By Esther Schonfeld
“Women marry men hoping they will change. Men marry women hoping they will not. So each is inevitably disappointed.” –Albert Einstein
When I attend a wedding everyone always jokes, “Esther, did you leave your card?” In reality, it’s no laughing matter, and, depending on the age of the bride and groom, I can probably predict the likelihood of one of them walking through my office doors and even when it would be.
Many younger couples who are getting married are also getting divorced and are in need of our services. In fact, the statistics show that people who marry under the age of 25 are most likely to get divorced, and the largest population of people who are getting divorced consists of people between ages 20 and 24 years old.
The commonly cited statistic puts the number of marriages in the U.S. that end in divorce at 50%; however, that is a somewhat mythical figure. Divorce rates have actually been estimated as being closer to 30 or 40%. It is worth noting, however, that while the number of divorces may seem to be going down, there may not be a change in the proportions of divorces taking place, as there are fewer divorces because there are fewer marriages.
Domestic partnerships and other forms of long-term non-marital relationships are becoming quite common and more socially accepted. Society’s more casual approach towards marriage and divorce is surely a contributing factor to fewer marriages and more divorces. Another possibility stems from today’s culture of instant gratification. Things that require time and effort are not only unappreciated, but seen as inconveniences that should be avoided. It is easier to say “it’s over,” swipe right a few times and start again, than it is to look inside oneself and try to work through the underlying issues.
The liberalization of divorce laws and the options for alternative dispute resolution (like mediation and collaborative law) also create less of an obstacle to divorce, which means less deterrence for people. Couples don’t worry about having to endure long trials, so they are more likely to get divorced nowadays than they would have been a decade ago when they needed to prove fault in New York, and the other options were less prevalent and well-known. This is especially true for young couples with a short marriage, as the issues between them and assets requiring division are less complex than with couples accumulating assets for many years. The assets and income are also easier to trace in the shorter time frame.
Perhaps the underlying reason has nothing to do with a specific generation, but rather with the realities of the consequences of making important decisions while being so young and inexperienced in worldly matters. A 1987 New York Times article titled “Divorce at a Young Age: The Troubled 20’s” quotes both men and women who married and divorced at a young age as saying: “It was a real mistake to marry so young. I didn’t really understand we had very different values and backgrounds…” and “the reasons were simple — we were both very young and we had no idea what marriage was.”
This is a simple notion, a cautionary tale, which young people have still not been able to cope with or learn from. Perhaps it is that lack of maturity to learn from history that, unfortunately, causes history to continue to repeat itself.
While researchers and psychologists will give grand lists of contributing factors to why marriages fail, one major reason that always seems to pop up when discussing young couples divorcing is the unrealistic expectations they bring to the marriage. According to marriage therapists, couples often have unrealistic expectations of the dynamics and responsibilities that come along with marriage, and much of that has to do with the lifestyle their parents set and the fact that their parents had no expectations of them. Sharing a common space can prove complicated when rules and responsibilities are not defined, practiced, and successfully carried out. Marital expectations rarely align with the realities of what life is like inside a marriage.
Future spouses have expectations about what being married will be like, and when these expectations are not met, conflict and the anger, disappointment, and frustration that follow are likely to increase. Rather than making realistic adjustments to their perception, blame sets in, and at that point communication is effectively stymied and then the marriage becomes a win-lose battle.
Although this happens with experienced relationships as well, we see this happen more often in marriages that involve people who got married at a young age and were lacking in relationship experience and lacking in experience having household responsibilities.
While it is always, at every age, hard to teach young people the responsibilities and realistic expectations of life, we cannot give up. It is not too late to break the mold and start to learn from history and evolve.
Esther M. Schonfeld, Esq., is a founding partner of Schonfeld & Goldring, LLP with offices located in Cedarhurst, New York. Schonfeld & Goldring, LLP limits its practice to divorce law, family law, and matrimonial law in both secular courts and rabbinical courts. Esther Schonfeld, a frequent lecturer and published author, has been involved extensively in the areas of agunah and rabbinical court litigation and has advised rabbis and other attorneys on the procedures as well as divorce issues. Ms. Schonfeld is also a trained mediator. She can be reached at 516-569-5001.