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Francine and Byron Pirola: Are we outliving marriage?

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Photo credit: Hisu Lee

We’ve heard it said many times, you probably have as well, and it goes like this, “People live so much longer these days, it’s unreasonable to expect a marriage to last all their life.” 

It’s certainly true that life expectancy has increased in recent generations in many countries. 

For our grandparents (born at the turn of the 20th century), life expectancy was around 55 for men and 59 for women (in Australia).  

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A hundred years later, their great grandchildren, born around 2000 AD, can expect to live approximately 77 years for men and 82 for women. 

That’s an additional 22-23 years above ground and, even if we are marrying later, it is still a lot of extra years to ‘stay’ married. By this reckoning, our marriage of 36 years is surely past its ‘use by’ date.  

Not to mention our parents who are all four of them in their 80s and 90s and still married (both over 60 years). Clearly, they didn’t get the memo either!  

So what’s going on with these numbers? Let’s do some myth busting. 

Living longer 

The key driver of the increase in life expectancy is the decline in infant mortality. In 1900, 10 percent of children died in their first year in Australia. Today that number is less than 0.5 percent. 

Because of the way life expectancy at birth is calculated, if 10 percent of people died at 59 instead 60, it would barely impact the overall figure. But when 10 percent die before their first year, it has a huge effect. 

Photo credit: Eugeniya Belova

That’s the main reason why the change in life expectancy was so dramatic over the last century—infant survival.  

But what about antibiotics, vaccines, cancer, and coronary heart treatments? What about the high rates of maternal death following the complications of childbirth which are now radically reduced? 

Indeed, advances in health care improve survival across all age groups including adults. None-the-less, the maths still shows that reducing infant mortality has a biggest overall impact.  

Married longer 

Our improved health is reflected in the upward trend of the age at which widowhood occurs.  

According to nuptiality tables, the median age of widowhood in 1985 was 74 (men) and 69 years (women). By 2000, those median ages had increased by four and six years.  

The duration of marriage among marriages ending in widowhood is also trending upwards.  

An average of 43 years is expected for those married around 1985, while those who married around 2000, can expect an average of 45-46 years together. 

Out-living each other? 

So is it true that increased life expectancy is causing couples to outlive their marriage? The simple answer is… no, not in any meaningful way.  

If living longer was the reason for more divorce, then we would expect to see higher numbers of divorces in elderly Australians. That is not the case: the divorce rate for people over 65 is five-fold less than for those 64 and under.  

Photo credit: Lucas Cleutjens

There are lots of things at play in a marriage that can lead a couple to divorce, but living longer is not one of them. Myth busted. 

The truth is marriage is like our physical health. All the improvements afforded by modern health care, will not help us live longer if we fail to apply healthy practices.  

Similarly, in marriage. There’s more information today on marital success than our grandparents ever had, but it won’t help our marriage if we ignore it or refuse to implement it.  

A healthy and thriving marriage requires conscious effort, self-discipline, and generosity. The rewards are substantial (including better physical health), but it requires investment and intentionality.   

Practice may not make us perfect, but it surely makes us better. With that in mind, we say, “long may we live”! 

Data is drawn from the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Australian Institute of Family Studies 

Francine & Byron Pirola are the co-founders of SmartLoving. For more, visit www.smartloving.org 

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