Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Response to "Will This Marriage Last?"

This is a direct critique of the article on Time.com. To view this article please follow the below link:

"Will This Marriage Last?"

It seems that as a society we are not without punchlines. Whereas at points in time past we would have been hesistant to make light of certain subjects, and while I am definitely not removed from observing and commenting on life in a tongue-in-cheek style, Marriage is not a topic to take lightly. Perhaps it is ironic that I read this article a week prior to being co-officiator at my own cousin's wedding, perhaps not. I feel that the article put forth by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman is something that represents the continuing downfall of America- in this case through "Journalism".

I am not a professional journalist. I sell industrial heating equipment. But I do have the ability to think and reason and treat some topics as having greater sanctity than that of a sporting event. Upon reading "Will This Marriage Last?" I felt as if I was reading a sports column decrying the weaknesses and championing the strengths of two teams. As an attendee and officiant of many weddings, I feel that I somewhat qualified to speak on the basis of many of the points made in the article.

This is the excerpt I will start with:

"Every wedding is haunted by that axiom, "Half of all marriages end in divorce." But it's not a random coin flip. At the time of a couple's wedding, there are factors already present that can raise the odds of divorce to as high as 70%, or lower it to nearly 20%."

We all know that a marriage will either fail or succeed. But where do these numbers of 70% and 20% come from? Why do we have to assign a statistical association to every possibility? It is absolutely pointless. There are means of statistical analysis that could probably depict tendencies for marriages to succeed or fail; but each relationship and each marriage is so incredibly different that it is insulting to assign percentages to something that most view as having a highly spiritual element. This aside, the percentages quoted in the article have no source! Again, I am not a journalist but without some sort of study to reference or scientific basis for these numbers, anything stated must be seen as completely arbitrary.

There should be some manner of journalistic integrity in writing, especially when writing for a publication as widely circulated as TIME. The lack of a cited source for statistics in this article is an embarrassment. And if these statistics have been concocted by the authors, they should be immediately dismissed from any position held with the magazine. One of the primary reasons that I wrote this is to get people to remember that journalism is fallible. Too many times we read an article like this with statistics presented as facts without questioning or checking sources and we blindly accept them as concrete. And this is not the only occasion where statistics are put forth:

"An average couple now has a 57% chance of seeing their 15th wedding anniversary."
"....a middle-class second marriage has only 3% more risk than a first marriage."
"If this couple will earn a modest $50,000 as a family, their odds of seeing their 15th anniversary jump to 68%."
"....it's been known for some time that their children are at higher risk of divorce when they marry. It's quite significant — it raises their odds of divorce by 14%."

Please cite your sources. That way we, the freak bloggers of the world can analyze the study to see if they had an agenda, what the demographics of the sample group consisted of, etc. For all we know, this could have been an informal biased survey of 15 couples in Po Bronson's neighborhood.

Before I continue to tear this article apart I must say that I do think the authors had good intentions in writing the article. Given the steep decline in marriages over the last 50 years or so (here for reference), it is good for us to be aware of some of the pitfalls that often lead to poor marriages or divorce. I even agree with them that living together before marriage guarantees no greater chance of success than not living together. But there are some general statements put forth as absolutes that definitely need to be examined.

"Being religious doesn't make a couple happier with their marriage, but it does mean they might try a little harder to stick it out."

What? How do you know whether or not being religious makes a couple happier or not? Can you even analyze that? What does "being religious" mean? This is just flat out ignorant. Being religious can only really be defined as allowing the direction of your life to be subject to the teachings of a religious system. If I am an extremely devoted follower of Allah, while my wife practices Wicca- "being religious" probably won't help us out. Individually we may be quite pious, but it really doesn't mean much if our beliefs are incompatible. You might make the case that a Muslim and a Wiccan probably wouldn't get together, but why not? "Being religious doesn't make a couple happier with their marriage" anyway. Apparently, it's a crapshoot. What they probably mean is that following in a common system of beliefs together does not insure that the couple will find harmony in their marriage, but it does increase the chances that they will continue to be devoted to one another. I think this is probably an instance of poor word choice rather than anything else, but it is so careless that it begs for proper scrutiny.

"Watch the bride and her father as they walk down the aisle. Are they tense with each other? If so, that's bad."

Again... What? I realize that this is something of a metaphor for the relationship of the bride and her father in general, but it is ridiculous. For one, most brides probably aren't even thinking about their fathers at that particular moment. There are flowers all around, candles, people staring from every direction, a dress not to trip over, an organist blaring the processional, the groom smiling from across the way.. geez! It's amazing if the bride is even aware of the fact that she is walking, much less that her father is walking with her. (No, I have never walked down the aisle as a bride. But I have been blessed with a good imagination.)

This slightly humorous position aside, where does the tension come from? If her father is thrice divorced, had alcohol problems, and cheated on his wives.. he may be a little apprehensive about seeing the daughter he loves get married. The daughter on the other hand really has found Prince Charming, even though her father hates him for his being morally upright and devoted to creating an unconditionally loving environment for his soon-to-be wife. This all stems from jealousy, but no one really understands that because the father allows his case to be stated for him through said tension. I have been to several weddings where there was some tension between bride and father, but there was overwhelming support for the couple. No one realized that the tension was truly just the father's inability to deal with his own jealousy. Should that be the basis by which we judge the potential success of a couple's marriage?

Bronson and Merryman do show how the relationship between the bride and the groom's family can help to rectify the problem of having an unstable relationship with her own father, but it is almost forgotten as a topic. It seems they would rather dwell on the negative.

Before I finish, I must say that I am very critical of weddings. WEDDINGS. Not marriages. Buildings, tuxes, dresses, food, open bar, pay bar. These are all just asides. I would encourage all people to be able to set these things aside from the marriage itself. Each marriage is incredibly unique and special and should be seen as perhaps the greatest event in both the bride and groom's lives prior to the occasion. Even beginning to speculate on the chances of a couple "making it" is incredibly disrespectful to the institution of marriage itself. If you even catch yourself thinking those thoughts, perhaps you should refocus your thoughts on prayers for the success of the couples' marriage. Do not let yourself fall into this mindset:

"Bottom line, the weddings you attend this summer are likely to have much better odds of lasting than a coin flip. That's something to relish, when the champagne has run dry and the band covers Kool & The Gang and one of the bridesmaids has run off in tears."

"The weddings you attend this summer"...
as if they were a baseball game. "Better odds of lasting than a coin flip"... as if that should be even a remote matter of thought associated with marriage. Again, the wording is a problem here. The sentence should read, "Bottom line, the marriages that you witness this summer have a greater chance for success than they do failure."

My conclusion? Between the poor wording, poor thought, and poor lack of statistical references it is little wonder that it was co-authored by "Po" Bronson. Despite having some good intentions, this article falls on its face in the attempt at having any sort of journalistic or editorial merit.


At 7/05/2006 04:53:00 AM, Blogger fidelity said...

Great response. You can go even further. What is harmful about the "statistical" approach to anything is that we feel helpless to do anything about it. This is all the more so when the statistic reaches 50%. The message here is that "it's nobody's fault." And that is precisely what the modern culture wants us to think.

TrueMarriage.net is working on this as are other groups.

At 7/06/2006 04:51:00 PM, Blogger Po Bronson said...

mike and tim. a few questions:

are you married?

have you ever been divorced?

have you ever read any sociological studies on marital outcomes, either measured by marital happiness or marital disruption (divorce)?

i'm supposed to give you all our sources? you don't have any of your own?

At 7/06/2006 04:52:00 PM, Blogger Po Bronson said...

and as for suggesting we are helpless to do anything, that's not true. our article directly addresses what one can do to help the odds.

At 7/07/2006 12:35:00 AM, Blogger mikeandtim said...

Thank you for your response. I would like to apologize for the overly harsh nature of what I wrote. I think I ate some bad pizza pockets prior to writing. However, I think that most of the points that I made have merit.

I am in near constant thought on the subject of marriage (being single at 27 in the Bible-belt- you would think I have a disease) as 90% of my close friends are married.

Mike is married, I am not. He should probably be given some sort of award for husband excellency. On the other hand, I would make an incredibly inadequate mate for anyone. You could ask his wife, she would probably agree with both of the previous statements. Neither of us are divorced.

I have not read any sociological studies on marital outcomes, and I am about 99% sure that Mike has not either.

I wasn't looking for all of your sources, but it would be cool if you could have them posted somewhere. Even a note at the bottom with "A list of the sources for statistical values used in this piece can be found at pobronson.com" would have been enough. I just couldn't believe how many specific numerical stats were in the article and yet they could have been completely made up! (Seeing my father's debates on the topic of creation v evolution has shown me that people on both sides routinely throw out stats that have no valid scientific basis at all!)

I only referenced one source in my article. (Although I did not provide a footnote) I looked up information on gendercenter.org, whose information came directly from U.S. Census Bureau Reports. Even then, I never used an actual number! The data I found confirmed my suspicion that the marriage rate in the population at large has dropped significantly over the last generation or so.

Perhaps it is unprofessional for us to not use more statistics to back our positions, but that is the beauty of the blog to some extent.
It is not intended to be a scientific publication, and we intentionally use words and phrases like "Probably", "Maybe", "There is a good chance..", and "Highly unlikely" to make it clear that anything we write is completely non-scientific.

Part of the problem with your assertion that we should provide statistical references is that we do not have Master's degrees from San Francisco State. Perhaps the only downside to your advanced degree is that anytime you write something it carries a certain weight with it. (You even wrote to me that "I didn't know a thing about who I was talking to" in reference to yourself). This works to your advantage when Time is looking for a qualified writer to put together interesting sociological study pieces, but to your disadvantage in that there are people like me who seek to call somebody out when they throw seemingly arbitrary statistics into perhaps the most prestigious weekly publication in the world.

I did underestimate the total amount of writing you have done on the subject. (A link to your blog would have been cool, although I'm sure Time has some sort of regulatory policy regarding that stuff.) I don' want to discredit your research and writing because the majority of it is right on. However, being verbose does not make anyone an expert on anything. If nothing else, using an economy of well-chosen words often shows greater expertise on a subject. Regularly being awarded C's for 30 page political essays on Post-Communist Russia in college taught me that.

In short, neither of us have done any research on the major influences affecting marital outcomes. What I was mainly concerned with was the wording and presentation of the piece than the actual substance. Perhaps in the future, when you do as much research as you have done on the subject, you can write about "10 Ways to Avoid Becoming a Divorce Statistic" or "10 Ways to Insure Domestic Tranquility". While a list of this sort would be cheesy, especially if you directly quote the Preamble- it would have a clear positive motivation- and we need more positives when it comes to the discussion of marriage in American society.

At 7/08/2006 09:59:00 AM, Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

I am not sure to whom you referred when writing "In short, neither of us have done any research on the major influences affecting marital outcomes. " If you refer to you and Mike, I appreciate your candor.

And I also appreciate your apology regarding your criticism of Po and my piece.

As for including a complete list of sources for our work, that's really not something that is done within articles in mainstream journalism, but I'm always happy to provide back-up to those who are really interested in reading the material, to see if they come up with other interpretations. For example, for the Time piece, I contacted two sociologists to make sure that I had understood the journal pieces they'd themselves had written, and to see if they had any updated information.

Anyway, as for the list of sources, I'd suggest your taking a look at our Factbook sources page on Po's website: http://www.pobronson.com/factbook/pages/300.html

We have over 610 sources listed on that so far. Unfortunately, we haven't yet included the most recent of the 70+ sources of material that we reviewed specifically for the Time piece, but at least a couple dozen of the primary sources or authors of subsequent works we reviewed are already included there. I do apologize for the list's being a bit out of date, but Po and I usually read about 500-1000+ pages of material for each topic we write about (either the blog or for Time), so it's hard to keep the Factbook as current as I would like. But I think that will be very helpful for you to begin your research, if you don't have data of your own to work from.

I note that while you've said you're not a professional writer, your blogger profile describes you as a "professional blogger" so if I may be so bold as to give you a suggestion I think will really help your work and your credibility, if -- when you decide to critique someone for using numbers you haven't yet researched -- you start by using Census numbers directly, from the Census itself at www.census.gov, rather than rely on an unknown 3rd party such as the one that you linked to.

I myself never rely on third party data when I can get to the primary source material, and I have found a number of sites that regularly manipulate Census numbers. When that occurs, I usually call the Census Bureau myself to see if they can explain what is going on, and I'd suggest you do the same: they're very helpful.

For other research on marriage, I would also suggest that you look at the National Institutes of Health at www.nih.gov for preliminary data regarding marriages and divorces.

Of course, those are just a start. You can also find journal articles are available at Highbeam (www.highbeam.com); JStor (www.jstor.org); Proquest (http://www.proquest.com/proquest/); the EBSCO Electronic Journals Service (http://www.ebsco.com/home/).


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