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Jewish World Review July 15, 1999 /2 Av, 5759

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker
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'Happy marriage' belongs in the Dictionary of Oxymorons next to 'deliciously low-fat.' --
YOU KNOW THE SCRIPT: A young couple jubilantly announce their plans to marry, and you call your bookie. Two years, tops. Then you drop by the bridal shop for a piece of everyday china. Save the good stuff for Round 2.

Sad, but not surprising, marriage is at a 40-year low, according to a recent report by the National Marriage Project. Some demographers are predicting that 85 percent of young Americans will never marry.

Why? Because they're afraid they won't be "happy." In fact, fewer people today are happy with marriage than just 30 years ago. In the early 1970s, 53 percent of people in their first marriages were "very happy." By 1996, only 37.8 percent were.

Such is cause for concern. As Utah Gov. Michael O. Leavitt said at a recent meeting of marriage researchers: "If the institution of marriage ever falls from grace, our society will fall as well because there is no institution that can take its place."

In response to these troubling figures, researchers are building seminars on conflict-resolution, intimacy, infidelity and children, while marriage advocates are urging Congress to eliminate marriage penalties in the tax codes.

Well and good, but aren't we overlooking the obvious? I'm talking about the word "happy." We need to rid it from our adult vocabulary. "Happy marriage" belongs in the Dictionary of Oxymorons next to "deliciously low-fat."

Blame it on the Constitution and the American ideal of the pursuit of happiness, but happiness can never be an expectation in any endeavor involving other human beings. Especially not in marriage, which is the toughest human arrangement ever conceived.

That's not to say you won't experience happiness in marriage. Many do. But you won't find it like a pearl in an oyster. Happiness isn't bestowed. You don't wake up on your 10th anniversary, examine the respiring mound beneath the covers next to you and exclaim, "Dadgum I'm happy!" If you do, I want your prescription and your doctor's phone number.

Like most things of value, marital happiness is earned, mostly through hard work and self-sacrifice. The rule in marriage shouldn't be: I want to be happy in my marriage. Rather, the rule should be: I want to make my spouse happy in our marriage. What a concept.

Yet nowhere, at no time, are we told this. A lucky few witness it growing up within their own families. Most learn early that nothing lasts, not even families, and that the solution to problems lies just beyond the exit.

Leavitt, speaking at a recent Smart Marriages, Happy Families conference in Crystal City, Va., was exactly right when he said, "We need more straight talk about the value of marriage."

We might begin by teaching our children as much about marriage and family as we do about sex.

The secret to marriage, we need to tell them, is understanding that sometimes you have bad days or bad weeks. Sometimes you have bad months. In the absence of abuse, there is value to keeping your mouth shut and weathering the inevitable storms. There is value to giving more than you receive. There is value to placing the marriage -- the family, the common good, the higher goal -- above one's individual wants or wishes.

Given such lessons early in life, we might see not only fewer divorces and broken families, but also a more civil society. The rules for family and society are really the same. Whither goes the family, so goes the other.

JWR contributor Kathleen Parker can be reached by clicking here.


07/11/99: 'Brother Man': An American demagogue in Paris
07/08/99: Only parents can fix broken families
07/06/99: America is home, sweet home
07/01/99: Tales out of Yuppiedom
06/28/99: Men aren't the only abusers
06/23/99: Is the entire country guzzling LSD punch?
06/20/99: The voice remains -- as always -- there beside me 06/16/99:Stating the obvious, a new growth industry
06/14/99: Calling for a cease-fire in the gender war
06/10/99: We owe children an apology

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