Goin' to the chapel
Til death do us part? Marriage has lost some of its cachet as the defining institution of American life, but it's still going strong — and even expanding, opening up to same-sex couples in nine states and the District of Columbia.
Despite its ubiquity, marriage is surrounded by its fair share of myths. From divorce rates to the secrets of married sex, here's what's really known.
Myth #1: Half of marriages end in divorce
It's a common trope: Half of the couples who tie the knot will be untying it before long. In fact, it's true that the divorce rate is about half of the marriage rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As of 2009, the marriage rate was 6.8 per every 1,000 adults in America, and the divorce rate was 3.6 per 1,000. But simply tallying those numbers doesn't provide a very accurate picture.
That's because the people who are divorcing each year aren't the same ones getting married; the comparison basically stacks up two different generations and equates them as if they're one and the same. Instead, a more revealing way to look at divorce rates is to calculate how many people have ever married and then subsequently divorced. These numbers peg the peak divorce rate, in the 1970s, at about 40 percent. [Marriage & Divorce in America (Infographic)]
The number has declined since, driven by fewer divorces among college-educated men and women, who tend to delay marriage.
Myth #2: Marriage kills sex
The myth of the sexless marriage is not all it's cracked up to be. According to a nationally representative survey commissioned by dating website Match.com, 41 percent of married couples had sex at least once a week in 2012. Married people think of sex more often than singles, too: at least once a week for 76 percent of married people versus 72 percent of unmarried folks.
Marriage can even be a sexual bonus. Married people were more likely than singles to reach orgasm at least 91 percent of the times they had sex, with 47 percent hitting that target compared with 38 percent of singles.
Myth #3: Husbands are more likely to stray
It's not easy to get solid numbers on cheating. People are motivated to keep infidelities to themselves, for one thing, and not everyone even agrees on how cheating should be defined.
But nationally representative studies conducted in the 1990s suggest that about 20 percent to 25 percent of men had ever cheated, compared with about 10 percent to 15 percent of women. That gap has been closing, doing away with the stereotype of the cheating cad and the woman standing by her man. According to Kristen Mark, a doctoral candidate at Indiana University, studies now suggest that men and women cheat at similar rates.
Myth #4: Divorce is always the worst choice for kids
Kids whose parents divorce are more likely to divorce in adulthood. But if parents can't keep themselves from fighting, they may do better for their kids to split than to stay together.
A 2010 study found that kids whose parents fought a lot and stayed married were more likely to experience conflict in their adult relationships than parents who fought and then divorced.
"The basic implication is, 'Don't stay together for the sake of the children if you're in a high-conflict marriage," study researcher Constance Gager of Montclair State University told LiveScience at the time.
Myth #5: Marriage is obsolete
With people delaying marriage longer than ever (average age at first marriage is now about 27 for women and 29 for men), it might seem that the institution is on the way out. But marriage is still important to young people. In 2001 and 2002, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health found that 55 percent of women and 47 percent of men said marriage was a "very important" part of their life plans. Another 29 percent of women and 35 percent of men said it was "somewhat important."
Only 12 percent of women and 13 percent of men ranked marriage as "not very important," and a measly 5 percent of each gender said it wasn't important at all. By 25, 33 percent of women and 29 percent of men had already gotten married; another 30 percent of women and 19 percent of men said they wished they were hitched.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.