Will This Marriage Last?

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Wedding season is here again. Your attendance has been requested. Dust off your finest, buy a well-wrapped gift, and slap on an optimistic smile.

One of the great bystander sports at weddings is looking for clues that forecast whether this couple will last, or whether they'll just become another divorce statistic. You'll keep these thoughts to yourself, but the mental guessing is nearly impossible to turn off. You've got your hunches. You would have more confidence in the wedding if this couple had moved in together for six months to test-drive this relationship. You might not worry that she was raised in a broken home, but you do worry that he was married before. And the groom hasn't darkened a church door in years, but the bride insisted they get married in a chapel — you're not sure what to make of that.

The truth is that some of these factors actually matter, and some do not. 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%.

The first thing to keep in mind is that the divorce rate has stabilized. An average couple now has a 57% chance of seeing their 15th wedding anniversary. If they make it that far, most will reach "til death do us part."

Let's group the risk factors into three. The first grouping is the couple's relationship. The second grouping is financial issues. The third grouping is their family history.

Regarding the couple, their age matters. If they are just out of high school, that's not so good. (No surprise.) The odds improve dramatically if they're at least 25 — but don't assume the older the better. Marrying at age 35 is not any better than age 25.

Most couples today cohabit before they marry. The crucial issue here is whether they moved in together with the full intention to get married, or whether they moved in together just because it was the logical thing to do, since he was always at her place anyway. You might think that living together is a sort of "trial period" that helps prevent bad marriages, since they can break up before taking an oath to each other. But the odds suggest the opposite; they divorce more. Why doesn't this filter work? Very likely, whatever it was that made them not want to get married in the first place ended up becoming a problem long-term.

If the couple has ever invited you over for dinner, you've got a good clue there. Does the groom substantially help with the housework, cleaning, and cooking? If he does, this may be one of the most important predictors of all. We don't usually think about this when they are standing at the altar, but the bride will definitely be thinking about it in two years if her husband has left all the chores to her. A man who does housework is also going to be involved in childrearing — another major benefit to the couple.

If this is a second marriage, for either bride or groom, their odds of divorce are somewhat higher. Remarried families have more complex issues to confront: exes to deal with, and stepchildren to raise. But this risk is often overstated; a middle-class second marriage has only 3% more risk than a first marriage.

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. FYI, among the major religions, Catholics get divorced the least. Protestants the most. But what is really important here is not what religion they are, but how devoted they are to practicing their faith. You're right to worry if the bride insisted that they get married in the chapel, when the groom really wanted a wedding at the beach.

Let's talk money. Money helps, a lot — but a relatively small amount of money goes a long way. If this couple will earn a modest $50,000 as a family, their odds of seeing their 15th anniversary jump to 68%. By and large, well-off couples divorce over personality conflicts while poorer couples divorce over alcoholism, physical abuse, and money problems. (Infidelity is a frequent deal-breaker, rich or poor.)

If you've heard that the bride and groom have been hunting for a house to buy, that's a good sign. Homeowners aren't happier in marriage than renters, but there's a permanence to their life — a connection to a community. The house is also a roadblock to divorce, being hard to divide.

Now for the really fun stuff — their families. Pay close attention to the parents of the bride and groom. Are they divorced? If so, 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%. But you need to know a little more before applying this handicap. Before the parents divorced, was their conflict loud and visible to the children? Or was their conflict kept hushed behind closed doors? Surprisingly, it's the children of the latter who are getting divorced. Growing up in a home where they thought everything was fine — until their parents suddenly announced their divorce — leads those children not to trust their relationships.

Watch the bride and her father as they walk down the aisle. Are they tense with each other? If so, that's bad. Women with poor relationships to their fathers are more likely to get divorced from their husband. That's not the case for the groom — the quality of his relationship to his father does not impact his odds.

By now, all these risk factors probably seem overwhelming. Even worse, it seems that there's very little an engaged couple can do to help themselves. They can't reverse their parent's divorce, and they can't elevate their financial status overnight. They might be able to attend church, but if God hasn't spoken to them, faking it doesn't help.

But it's not all a fait accompli. There are many things a couple can do to improve their odds. Wait until they're 25, for instance. And a young man can learn to wash a toilet and roast a chicken. He can also learn to change a diaper — it's not that hard.

If the bride has a poor relationship with her father, her fate's not sealed either. Among those women, those who've created a strong bond with the groom's family counteract their risk.

The couple's expectations are a huge factor in the longevity of their marriage. Couples who have attended premarital classes or counseling cut their odds of divorce by almost a third. We don't know if the classes actually change the couples, or if those couples are already realistic and savvy to the dangers (which is why they were smart enough to take the class). But premarital counseling might be the best wedding gift any newlyweds can receive.

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.