 percent of the cases.

Some further figures place women at the shorter end of the statistics. The more successful women become, the less likely they are to marry. Among women between 35 and 44, with some graduate education or incomes exceeding $20,000, 20 percent have never married—almost four times the rate for other women of their age. (Of course, it may be argued that many women who do not marry then proceed to become successful.) And women who marry for the first time after they are thirty stand a 50 percent greater chance of an early divorce, compared with women who married in their twenties. Moreover, women with graduate education are more than twice as apt to get divorced as men with similar schooling.

It is hard not to conclude that as women enter positions once held by men they become either less attracted to marriage or less attractive as marriage partners. Nor is it clear that even open-minded husbands want wives with attainments approaching their own. At this point, in only 7.3 percent of American marriages are the wife’s earnings “perceptibly higher” than her husband’s, according to Census calculations. If these marriages are disproportionately prone to divorce, we may see more successful women leaving their husbands to marry successful men who have left their original wives.

And then there is the rather astounding statistic that whereas 2.4 million women reported themselves married but separated from their spouses, only 1.4 million men said the same for themselves. The Census’ explanation is that many women who never married call themselves “separated” for the sake of their children. Unmarried fathers do not have this problem.

The “divorce rate” can be measured by several different methods, described on the opposite page. Two of these compare marriage and divorce, and their results are strikingly similar. According to one method, among marriages currently being contracted, 40 percent will end in divorce. But even though 60 percent last until the death of one of the partners, a caveat should be added: a third of all husbands die before their wives reach the age of forty. The other method yields a yearly ratio of one divorce for every two marriages. At this point most marriages survive, but only barely.

Still, not all marriages that stay together should be counted as successful. We know there are many couples who will not get divorced, no matter how grueling the circumstances. (Many separate and live apart, but are still listed as “married.”) Fully a third of the people surveyed by Pietropinto and Simenauer said divorce was not an option for them. In many cases the reasons are religious. In others they are economic, especially for lower-middle and working-class husbands who cannot afford to maintain two households, or even child-support.5 A lot of marriages are held together by being enmeshed in local surroundings. In states like South Carolina and South Dakota, where people tend to remain in settled communities or neighborhoods, divorce rates are among the nation’s lowest. In Oregon and California, with high proportions of newcomers, divorces are almost as common as marriage. A couple moving from South Dakota to California puts its marriage gravely at risk.

In other marriages, life is so organized that divorce serves no useful purpose, at least so far as the husband is concerned. That is apparently the case with Yablonsky’s adulterous husbands, who combine outside adventures with having dinner waiting at home. Other men become sexually quiescent, which makes it easier to retain a placid and passionless marriage. Interestingly, among the chief executives of the nation’s fifty largest corporations, only three have had divorces. (And one of them is Henry Ford II.) A continuing marriage combines well with a corporate career, even if it is only a haven from the toils of a busy schedule.

Most of us realize why marriages are falling apart, even if we can’t do much about it. The reasons given by the wives in the Pietropinto-Simenauer survey allude to most of the major problems. We are more self-centered than people were in the past, more insistent on having things the way we want them. We use terms like “growth,” “self-realization,” even “happiness.” But all come down to demanding a life tailored to our liking.

This new shape to our character is in fact a historical development. Advances in technology increase the opportunities for education, travel, leisure—all of which enhance our view of ourselves. New forms of employment help to heighten these estimates. Ideologies stressing the individual flourish in this setting. However as a consequence fewer people have the capacity to be equable marriage partners. The fault, if such it be, lies not in the institution but within the people we have become, as children of our century.

Of course some marriages work. We all know of couples who have been married twenty or thirty years and still seem passionately attached to each other. A few look as if they have just come away from bed, or can’t wait to get back there. We see them at restaurant tables for two, chattering together—and not about the children. Or they prefer to stay at home by themselves, perhaps each engrossed in a book, so long as they are across from each other.

How do they do it? Every so often, a Census statistician will hazard a personal observation, perhaps one of those intuitive insights that come from years of reviewing the figures. My favorite such remark comes from Paul Glick, one of the Bureau’s senior demographers, in the course of commenting on divorce:

A certain amount of divorce undoubtedly grows out of the fact that those who would be most ideal partners never meet—or, if they do, do so at the wrong time.6

“Ideal partners.” Of course! There is undoubtedly such a person out there, someone who is absolutely perfect for you. (Given the size of our country, not to mention the world, there may even be several such people.) That person is temperamentally so constituted that none of your habits ever rubs him (or her) the wrong way. You can go on being yourself, and you will be loved just as you are. Of course, that is only half of this love story. For it must also turn out that you have a temperament similarly attuned to your lover’s. The odds of two such temperaments meeting are, of course, astronomically low.

The first obstacle to mutual discovery is that we have no real knowledge about what I have been calling temperaments. They are not reflected in similar interests, or even common cultural backgrounds. A temperament cannot be revealed by answering coded questions (“Would you rather play golf, attend a concert, or…”) which means computer matching won’t help. They are so beyond our capacities for characterization that we can’t even assign them names. (The nearest attempts are the birth signs of the zodiac.) If I said there were 227 identifiable temperaments, how would you know which one was yours, let alone that of your ideal mate? To make matters worse, our true temperament is not always the one we show in public. So if we chanced to meet our perfect partner—probably without even knowing it—that person might be repelled by the mask we happened to be wearing. The variations are endless, and all combine to decrease the possibility of discovering that fabulous person who is indeed out there waiting for us.

Among successful marriages, the partners often married for all the wrong reasons, knowing little about each other and probably caring less. Yet in the course of living together they discover they get on, even as they change with the passage of the years. Needless to say, they may have grown to be much alike. But they probably didn’t begin that way; not knowingly. How do they do it? The only honest answer is that they don’t “do” much of anything at all. I doubt that truly successful marriages are “worked” at. The explanation of course is luck. Luck in a lottery of love and marriage, in which most of the entrants are losers, not because of any great fault of their own.
Hardly the best foundation for a source of social stability, not to
mention personal happiness.


If present patterns continue, 40 percent of all women in their late
twenties currently getting married will end up being divorced. As

Among every 100 first marriages, 38 will result in divorce. Among
these 38 divorced women, 29 will remarry. And 13 of those 29 will get
divorced again.

So the original 100 women will have 51 divorces (38 plus 13) out of
their 129 marriages (100 plus 29). And 51 out of 129 makes a rate of
40 percent.

(The divorce rate for first marriages is 38 per 100, as noted. For
second marriages, it is 45 per 100.)

Another way to compute the divorce “rate” is by comparing the annual
ratio of marriages to divorces. In 1976 there were 50 divorces for
every 100 marriages in the country as a whole. Oregon and California
led the list with 83 and 89 per 100. South Carolina and South Dakota
were at the bottom with 21 and 22 per 100.

A third method simply records the number of divorces per 1,000 people
in the population. In 1915, the national rate was one per 1,000. By
1966, it was 2.5 per 1,000. The latest figure, for 1977, is 5.1 per

Sources: Paul C. Glick and Arthur J. Norton, Marrying,
Divorcing, and Living Together in the U.S. Today
Reference Bureau, 1977), pp. 36-37; Statistical Abstract of the
United States
(US Government Printing Office, 1978), Tables 114,
118, 119.

This Issue

May 3, 1979