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Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, March 7, 2000

Buying into marriage

In today's consumer culture and
throw-away society, how does
''til death do us part'
marriage fit in?

By Stephanie Kendrick
Assistant Features Editor


COMMERCIAL slogans tell us to "just do it," "obey your thirst," and acquire the "new, new thing." Does the same old spouse stand a chance against this programmed desire for change and stimulation?

"Everything is disposable in society nowadays, from razor blades to marriages," said Honolulu divorce attorney Brad Coates, author "Divorce with Decency."

Changing partners as needs change is becoming the accepted norm, he added. "Serial marriages, or marrying different people at different stages in your life, will be the new vogue."

Accepted norm or not, research suggests the trend is not only hard on families, but on the individuals involved and the community.

Marriage particularly seems to make a big difference in the lives of men, according to Alan Hawkins, director Family Studies Center at Brigham Young University. Husbands are more involved in religious and community organizations than single men, he said.

Illustration By David Swann, Star-Bulletin

But Val Kanuha, a professor of social work at the University of Hawaii, wasn't sure those results reflect marital status. "I think that tie to community is more a result of having kids," she said. Noting single parents and gay and lesbian parents are more likely to be involved in the community than single people who do not have children.

However, studies suggest marriage has other benefits. "You add healthy years to your life," said William H. Doherty, director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota.

"Research indicates marriage benefits women as well as men," said Doherty. "There's a ton of research that people who are married, who stay married long term, live longer and have better health," he said.

David Chandler, a University of Hawaii sociology professor who also works in divorce mediation, argued changing partners may not alter those benefits. "People are married throughout their lives even though they aren't necessarily married to the same person," he said.

"The consumer culture teaches that we should be satisfying our personal needs and only be committed to a product or service as long as it is meeting our needs," said Doherty, who recently authored a paper entitled "Marriage Permanence in a Consumer Culture."

"We tend to view marriage as a lifestyle that needs to be working for us. It's kind of like you can have a house that once met your needs, you can have a marriage that once met your needs," he said.

Chandler agreed, saying marriage as an institution no longer has a firm role in society. The sense of obligation among married people has diminished.

In more than two decades as a marriage counselor, Doherty has seen the reasons people quit a marriage change. "There used to be very heavy reasons of abuse and alcoholism, deep misery, often many years of struggling with the misery," he said.

And while most people are still miserable at the end of a marriage, the reasons for that misery are now more likely to be things like poor communication, lack of intimacy or changes in personality, said Doherty. At the same time, couples are being told by the consumer culture, and sometimes by their family and friends, that they deserve more.

He hears from divorce lawyers that people seem to get caught on a treadmill headed for divorce and don't even know why. "They have a fight, someone mentions the word and before they know it they are sort of being propelled toward divorce," he said.

Coates agreed. "Nobody stops you from doing it now. As soon as you want to say enough's enough, that's it," he said.

And communication and money issues, not abuse or infidelity, dominate the reasons given for divorce by his clients.

Coates sees some hope for lower divorce rates in the trend toward marrying later.

"Maybe you're less likely to get a divorce if you're closer to being a grownup," he said.

But Doherty doesn't believe maturity alone is the answer. Training and community support are needed to keep couples together, he said.

"We have created a pressure cooker relationship in modern marriage now where so much depends on it," he said. The breakdown of extended families has meant many husbands and wives have no one to go to but their spouse when they need to let off steam or work through a problem.

It's not socially acceptable to ask a friend, "So, how's the marriage?" the way it is to ask "So, how are the kids?," he said. "We've normalized the challenges in raising children, the challenges in maintaining a lifelong marriage are private," he said.

And the changing nature of marriage does present challenges. "We have the first society in history based on a marriage of equality between men and women," said Doherty. People need skills to deal with that, he said

Doherty is a proponent of the "modern covenant marriage." Philosophically, it holds that preparation, community support, crisis counseling and delayed divorce (except in cases of abuse) are important to fostering healthy modern marriages. Two states, Louisiana and Arizona, have adopted covenant marriage as a legal option.

Kanuha would like to see an education process take place as well, but she would emphasize the need to think about our broader roles and responsibilities in community and family life.

"I think everybody needs to become a feminist," she said. "I'm not sure the primacy of the marriage institution was that good for us."

Marriages would be healthier if they were not the primary focus of the people involved. "Just having a marriage is not enough," she said.

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