'Til Death Do Us Part—Suddenly A Much Steeper Commitment

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'Til Death Do Us Part—Suddenly A Much Steeper Commitment

Professor Stephanie Coontz explains how life expectancy is changing how we view marriage.

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Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, is interested in the history and evolution of marriage, family structures and gender relations. She’s the Co-Chair and Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families and the author of several books including, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, and Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Currently, she’s studying how increases in gender equality and racial equality within families are intersecting with the increasing socioeconomic inequalities between families.

Coontz sat down with us to discuss the future of marriage and the changing face of traditional family structures. 

How is increased life expectancy affecting marriage?

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Well, it obviously makes staying together ‘till death do us part’ a bigger challenge than it used to be. And we've seen that divorce rates have greatly increased for couples over ages 50 and 55. A lot of my colleagues think this is mostly an artifact of the echo of the baby boom divorces, that a lot of these are people who grew up with divorce, who'd already been divorced and may be divorcing again. I think that may be part of it but I also think the combination of increasing lifespan, decreasing disability rates, and increasing security -- more women as well as men have the economic wherewithal to go about it alone if they need to -- means a certain amount of divorce is going to be here to stay. When people hit 65, they may have as much as 20 more years of active life, so they're going to be less willing to stay in marriages that are unsatisfying. This means a major challenge for aging couples is how to keep their relationships vitalized once the kids are gone.

Are marriages in which neither spouse is working built to last 20 extra years?

The challenge is discovering what can we find to occupy ourselves, to provide the novelty and the activity that healthy relationships need. We know that when we look at relationships, whatever the age, it's extremely important to have socializing time with other people, to have novel experiences, and to have learning experiences, because after 10 years of marriage looking at each other across the breakfast table can be a little enervating. So it's a tremendous opportunity for healthy couples to say, ‘What can we do now that we have more choice of what to do with our time?’

Will couples staying together longer be able to take care of each other in old age?

I think that a good marriage is very protective of health, not only because of the care one spouse gets from the other, but because of the way a good relationship affects your blood pressure and your immune system. So while it's true that those couples who stay together may be able to care for each other longer, bad marriages aren't necessarily going to be as protective of health. So again it raises that challenge of how to make sure you go into a good marriage.

On the other hand, while disability rates are falling and there's a lot of healthy living, it still remains true that the last few years of life can be very difficult on married couples and on couples who are alone or divorced.

Why do you think older people are choosing to live with new partners in their later years, without marrying them?

Some of the women I’ve interviewed who’ve had bad marriages felt that marriage comes with many outdated expectations. A lot of women start doing more housework when they marry rather than cohabit. It's like, ‘Oh, I’m a wife now. I have to pick up after this guy!’ So I’ve had women say to me, ‘I'll live with a guy, but I don't want to be his wife.’ More often, there are economic practicalities as well. You have people who'd lose their pensions from a former husband if they remarried. And then you've got the confrontations of separate inheritances for your kids. So there are several emotional and economic reasons we're seeing this big rise in cohabitation among adults.

There’s a degree of alarmism surrounding the increasing number of older people in this country. Why aren't you as worried as some of your colleagues?

We know that people are having more active, longer lives. And, in fact, according to a Macarthur Foundation study, once people reach 65 their added years don't have a major impact on Medicare costs. The census also just reported that the number of Americans over 65 that were in nursing homes declined by 20 percent in the last decade. Although chronic conditions are certainly an issue, many people are active into their 80s and can play an important role in caring for grandchildren, for example.

What are the economic benefits of having grandparents around longer?

We're always talking about the economic costs of caring for the older generation, but in many families the older generation is really helping their kids coordinate work and family better. That added caregiving and productivity isn’t counted in the GDP but it's a very important thing. Many grandparents are really allowing both parents to work, which contributes to national prosperity.

You've written positively about children’s capacity to take care of their older parents. Are you still optimistic about the amount of time and energy that Baby Boomers are willing to devote to this?

There's always such variability and it's clearly a big challenge for some families. But when you look at different cultures’ changing values around extended families, you find that there's actually an increase in approval of taking care of parents and grandparents. There’s also cultural impetus for multigenerational households.

You wrote, "The biggest problem facing most families as this century draws to a close is not that our families have changed too much but that our institutions have changed too little." What did you mean by that?

Most of our institutions were set up when we assumed that people would marry young, that they'd live together and die in relatively short succession, and that in most families with young children or aging parents there'd be a male breadwinner and a woman at home to take care of them. So we don't have the social support systems, especially for child rearing, that other advanced industrial countries have. But it’s easy to see the potential. There would be so many possibilities if we were as creative about that as we were about how to create the greatest new reality show or game or mobile app.

Is society somehow adapting to the changes happening in American families?

I think so, but I also think that individuals are changing much more rapidly than society is. The U.S. is just shocking in terms of how backwards its social policies are. We're the only industrialized country that doesn't have paid maternity leave. Eighty-one countries have guaranteed paternity leave. In countries like Sweden, caregivers are cut down to 3/4 time with reduced pay, but without losing health benefits or job security. When it comes to caregiving we're doing a terrible job not just for the young but also for the old. We just really haven’t used our resources or our imagination in ways that help us connect more with the older generation.

Research shows, however, that far from being disconnected from family, younger Americans actually feel more obligations to the older generation than Baby Boomers thought they should feel. We are also becoming more accepting of a wide variety of families.

Do you think there are benefits to the increasingly prevalent beanpole family, which consists of more old people and fewer younger people?

It depends upon a lot of factors, both economic and personal. As long as the older generation is helpful and fairly healthy and has some economic independence, it means there’s more time and resources for kids, and it allows parents to invest more in their kids' enrichment activities. So potentially, older people can be a boon to families rather than a drain. 

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