For Australians, marriage has today become one of the many lifestyle options; and only some "I dos" last "till death do us part". Love, trust, respect, commitment and the ability of the spouses to laugh with each other play a vital role in keeping a couple together, according to a survey by the Australian Institute of Family Studies titled 'Why Marriages Last'.
Statistics reveal that fewer Australians are getting married or staying married. During 2001, the number of marriages registered in Australia were the lowest since 1978. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, there were 10,300 fewer weddings in 2001 than in 2000; and one-third of the couples who divorced in 2001 had separated within five years of marriage. This has resulted in a 20-year high in divorces. There were 55,300 divorces in 2001.
"Lasting and happy marriages often appear to be uncomplicated and comfortable, but most long-married couples attest to the effort involved in sustaining a marriage over a long period," says Robyn Parker, the researcher of the survey.
People who have been married a long time say that if one can stick out the rough patches, things do get better and it is probably a better option to stay the course. But as many as one in three marriages in Australia are ending in divorce. A growing number of unhappily married people are convinced it is better to call it quits than endure the misery of an unfulfilled marriage. Some, like Joe Tammes and Sally Marsh, who stuck with each other are happier five years later when the situation at home and work has changed.
The survey reveals that partners need to assess how things are going at regular intervals. They need to be willing to adjust their behavior or learn new skills to keep a waning relationship alive. They also need a strong sense of being a couple, while retaining their own identity, compromising and adapting to each other and being prepared to give more than they receive.
Says Parker, "They are the president of each other's fan club. You make an effort to maintain the relationship without finding it a chore. Couples might set aside 15 minutes a night to talk without distraction or go out together on their own once a month. Couple-time is one way to ensure that a
relationship gets the attention it needs."
Jill Martins, who has just joined oil painting for beginners with her husband of 40 years, believes partners should treat one another as friends. When you fall out with friends, you sort things out and don't lose them. However, couples married for 40 and 50 years feel that today's generation doesn't have the same commitment to marriage that is essential for seeing one through the difficult times.
James and Florence Hill, who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary recently, say: "It is destiny, character, compromise, compassion and compatibility that contributed to our long lasting marriage. By the law of averages in Australia, this marriage should have failed, but it didn't. In the 1930s marriage was seen as sacred."
Proud parents of seven daughters, the Hills' feel marriages are breaking down today because of materialism, lack of spiritual depth and understanding of real love. "Our love has always been bigger than both of us. After 60 years of togetherness, love and life are still great. We can argue and at the same time laugh and be friends. That is our secret," says Florence.
However, not all long-term marriages are satisfying for both spouses and those who stay in an unhappy marriage do so for a variety of reasons. A 57-year-old man married for 25 years says, "There is a growing together... like a tree around a boulder underneath the ground. The root eventually goes around it."
More married couples are surviving into old age together than at any time in history, according to Australia's Health 2002 report. It estimates that over the next two decades, there will be a 66 per cent rise in the number of women aged 75-84 who have a husband and a 66 per cent increase in the
number of men in that age-group living with a wife.
Iris Krasnow, author of 'Surrendering to Marriage', writes: "Marriage is not designed to make us happy, it's God's way of forcing us to grow into responsible adults." Wendy Dixon, a mother of three kids who has just completed 15 years of marriage says, "I am committed and want my marriage to last, so I work towards it. My parents, who have been married for 46 years, have been my role models. As the years go by, crises come and go and you feel you have gone through this before."
According to Dr de Vaus, senior research adviser at the Australian Institute of Family Studies, marriage works to the benefit of both men and women. Married men and women have much better mental health than the divorced, separated and never- married.
However, marriage has different connotations for different people. For some it is a life-long commitment, for others a declaration of love or a contract of financial interdependence. Some couples feel being in love is not enough; they attend pre-nuptial counseling at centers like the Catholic Welfare Agency, Centacare, funded by the federal government.
The survey also reveals that a common cause for marriages floundering is everyday stress - either spouse becoming ill, losing a job, getting depressed, children in trouble, financial difficulties, poor communication, emotional neglect, either spouse having affairs, husband's drinking, controlling or critical attitudes and spending too much time away from the family.
Single, college-educated city dwellers between the ages of 25 and 34 are the fastest growing group of the "never-married". However, the number of de facto couples has doubled. There were 72 per cent de facto couples in 2001 as against 31 per cent in 1981.
In today's society, the focus is on education, career and mortgage - owning a house appears to be more important than getting a wife. Statistics show that 70 per cent couples have lived together before marrying as against 16 per cent in 1975.
For many of the people interviewed for the survey, companionship and commitment were prominent meanings of marriage; and belief in marriage as an institution, its place in their lives and in society ran deep. The majority of those who were married had not questioned or analyzed their decision, seeing it as part of the traditional passage through life.
Enduring and rewarding marriages can be created and maintained. Marriages, they say, are made in heaven; but they require a hell of a lot of hard work to sustain.