Sascha Rothchild, 33, describes the feeling leading up to the end of her first marriage as a sort of underlying malaise.
“It’s just that feeling of falling asleep at night,” she said, “knowing that you’re unhappy, and that you’re unhappy on someone else’s terms.”
Rothchild got married at 27, ended her relationship a year-and-a-half after her wedding and then authored the book “How to Get Divorced by 30: My Misguided Attempt at a Starter Marriage” (Plume, 2010). She isn’t alone in her willingness to explore and understand — publicly — what went wrong. Her outspokenness is a reflection of the seemingly palpable deterioration of the stigma surrounding divorce, as well as society’s changing views on what it means to be married.
In spite of the fact that young divorcees seem more open to talking about their breakups in recent years, marital stability among the under-40 set is, in fact, on the rise in the United States.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1975 and 1979, 16 percent of 30-year-old men had divorced, as had 20 percent of women. By 2004, that number had slid to 13 percent of men, and 17 percent of women.
The relatively high percentage of divorce in the late 1970s has been largely attributed to the widespread adoption of no-fault divorce laws, in which couples can end a marriage without blame. And experts agree that societal factors still play an important role in who gets married, who stays married, and who’s happy within their marriage.
Over the past few decades, the median age of marriage has gone up from 23 in 1970 to 28 in 2008, and in a shift in trend, college-educated individuals are now getting married at the same rate and age as those without college degrees.
And both age and education influence the likelihood that a couple’s relationship will stay intact. According to a report released in October by the Pew Research Center, people with a higher level of education are less likely to get divorced; in the year 2007, it states, 1.6 percent of adults with a college degree were divorced, compared to 2.9 percent of those without a bachelor’s degree.
As we get older, says Thomas Bradbury, professor of psychology at UCLA and co-director of the UCLA Relationship Institute, we come to know ourselves better, eliminating the likelihood of a youthful marital mistake, or of growing apart during the decade of personal change that is the 20s.
“As you age through your 20s and firmly in adulthood in your 30s, your education is largely behind you, and your financial resources are firmly in place,” Bradbury said. “You define yourself and what you want better.”
Bradbury recently explored the subject of newlywed satisfaction in more depth. Over the course of 10 years, he tracked 464 couples to examine what led to happiness or unhappiness in their marriages, and whether those experiences were shared by a majority of couples.
“Everybody says relationships naturally deteriorate over time,” he said. “What we were discovering is that actually those changes, those rapid declines, are limited to a few small subgroups of couples.”
The study, published in October 2010 in the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, found that couples fell into one of five subgroups: Three were relatively satisfied in their relationships, and generally less likely to get divorced. The other two subgroups were less satisfied in their relationships, and by the 10-year mark, 40 to 60 percent had ended their marriages.
Among the couples who were more likely to get divorced, partners often struggled with communication, specifically around conflict resolution. And one or both partners routinely had personality traits like low self-esteem, high levels of stress or a pessimistic outlook.
“There’s an emotion regulation component to all of [the shared characteristics],” Bradbury said. A stable marriage, therefore, requires “an ability to know who you are, and to not be too inclined toward pessimism and negativity.”
Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Congregation echoed the importance of the strong sense of self that’s necessary to build a healthy marriage — and to get out of an unhealthy one.
A stable relationship, he says, is built on mutual respect, admiration and the notion that we are all ultimately responsible for our own well-being. On the flip side, “It requires a considerable degree of insight into oneself [to come to] the realization that the primary foundation of a relationship is wrong,” he said.
Rothchild, who is now engaged again and planning her second wedding, adds that no matter what, the realization that a marriage is going to end almost as soon as it began comes as a shock.
“You think you know who you are, and you think you know what you want,” she said. “Then you’re about to hit 30, and you realize this isn’t what you want, and this guy is not the guy for you.”