If that whole "women over 40 have a better chance of getting killed by a terrorist than finding a husband" thing didn't make us question the media's ability to interpret statistics, we'd be 82% crazy.
The latest statistical soup being served up is data from the 2000 census, heralding either the disintegration of the American family or the resurgence of traditional values, depending on how you read the numbers.
Last week, it was widely reported that the number of U.S. unmarried-partner households spiked 72% in the 1990s. That is a striking number. Too bad it seems to strike different people different ways.
Some say cohabitation is replacing marriage, an institution that provides increased health, longevity and family stability. Others say living together before marriage enhances a couple's ability to forge a long-term union.
What no one seems to dispute is that the divorce rate is hovering around 60% in this country, a number that strikes fear into the commitment-phobic hearts of those of us plodding through our late 20s and early 30s. Cohabitation starts to look very appealing.
To my generation, marriage is a boogeyman. It lurks in the shadows threatening to jump out and attack us with a lifetime of early bird specials and minivans, or worse, joint custody and the carnival of humiliation that we'd face being middle-aged divorcees hitting the dating scene.
"Can we hurry up this dinner, my sitter is costing me," isn't the way we want our dates to end later in life. "Crazy little thing called divorce" just doesn't sound right when you hum it.
Speaking unscientifically for a statistical sample as flawed as any other--every contemporary in my world--I don't know, have never known and will probably never know a couple who moved in together only after marriage. Not since seeing a high school production of "Fiddler on the Roof" has it even crossed our minds. According to University of Washington researchers, 50% of couples cohabitate before marriage. This doesn't suggest singles cryogenically freeze their relationships in the "my stuff is in storage and I could leave any minute" stage. In fact, 95% of such couples either end the relationship or marry within five years.
Living together requires a couple to examine their compatibility on such major life issues as money, sex, family and whether to invest in basic or deluxe cable. Tomato seeds encrusted on the cutting board become a reflection of her terminal selfishness. The way the laundry comes out shrunken and purple is a sign of his passive-aggressive rage. You've just learned a cheap lesson. You can still get out without involving lawyers.
My generation has seen parents divorce and grandparents who should have. We don't need marriage as much as we used to, either financially or societally, so why risk the emotional carnage? Odds are, today's soulmate is tomorrow's plaintiff. We've seen the most loving couples crumble, even after years of marital bliss. In the words of poet William Butler Yeats, "Things fall apart." Just ask Tom and Nicole. Who wants to put up with a Gary I'm-not-a-perfect-man Condit, anyway?
As for encouraging marriage with government financial incentives, this plan seems foolhardy. If Drs. Phil and Oprah and vast armies of therapists and clergymen can't fix the problem, are a few shekels going to do it?
Juggle the numbers any way you want, we're not good at marriage. We can transplant a kidney, smash an atom, map the human genome, but we can't figure out how to make marriage stick. Until we do, expect trepidation and cohabitation to rise.