The Champions of Marriage–Part 1

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of short posts on marriage.

After thousands of scientific studies of marriage, the one number everybody knows is 50%. Fifty percent of American marriages end in divorce, more or less. It’s a statistic made for pessimism and fatalism, as in “fifty percent of the people in this room will get a divorce.”

Another fact is less well known. As researchers have sliced and diced the data on marriage, they have found one group of Americans for whom marriage does not appear threatened. This group—about 25% of the population–has a low divorce rate that has dropped by half in the last decade. People in this group rarely have babies out of wedlock. They tend to marry and stay married.

As a reader of this blog, you are probably a member of this important subgroup. It is not defined by faith or pro-family beliefs. It is defined by a college education.

Approximately 25% of adult Americans have graduated from college—a number that seems to be fairly stable. Their divorce rate after ten years of marriage, as reported by The Economist in a May 24, 2007 article, has plummeted to 16.5%, just over half what it was a decade before. Only 4% of college-educated women have children out of wedlock. They tend to be pro-marriage. Whereas once college-educated women were less likely to marry than those with less education, now they are more likely.

On the other end of the scale, women who dropped out of high school have seen their ten-year divorce rate rise in the past decade, from 38% to 46%. For those who completed high school the ten-year divorce rate is also rising, though not as fast, to 38%.

How can this be, that the college educated are the champions of marriage?  Their faithfulness to marriage seems counterintuitive, since higher education tends to be a secularizing force, and the college-educated generally voice support for alternative lifestyles like gay marriage or single childbearing.

My son Silas related a startling experience at Stanford. His dorm of about 100 residents had a “get to know you” session. At one point they asked students to divide themselves according to a series of questions—how many played a musical instrument, how many had acted in a play, how many had three or more siblings, that sort of thing. One question was whether their parents were divorced. Almost everybody in the room—all but a handful—rushed to the side of “intact family.” Silas was amazed. He expected a very high divorce rate among the families of these liberal-minded students.

College graduates may think and talk very liberally, but they don’t act like all choices are equal. Most college educated people are quite careful and determined when it comes to marriage, as with most things in life.

These statistics help explain, by the way, why the intelligentsia don’t treat divorce like the plague it is. Intellectually they may know that divorce is a very common thing and a very bad thing. But in their daily experience, among their friends and colleagues, the problem is not severe. It involves significant failures and deep wounds, but only among less than one fifth of the families they know well. College-educated opinion leaders are like people who read about bad traffic, but who find that whenever they get on the freeway, traffic is light.

By all the socioeconomic indicators, America’s loss of faith in marriage has proven disastrous—bad for the people who cohabit, have babies solo, or marry only to divorce, and terrible for the children who grow up with only one biological parent. There is really little room for discussion on this point. Literally thousands of studies have been done by people who don’t necessarily start out favorable to marriage. Their findings are all but unanimous and overwhelming. Marriage good. Everything else, bad. That’s the subject of another blog post.

The question I want to address is: why do the college-educated get this so much better than the rest of us?


Statistics don’t reveal why college supports marriage. Surely it has little or nothing to do with what people learn in the classroom. The body of knowledge that a student gains in four years of college—whether in international relations or in electrical engineering–has little to do with keeping a marriage alive in the 21st century.

One thing does reliably happen in college, however: the student gets four years older. Statistically, those who marry at 22 are more likely to stay married than those who marry at 18. Four years make a difference in brain development and personal maturity. Just putting off marriage for college is a plus.

Also, college graduates make more money than high school graduates. Money is a major stress factor in marriages, so it makes sense that better incomes will lead to less stressful marriages.

However, this relationship with money is complex. Much of the data actually suggest that causation goes in the other direction—that successful marriages lead to better incomes. Single-parent families (those that either never married or that divorced, from all income levels) have a poverty rate five times that of two-parent biological families. Of course, this is partly explained by the fact that two adults can earn more than one. But step-families—where you do have two adults—experience poverty at almost double the rate of intact marriages.

Economist Robert Lerman looked at women from the very poorest, uneducated and unemployed backgrounds who got pregnant out of wedlock. Following them for an average of twelve years, he found that 33% would live below the poverty level at least four years out of the twelve. Some, however, got married before giving birth–a “shotgun marriage.” They subsequently had a 38% higher standard of living than those who did not marry. Twenty percent would still experience at least four years of poverty, but compared to a whopping 47% of those who did not marry, their fortunes greatly improved.

According to studies cited in The Economist, married men drink less, take fewer drugs and work harder. They earn substantially more than single men with similar education and job experience. A case can be made that marriage is the best financial tool we know—more potent even than education for helping people succeed.

Ultimately it’s a fool’s game to argue about whether education, marriage or good jobs has the greatest effect in helping people. College, marriage and higher incomes all tend to go hand in hand, and it’s hard to say what causes what.

I would suggest that you’re really looking at an aspect of character. People with certain character traits tend to stick at school, they tend to stick at marriage, they tend to do better in their jobs. By character I do not necessarily mean altruism. There are other qualities that other generations have counted important. Think of the Romans, more interested in fortitude and courage than in kindness.

What character qualities are we talking about? At least this: College graduates can defer gratification (they do their homework) because they have been taught the value of self-discipline (usually by their married parents). This makes them successful in their careers, and it makes them successful in their marriages. A college education may make college graduates less moralistic about marriage, but it doesn’t make them less practical. It doesn’t keep them from seeing that marriage pays. So they invest in it. And they know how to invest.

Kay Hymowitz makes the case that every young person needs a personal life map. The old one was simple and memorable: “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Mary with a baby carriage.” Hymowitz says that the college-educated fiercely hold on to that map. They exert phenomenal energy in finding and securing the ideal partner, they put off marriage and children (if not sex) until they finish their education; they then marry and have children, whom they in turn supervise and train very carefully for success—education, homework, discipline, a wide understanding of the world, good relationships, a solid marriage.

Those with less education may be less pragmatic. They may not be as well equipped to act in a disciplined way. Perhaps they never learned to get their homework done. They are less likely to plan ahead, and more prone to act based on emotion.

These are generalizations, of course, with many exceptions on both sides. I give them to remind you that education is more than a matter of sitting in class. Graduates succeed not merely because they have mastered a body of knowledge, but because they have mastered themselves.

School is not the only place where self-control and forward thinking is learned, however. It is learned in families. (Some immigrant cultures, Jewish and Chinese for example, excel at it.) Sometimes it is learned in church—see the histories of Methodism and Pentecostalism for examples.


I have been struck by the relationship between college and marriage, because it works to correct a blind spot—my blind spot. When facing social problems, Christians tend to emphasize morality and spirituality. Regarding marriage, we emphasize what is morally right—to love each other sacrificially, to not divorce. We also emphasize the spiritual transformations that enable us to do what is right—the “come to Jesus” that can change marriage from an onerous burden to a joyful freedom.

Not to take anything away from these emphases, but we need more. Demographic studies show that American evangelicals are, on the whole, less educated than the general population. Not surprisingly, they have a high divorce rate, even though they are on average quite committed to the institution of marriage and to spiritual growth.

Faith and morality do matter, everything else being equal. A college graduate with an active faith is more likely to stay married than a non-believer or a nominal believer with a college education. An actively Christian high school dropout is more likely to stay married than an agnostic high school dropout. However, education makes considerably more difference in the divorce rate than faith does.

And that makes theological sense. Marriage is not fundamentally an institution for Christians. It is a human institution, offered by God to the whole human race, and practiced by virtually every society on the globe. Christianity changed marriage for the better in many ways, such as by emphasizing love, and seeing wives as partners, not property. But the fundamentals of marriage pertain to those of all faiths and those without one. They are strikingly practical. We sometimes blanch at how materialistically earlier generations looked at matchmaking. Marriage was as much about inheritance as about love and romance. Today, not so much has changed. Marriage is still very much about our personal and family welfare. It very much involves passing on what we have to future generations—not just property, but also commitments and lifestyle.

Faith doesn’t substitute for qualities of character, maturity, responsibility, rationality, self-control, and deferral of gratification. If we excelled in these, we wouldn’t have a divorce rate near 50%.


I would like to frame the challenge this way: can we teach non-college-graduates to think about marriage the way college graduates do? We can’t send everyone to college. Can we pass on discipline, forward-thinking and rational self-interest in other ways? John Wesley, they say, accidentally created a generation of shopkeepers—people with the internal structures, the methods, that made them successful at business. Can we create a generation of people who stick at marriage?

It might help if we began to talk about marriage in a more practical way. It might help if we began to emphasize what a vast practical difference marriage makes. Instead of talking about love, let’s talk about benefits. In a future post, I’ll discuss that.


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18 Responses to “The Champions of Marriage–Part 1”

  1. Jim Says:

    Really fascinating and important, especially your emphasis on the sociological underpinnings of marriage. I would only add that the children who come out the worst are not simply children of divorce but the children of a parent who brings in one partner after another. That is another issue that could stand some attention and some work.

    Good stuff. Kudos!

  2. Christine A. Scheller Says:

    Great post, Tim. Much to ponder.

    The thing that is missing from the discussion, I think, is the role abortion plays in the life of the group that stays in school and stays married. They’re having sex, so they’re obviously also getting pregnant and doing away with those pregnancies. That’s a form of discipline, I suppose—allowing nothing to interfere with future plans—but, it changes the picture a bit, don’t you think?

    • timstafford Says:

      You’re right, both the level of promiscuity and the number of abortions are deeply troubling. As you say, it’s “compromised, costly success.” That’s one reason to ask whether there is another way.

    • JBC Says:

      “They’re having sex, so they’re obviously also getting pregnant and doing away with those pregnancies.”

      Birth control exists, you know. And people taught self-control and forward thinking from an early age are probably using it.

      Yes, promiscuity and abortions are both troubling, but I think it’s dishonest and unproductive to the conversation to conflate having sex outside of marriage with having abortions.

  3. Christine A. Scheller Says:

    I should have specified that I meant they’re having sex and abortions before marriage, suggesting that some of this success is compromised, costly success.

  4. Bill Reichert Says:

    “I would like to frame the challenge this way: can we teach non-college-graduates to think about marriage the way college graduates do? We can’t send everyone to college. Can we pass on discipline, forward-thinking and rational self-interest in other ways?”

    Sure. By inspiring goals that, like a college education, require an investment of time, energy, dedication, and hope. For example, a military career, a trade-school job, a missionary endeavor. Or, as you pointed out with Wesley, simply working out your salvation with fear and trembling, turning your life about in gratitude for your salvation. It’s hopelessness that is the chief enemy of marriage. Marriage by its very nature is forward-looking, based on a hope that the couple may be barely able to articulate at time of the wedding.

    • timstafford Says:

      Wow, good comment.

      • Larry Wampler Says:

        We can inspire couples to apply these same character traits (self-discipline, rational self-interest, etc.) specifically to their expectations of marriage. That means RAISING expectations that marriage should be a life-changing experience. So marital conflicts can be understood not as a sign of a failed marriage, but as an exciting opportunity to transcend our current selves.
        My book – The Sacred Dance: Spiritual Opportunities of Marriage – tells how. (Available at amazon or my website.)

  5. Phil Groom Says:

    Interesting post, Tim: thank you. Somewhat ironic that on the day you post this, I’m updating the UKCBD blog with latest info about Barbara Roberts’ book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion.

    Christians tend to regard divorce as a bad thing. For many, however, the bad thing is being trapped in an abusive marriage whilst the church throws stones at them for wanting out. The church makes its rules about right and wrong, forgets the higher rule of love and sides with the oppressor instead of the oppressed.

    There may be no easy answers, but there are times when divorce is the better way.

  6. Phil Groom Says:

    PS: Link: – goes live 7.30am UK time, July 23 2009

  7. Christine A. Scheller Says:


    I got pregnant as a 19 year old college student using birth control while many friends and peers (both college educated and not) were having abortions from high school onward. Two of my friends had abortions at 5+ months gestation, another had 3 before she finished high school. Children are missing from my extended family and social circle because of abortion.

    I’m going to having to disagree with you that “it’s dishonest and unproductive to the conversation to conflate having sex outside of marriage with having abortions.” It’s integral to the conversation or it wouldn’t be such a contentious issue.

  8. Christine A. Scheller Says:

    Let me clarify my point, so that this issue doesn’t hijack Tim’s discussion. He resonably contends that discipline & character contribute to success in both school & marriage. I am simply saying, “Not so fast; other issues are at play.”

  9. Week in Review: Shop Class, Teaching Naked at The Emerging Scholars Blog Says:

    […] The Champions of Marriage – Tim Stafford, a senior writer for Christianity Today, has started a blog. A recent post focused on a mystery: a college education tends to make a person more liberal, more accepting of alternate lifestyles, and less supportive of conservative “pro-family” policies; yet a college education also tends to make a person more traditional in their actual life choices. From Stafford: Approximately 25% of adult Americans have graduated from college—a number that seems to be fairly stable. Their divorce rate after ten years of marriage, as reported by The Economist in a May 24, 2007 article, has plummeted to 16.5%, just over half what it was a decade before. Only 4% of college-educated women have children out of wedlock. They tend to be pro-marriage. Whereas once college-educated women were less likely to marry than those with less education, now they are more likely. […]

  10. aj Says:

    knowing that you previous clarified this article as speaking in generalities and taking that into consideration, i still feel the need to say this:

    first – context of my comment. i’m 29 years old. i have…give or take…nine hours of college credit. i’ve served on various church staffs on various leadership levels but in a few weeks, will take my rank among the self employed as a writer. i guess technically my paycheck comes from a publishing house but nonetheless…it’s a year’s salary and is adequate to meet my needs.

    i graduated high school early, barely 17. in 8th grade after taking the SAT (indeed, the 8th grade) duke came calling. by the time i was beginning my junior and final year in high school, so did columbia. needless to say, i’m fairly intelligent. well. i test well anyway.

    that same year, i was sexually abused by a trusted friend. that’s why i graduated high school early. i wanted OUT. i wanted to move away. go to college. be with friends. but as time went on, even that year, the abuse killed my soul and my faith. i bailed on going to school and went to work full time.

    i say this in all humility and only by the grace of god that leaving the safety of your parents’ care, managing to make a generous living at a young age, fighting (nay, continuing to fight) the darkness that abuse leaves a soul, and persistently chasing the voice and call on your life regardless of your circumstances will give you a pretty darn good solid shot at fighting through the inevitable hellish times a marriage will bring.

    as much respect as i have for higher education, i have never once looked back on my decision to turn down these prestigious schools and a world of academia for the life i have. my husband (also a non-college grad who chases his dreams and fights for his soul) and i have been married over six years. not six perfect years or even six happy years, but six years.

    i do realize you say education is more than what is learned in a classroom, and to that, i can agree. but the perception that college grads have a superior commitment level may make sense in statistics, but not in real life.

  11. Yolanda Miller Says:

    in case you can’t tell tim, i’m reading these in reverse chronology. i’m loving your posts on marriage and divorce–hope you keep posting more and…hmmm…do i see a book in the future?

  12. Jim Says:

    I think you’ll find the common denominator that both sends people to college and keeps them married is the ability to wait for delayed gratification.

  13. Changes in the Culture Wars « Timstafford's Blog Says:

    […] to have lasting, stable marriages, while less educated Americans are frequently foundering. (See The Champions of Marriage, particularly.) Douthat notes the odd way this has fit into the convenient summary of culture wars: […]

  14. Paul G Says:

    Hi Tim,
    I just read another interesting blog post about divorce stats. I think this gives another corrective to the commonly quoted stat that Christians divorce as much as other people.

    I also referred him to your post.

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