Lately I’ve been asking people, “What percentage of married people do you think would say they are happily married?” I’ve heard responses from 5 percent to 40 percent. But the correct answer is pretty astonishing. Every year since 1973 researchers at the University of Chicago have been conducting a “Trends in Wellbeing” study. One of the questions they ask is, “Taking things all together, how would you describe your marriage? Would you say that your marriage is very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Amazingly, and consistently nearly 97 percent of married couples answer, “very happy” or “pretty happy.” A mere 3-4 percent today would say they are “not too happy.” What?!?!?!!? How can that be?
How to make sense of the data
Actually the data makes very good sense when one thinks of what is being measured. Today there are approximately 60 million married couples in the US. This year 1.1 million couples will go through a divorce—or approximately 1.8 percent of couples will divorce this year. If we assume (as statistics suggest) that one-half of the 3-4 percent of couples who are unhappy actually go through a divorce, and the other half, for one reason or another, sticks it out, the model actually is pretty accurate. The happily marrieds don’t divorce.
Why this statistic matters
If we think of half of marriages ending in divorce, (which serves as an anchoring point) it’s easier to rationalize a divorce by thinking, “Well, I’m just in the unlucky half.” If however I recognize that 97 percent of marrieds are happy, most likely I find myself thinking, “I don’t want to be in that minority group! I’m better than that…we are better than that!” We are greatly influenced by the “norms” that surround us and quite often regress to those norms. Recently Harvard Business Review (HBR)noted that when British tax authorities sent letters threatening penalties for nonpayment of taxes, 32% of recipients did absolutely nothing. When letters were sent saying, “Over 93% of citizens living in your town pay their taxes on time,” (establishing a norm) a mere 17% ignored the request. HBR notes that “People’s behavior is largely shaped by the behavior of those around them–what behavioral scientists call ‘social norms.'”If It’s easier for happily marrieds to work on staying happy than it is to make the “unhappies” happy. We just need to avoid those things which make our spouses unhappy.
Making a little more sense of the data
Remember this survey is a snapshot of what married couples are thinking right now (at the moment they took the survey). But 1.8 percent divorce every year, year after year, takes a heavy toll on marriage and the 1.8 percent termite can do an amazing amount of compounded damage over 50 years.
This statistic probably reveals why in spite of all the talk about divorce, so few churches really have a robust marriage ministry. Three percent of people in pain is hardly an epidemic. Pastors will say, “Sure we had a few divorces in our church this year but no where near the 50% that happens outside this church. You see if you just teach the Word in a practical…..” Complacency is defined as, “Self-satisfaction accompanied by an unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.” So day to day things don’t seem so bad but collectively we are losing. Couldn’t the church step in and make a big difference? I think so.
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