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The 'Starter Marriage' in an Era of High Ideals & Divorce Rates - 2002-06-08

When a young couple buys their first home, they often call it a starter house, meaning they'll move on to a bigger home as their family grows. Pamela Paul is an editor at American Demographics magazine, who's borrowed from that expression to write a book called The Starter Marriage and The Future of Matrimony. As many as half of all marriages in the United States now end in divorce. The author believes Americans still in their twenties account for a growing number of those failed marriages.

Dina Sherman was 27 years old when she got married. She'd known her new husband more than two years and had high hopes for their future. "I went into this believing that it was going to last forever. We, as far as I could tell, were the perfect couple, the ones everyone looked at and said, 'Oh, they do it right, they know exactly what they're doing,'" she said. But two years later, Dina was divorced. She believes the deaths of several relatives put severe stress on the marriage. She's one of more than 60 young men and women from across the United States interviewed by Pamela Paul for her book The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. The book was inspired by her own experience.

"I had a starter marriage of my own, and when I found myself at the age of 28 very unexpectedly divorced, I felt very much alone and really confused. I didn't know anyone my age who was divorced. But then little by little people kept cropping up and I started to wonder what did it mean that so many people my age were getting divorced," Ms. Paul said.

Pamela Paul describes a starter marriage as one that lasts five years or less, ending before a couple has children. She believes such marriages have been on the rise over the past decade. Twenty five percent of all marriages in the United States now end in just two years. In the year 2000, 3.5 million Americans aged 25 to 34 years old were divorced. What's ironic about these trends, said the author, is that today's young people are unusually positive about marriage in contrast to the preceding generation of baby boomers.

"Baby boomers really rebelled against marriage in a lot of ways and criticized it and scrutinized it. And so I think this generation, and even more the upcoming generation, the children of the baby boomers, are looking back to a lot of the traditions the baby boomers may have criticized and saying, 'Well, what was so bad about that?'" she said.

Those questions are encouraged, said Pamela Paul, by a popular culture that seems obsessed with matrimony. "There is a lot of focus on weddings in particular. You have bridal magazines bursting at the seams. 'Brides' magazine last year, their February-March issue was the largest consumer magazine ever published. It was over 1,200 pages. And people look at celebrity weddings and they watch movies that really romanticize the idea of marriage - The Wedding Singer, The Wedding Planner, 'The Runaway Bride, and I think there's a culture that really idealizes marriage."

In the romantic comedy, The Runaway Bride, Julia Roberts plays a young woman who keeps getting engaged, then running away at the wedding ceremony. In one scene her character walks down the asile, then pauses. Pamela Paul stresses that young people don't get married thinking it will be a short term union, and they're usually devastated when the marriages end. Still, she has said they may spend more time planning their wedding than thinking about the commitment they're making. And many lack role models. More than 30 percent of all young adults in the United States today had divorced parents, compared to 18 percent of the baby boomers.

Dina Sherman believes that had an impact on her two year marriage. "My parents had been married for almost 40 years. And they've had times where they talked about divorce, but they didn't. And I think that ultimately made me believe it was possible. Whereas my ex-husband - his parents had a very bad marriage. And that was one of his reasons for why we were getting divorced. He said he didn't know how to do this," she said.

Author Pamela Paul also believes young couples may give up too quickly. "I think we are a very impatient generation living in an impatient society, where you can change your job, get a make-over, move to Nepal, or trek around Mount Kilimanjaro for three months. You can do things to renew yourself and change your life at any given moment. And so I think that kind of mentality could extend to the idea of marriage," she said.

Pamela Paul said some demographers predict that as Americans live longer and divorce more frequently, they can expect to marry several times in the course of their lives.

"One person says we'll be marrying an average of 4 times over the next century, that we'll have these icebreaker marriages or starter marriage, followed by a child rearing marriage, your self actualization marriage and then the twilight years marriage. And I hope that's not the case. I think marriage is intended to be a lifelong commitment, I think that is the ideal most Americans who want to get married aspire to. So hopefully we'll choose more intelligently as we move forward," she said.

If there's a positive side to the starter marriage, said Pamela Paul, it's that people leave them more aware of how to make future relationships succeed. Dina Sherman has said that while her husband wanted the divorce, she now understands that it takes two people to break up a marriage.

"No matter how much I can say 'He did this, he was this, he went through this,' I was there too, and clearly whatever I was doing and how I reacted to him or my situation affected the marriage. So I do hope that will help in the future for me," Ms. Sherman said.

Pamela Paul says almost everyone she talked to for her book wanted to get married again. Many said they'd like to find someone else who's had a starter marriage, and learned the same painful lessons they have. She hopes that by recounting those lessons, her book will help other young people avoid making the same mistakes.