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Healthy Actions and Expectations Before Saying “I Do”

Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, the founder of the Ruth Institute, a global non-profit focused on keeping families together and helping the millions of people who have been harmed by family breakdown discusses how healthy actions and expectations are beneficial for ensuring a successful, lifelong marriage before saying “I do.”

Jennifer Roback Morse discusses marriage

Family Policy Matters
Transcript: Healthy Actions and Expectations Before Saying “I Do”

Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today, we are going to explore how healthy actions and expectations are beneficial for ensuring a successful, lifelong marriage before saying “I do.”

Our guest is Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, who is the founder of the Ruth Institute, a global nonprofit focused on keeping families together, protecting the rights of children, and helping the millions of people who have been harmed by family breakdown.

An accomplished economist and repeat guest on our program, Dr. Morse has authored or co-authored four books, including,101 Tips for Marrying the Right Person.

Jennifer, welcome back to Family Policy Matters. It’s great to have you on the show again.

JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Thanks so much! Glad to be with you.

JOHN RUSTIN: Dr. Morse, based on your research, and generally speaking of course, have you seen the goals and expectations that people have for marriage change within the last several decades? And if so, how have these changes impacted the view of marriage in our culture?

JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: I’ll tell you, I think it goes the other way around John, honestly. I mean, the changes in the culture have shaped young people’s expectations about marriage and their behavior about marriage. One of the things I see is that young people, first of all, are less apt to get married. They’re waiting longer to get married and I find, so often, when they do start thinking about getting married, they’re more focused on the wedding than on the marriage. So, they’re saving money for a big wedding but they’ve moved in together! Things like that. They’re not thinking long-term about what’s going to help the marriage itself. They’re thinking of that storybook wedding as something that they feel like is really important and they’re kind of entitled to. And somehow, that’s the goal of their preparations and so on, not the life after the wedding. So, I think that’s really problematic. And I don’t think it’s the—it’s not the young people’s fault. That’s where the culture is pushing people.

JOHN RUSTIN: Clearly, this kind of changing attitude and that shifted focus toward the marriage ceremony versus the life together, is a pretty significant shift in how our culture has viewed marriage. How do you feel that these changes have impacted: once people do get married; have impacted the happiness and fulfillment that they experience—especially younger couples—while they are married?

JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Gosh! You know, we’ve known for some time that cohabitation is not good preparation for marriage. The social scientists found that out quite a while ago. And in fact some years ago, the National Marriage Project came out with a big report on cohabitation and it said—it literally said, “No positive contribution of cohabitation to marriage has ever been found.” And this is a report on maybe 20 or 30 years worth of studies. And I can tell you the people in family studies and all those kinds of professional areas, they were all thinking, “Oh gosh, cohabitation, this is so modern, this is so hip, it’s so wonderful, it’s so cool. We’re going to be so much better off than our un-cool, un-hip parents were.” And it turned out not to be true, right? But the culture keeps chugging along with this message that you’ve got to take her for a test drive before you make your purchase, and if you don’t, you’re an idiot and it’s never going to work. But the data shows something else. So that cohabitation business, and the misinformation surrounding it, that’s a huge factor in people’s behavior and in their expectations that are kind of unrealistic, and then the ways in which adults are coaching young people.

JOHN RUSTIN: Considering this disconnect and looking at, as you have said, unrealistic expectations that people set for marriage, once they get into marriages, do you find that there are increasing numbers of people who are living in unhappy marriages? Or are people simply more likely to seek a divorce? Or are more people interested and willing to really stick it out and to work to develop a strong lifelong marriage?

JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: There’s a very strong tendency for people to throw in the towel, particularly if their own parents have been divorced. So, you take a young couple and both of them have experienced divorce, they’ve experienced the divorce of their parents. They enter into marriage absolutely committed that they want to stay together for life. They don’t want to put their kids through what they went through. But at the first sign of trouble, a lot of times, they don’t know what to do. And so they think, “Oh gosh, I picked the wrong person!” Or, “Gosh, I’m not marriage material.” And so, they draw the wrong conclusions from the problems. Whereas, really what they need to know is that everybody has problems. And short of somebody throwing furniture through the wall, you can work with the other person and you need to work with the other person. So I think people—once again, people have this expectation that’s unrealistic, that says, “If there are problems, that means there is something wrong with the marriage and the marriage needs to end.” And, that’s really—there are a lot of assumptions built into that. You know, we have this idea that we’re supposed to be satisfied. You know, the customer is always right. That’s our whole commercial culture. But we forget that when we’re in a relationship with another human person, they’re not a buyer, we’re not a seller, and vice versa. We’re not objects we’re exchanging here. We’re one human being in relationship with another. The late great Pope St. John Paul II used to say that the opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of love is use. We use other people. But the proper attitude towards another person is love. For every person, the proper attitude is love, not use.

JOHN RUSTIN: Jennifer, I know that you’re a person of faith and compassion, but you’re also an economist. Based on that, do you find that’s it’s helpful for folks to understand how beneficial marriage is to society from a practical, utilitarian standpoint? In other words, when people understand how strong marriages and stable families are good for society, does this provide an additional incentive for them to stay married and to work to foster those meaningful lifelong relationships?

JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Since you mentioned faith, let’s bring up our mutual friend St. Paul the Apostle, who pointed out to us a long time ago that the good that we would do we cannot seem to do, and the evil, which we would not do, we somehow keep doing. I think that’s a very real factor in human relationships and in marriage because people can, in the long-term, see that what you just said is true, that it would be better if everybody stayed married, it’d be better if marriages were stable and people didn’t throw in the towel so quickly. But, when it’s your own life and your own unhappiness and your own tension in your own home, it’s very easy for people to say, “Oh well, whatever!” and throw in the towel. And so, when we’re not in those short-term moments where the discomfort’s right in your face, that’s when we have to really engage that practical reason side of things that you just mentioned: that it’d be better if we would all agree to do this. And so now that I’m mostly sane and my spouse isn’t driving me crazy, I’m going to plan now. I’m going to think ahead now as to what I’m going to do when he drives me crazy. That might include advocating for better, more stable public policy, you know public policy that encourages lifelong married love, rather than the opposite, which is, as you know, there’s a huge problem. That’s what your organization’s on business to do, John, is to deal with that. But I think it’s very important that men, women, lay people, clergy, public policy people, regular people, that everybody understands that we’re at war with ourselves some of the time and to have in mind that the long-term good is sometimes very difficult to achieve. That’ll help us know that we need to have some constraints around us in the short-term and that we need to have people supporting us to get over those humps so that we can have the benefit of lifelong married love, so that our kids can have that benefit, so that we can know that making those sacrifices for the good of the kids is actually worth it.

JOHN RUSTIN: Jennifer, how have shifts in gender roles or expectations, particularly related to career and parenting responsibilities, affected our marriage culture? 

JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: Let’s look at it this way, the vast majority of people listening to you are going to be married to a person of the opposite sex. So if you’re married to a person of the opposite sex, I hate to tell you this John, but women think that you all are kind of crazy and incomprehensible a lot of the time. So what I’m getting is that we go into marriage, if you have the idea that gender is something that is not very significant and it’s all kind of been pasted on by cultural expectations and we can really rip it all off, and underneath it all, we’re really all the same—if you enter into it with that expectation, you’re gonna be really disappointed. Because, I promise you, your spouse is going to look at things differently, is going to feel things differently, is going to assign different importance to different things other than you do. And if you expect your spouse to be the way you are, it’s not fair to you, it’s not fair to your spouse. And you know, the Bible doesn’t demand absolute rigid gender roles and […] there’s nothing wrong with a husband and wife working out for themselves who is going to take out the trash, and different things like that; who is going to change the diapers and how much time you’re gonna spend with the kids, and so on and so forth. There are a lot of things that a husband and a wife working together can make work. But you still have to respect the fact that men and women are different, that men need to be respected and women need to be loved. We both need both. But relatively speaking, it’s more important to a man to be respected and more important to a woman to be loved, right? And so if we disregard that, we’re going to hurt each other. Of course, no one enters into marriage wanting to hurt the other person. So, that’s why I think it really is—it’s fascinating and important to be aware of the ways in which men and women, in general, differ from one another because it makes it easier for us to be respectful.

JOHN RUSTIN: Jennifer, as we conclude our discussion today, what do you consider to be the number one thing marriage-minded people should focus on before getting married?

JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: If you’ve already got a spouse, if you’ve already got somebody picked out and you’re focusing and looking towards marriage, I would absolutely say at that point that you need to be focused on your life together after the wedding. It’s way more important than the marriage itself. The marriage ceremony is very important but it’s not so important that you should go into debt for it, or that you should think that, “Gee, we have to live together for a while so we can save the money so we can have this beautiful ceremony.” No, no. Just get married now. If it’s really the right person, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to go before a duly appointed clergy and have a valid marriage and it’s valid in the eyes of the law and it’s valid in the eyes of God. You don’t have to do anything fancy or special to do that. And what I would say to you is, if you’ve got the right person, get on with it, get on with it, just do it! If you don’t have the right person in mind I would say, you need to be looking in the right places. Don’t be hanging out in singles bars and expect you’re gonna find a good Christian girl there or a good Christian guy there. And we talk about this in our book, 101 Tips for Marrying the Right Person. Go look in the right place and make yourself the right kind of person who is going to be marriage material.

JOHN RUSTIN: Those are great points and great recommendations. And, before we leave Jennifer, I want to give you an opportunity to let our listeners know where they can go to learn more about the Ruth Institute, and also to get a copy of the book you just mentioned, 101 Tips for Marrying the Right Person.

JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: is our website. You can join us by signing up for our weekly newsletter and you’ll become part of the Ruth tribe. And/or you can go see us on Facebook. We have a very active Facebook page. Periodically, you’ll see little tips coming out of the book that will be posted up there on the Facebook page and you can easily get yourself a copy that way too.

JOHN RUSTIN: Great! That’s super. Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, I want to thank you so much for your time, for being with us on Family Policy Matters, and for your great work to help people build happy lifelong marriages. We are truly grateful and thank you so much.

JENNIFER ROBACK MORSE: You’re very welcome.

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