The Starter Marriage – Revisited

“I was young and foolish. It was years ago. You know, a starter marriage.”

Wedding rings with bouquetWho doesn’t know someone who has used these words, or something like them?

And what, exactly, is the definition of a starter marriage?

The expression “Starter Marriage” became part of pop culture parlance by 2002, thanks to Pamela Paul’s book on the subject, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Referring to a childless union that lasts five years or less, Starter Marriage has come to represent our first go-round with wedded bliss, in which we make our mistakes, learn our lessons, pack our bags, and chalk it up to experience.

Starter Marriage – From Bliss to Dismiss?

While Ms. Paul’s coverage of the topic is far more nuanced than this, we do still refer to the Starter Marriage, often in a dismissive way.

This past week Ms. Paul published an article in the New York Times which brings a slightly differing stance to the issue of marriage, divorce, and what comes after. And it appears to be causing a bit of a commotion.

What is she really saying? Is she no longer pro-divorce? How do we interpret the opinions she presents?

I find myself returning to her 2002 book and asking myself if the Starter Marriage is still instructive, or if it’s damaging to an institution that needs all the help it can get.

Marital Misstep: No Harm, No Foul?

Though census figures suggest a slight dip or slow-down in divorce (the economy perhaps?), generally, recent data on marriage and divorce indicate that the status quo continues – roughly one in every two marriages will end in divorce.

And if you marry in your twenties and don’t have children, call it quits if it’s not working out – can you disregard the union and assume that no one was (irrevocably) hurt in the process? That whatever the reasons for getting out – affairs, abuse, “we’re wrong for each other” – both parties will pick up the pieces and move on – with relative ease?

Remarriage success rates – or should I say, remarriage failure rates – would lead us to believe otherwise. In Why Remarry, writer Nina Collins points out that according to 2007 US Census statistics, for those 25 and older, 52 percent of men and only 44 percent of women are likely to remarry after death or divorce. Furthermore, 60% of second marriages fail, rising to 70% when step-children are involved.

Starter Marriage – Myth or Maturity?

The figures above might convince us that the Starter Marriage doesn’t help. Yet can’t we agree that if we’re paying attention, we gain wisdom from all experience? It follows then that we would benefit from the lessons of a first marriage, just as we do from a first job, a first home purchase, a first child, and so on, right?

But the assumption that we take what we master as Mister-and-Missus-One and apply it to Mister-and-Missus-Two seems all too facile, and divorce rates for second and subsequent marriages seem to bear that out. For a simplistic analogy, nothing guarantees that skills and knowledge acquired on a first job are automatically transferable to the next; your boss has changed as have your co-workers.

Likewise, the second home means new neighbors, and the second child may differ from the first in nature, talents, and challenges.

Isn’t it really a whole new ballgame when you’re dealing with people – especially when we’re talking about pairing up in presumptive permanence?

Starter Marriage Pros and Woes

Ms. Paul’s book raised awareness relative to Gen X trends, documenting the belief in commitment among twenty-somethings (the first real generation of divorce), and likewise, that getting out while the getting is good – before kids – shouldn’t mean a lifetime of stigma.

Some took the notion to task (this USA Today article is a good example), which I find to be a case of killing the messenger. Isn’t something to be gained by living in (un?)holy matrimony – even for a few years? Can’t the Starter Marriage yield self-knowledge, sexual maturity, and a better sense of who and what you need in a committed relationship?

Then again, what if the lessons learned include cynicism, debt, and disruption to your career? What about blows to your self-esteem that require years of rebuilding? Aren’t there issues around the disassembling of joined families and friendships?

And if you’re a woman – what are the odds you’ll remarry if you want to? Is the Starter Marriage a “better deal” for men who remarry faster and more frequently than women? (Incidentally, I found family therapist Emily Gordon’s article on this subject to be illuminating.)

Starter Marriage (The Book)

Personally, I find Ms. Paul’s 2002 book a relevant reminder of the reasons people marry and the potential pitfalls that lead to matrimonial meltdown. Among the reasons – social, family, and peer pressure to marry; emphasis on the wedding rather than the marriage; if you find the right one, marry him / her (idealization of “the one”).

As for the pitfalls, citing from The Starter Marriage:

To a large extent, the problems that plague starter marriages are those that challenge every marriage. But the youth and inexperience of most twentysomethings, the unrealistic expectations that today’s generation holds for marriage, the current gender-role confusion, the competing demands of dual-income couples in a highly mobile society, and the delaying of childbirth all conspire to make starter marriages especially fragile… When you’re married, you also can’t settle on the solution best for yourself; solutions must work for two people. And many people, especially in their twenties, simply aren’t ready, willing or able to start thinking for two.*

While The Starter Marriage identifies problems causing couples to separate, it also attempts to alleviate the stigma of a first (youthful, misguided) walk down the aisle, describing “the right to the right divorce.” (p. 180)

Paul writes:

The husband whose wife abandoned him for a wealthier man should not be viewed as a lesser person because he’s – for shame! – divorced. A battered wife needn’t feel morally degenerate because she finally had the courage to leave her spouse. More often than not, “good” divorces are hard to weed from “bad” ones and blame isn’t easily assigned. By proclaiming certain reasons to divorce like adultery, alcoholism, abuse, addiction, and abandonment appropriate, one ignores the more nebulous but often valid reasons like depression, rage, animosity, and lovelessness…  (p. 181)

She continues:

Divorce is often stigmatized for reasons that have nothing to do with starter marriages anyway. Much of the debate isn’t really about divorce per se, but about its effect on children. (p. 182)

When a Marriage Ends

Has anything changed in the decade since The Starter Marriage was written? Aren’t we still fixated on the excitement of the wedding, the faux Future Happily-Ever-After, and a quick fix to the instabilities of our own childhoods of divorce – or whatever else might ail us?

Shall we stir in a cup of our Cult of Entitlement? A dollop of our disastrous economy? Don’t these heighten the strains on marriage at any age, with or without children in the mix?

And our growing selfishness? Our dismissal of the best interest of the child (and disagreement over what that means)? Our raging court battles over custody? Over support?  Hasn’t this all worsened in a decade – or are we hyper-aware thanks to celebrity scandals and social media mouthing off? Are these issues purely the domain of early marriage – or any marriage?

Ms. Paul herself, in her recent New York Times article, appears to be noting the niggling messiness of all things divorce, even when “amicable” and trying to make the best of it. She shares a number of examples in which women describe the various states of stigma, identity crisis, or discomfort they find themselves in – some considering themselves better off, and others, less so – out of step in a variety of ways.

She cites one of her sources, a divorcing mother of two:

“In the 1970s, when a woman got divorced, she was seen as taking back her life in that Me Decade way. Nowadays, it’s not seen as liberating to divorce. It’s scary.”

Starter Marriage or Starter Divorce?

For some, the post-divorce path to adjustment is bumpy as expected, then manageable, then a better way to live. For others, problems persist – and often for years.

As for the children when they’re involved? Will it require another generation or two in order to evaluate the real impacts?

I know my own story; I know some of yours.

I find intelligence in Ms. Paul’s The Starter Marriage, and agree with her conclusion that marriage should be approached not as a one-size-fits-all affair, but

with thoughtfulness and commitment… both personally and as a society. (p. 266)

My concern is with the superficially summarized Starter Marriage concept, which invariably means the Starter Divorce.

Doesn’t this downplay the emotional, physical, and financial costs of dismantling marriage, or somehow set expectations that divorce is always a manageable exit strategy? How long before we come to grips with the collective damages of divorce, and the price we pay as a society? When will we calmly examine the need for alternatives to traditional marriage, and progress toward a social safety net without which families are burdened by untenable pressures, and even more so – single parents?

Divorce is not desirable, though it may be necessary. It is a matter of individual experience and circumstance; it should be a matter of two individuals’ experience and circumstance. Often, that’s not the case.

If anything, I found Ms. Paul’s article to be measured; her sampling may not have been particularly “representative,” but she doesn’t claim that it is. I do believe it reflects the comprehension that divorce isn’t a panacea any more than marriage offers safe haven. Instead, I conclude that we ought to adapt a more yielding understanding of the complexity – and variation – of life after divorce, looking beyond ourselves and inclusively – to our children and to our culture.

Suggestions, Questions

So what is to be learned from the Starter Marriage? And do we glean lessons from any first marriage regardless of age or stage, as long as it ends before we’re utterly jaded?

  • Are we still operating in Starter Marriage Mode – not only for a first spouse, but thereafter?
  • Does a Starter Marriage attitude risk a dismissive approach to divorce?
  • With men remarrying more easily, does the Starter Marriage undermine a woman’s future more than a man’s?
  • Are you on a second marriage? A third? What lessons did you bring from one to the next?

*Pamela Paul, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, p. 100


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© D A Wolf


  1. says

    I don’t care for the assumptions implicit in the phrase “Starter” marriage. I am strongly supportive of giving things some time and likely living together before agreeing to marriage. Living together during the engagement, or for two months or ten years, is not what I mean. If the relationship looks like it is becoming serious, set a deadline for an “up or out” decision and stick to it. Letting things drag along (as the easiest thing at the moment) happens much too often. The goal is to come to a clear decision, and if you’re not clear, that usually should mean “out”.

    Things get more complex with children and family, obviously. As folks recollecting my prior comments may recall, I’m a strong believer that love of the spouse needs to be dominant and reciprocal (with full respect for children, of course). I’ve seen instances of toxic children and toxic family members. If the spouse puts them first, the marriage is in trouble from the get go, and I’d run away before even considering the relationship. On a more positive note, often this can be discussed and hopefully understood and modified. Family members are often in great denial and can be helped by a loved one speaking from outside the family circle. Serious illness needs to be considered seriously, not just “romantically”. Likewise major age differences.

    And I chose once to become emotionally involved with a woman in remission from cancer. How does that fit in? Sometimes these things just happen (and not even sure that the word “chose” has any traction – she was a great lady!)

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thank you for your feedback, Paul. If I may ask – when one is beyond having more children (and here, I’m making some assumptions that most want to be married if they have kids) – why marry again? Why must the “decision” be to legalize the union, rather than living together in a committed relationship?

      Why can’t living together be just that, without a “goal” per se?

  2. says

    And I would never consider my first marriage of more than twenty-five years a “starter” marriage, but I would certainly hope to have learned something from it. Not only on account of that length of time, but also with respect to my absolutely incredible ignorance when I met my first wife.

  3. says

    I agree with your comment re it is fine for “living together in a committed relationship” but would want things to be clear re some legal considerations. Recall that I wanted to have a common law marriage for Fran and me, and it was meaningful for both of us to prepare and have a Quaker ceremony of commitment (and we then got the license when the common law thing became uncertain — grouch, grouch, re the power of the state — they license dogs and drivers, not love).

  4. says

    I concur with your summation, “I do believe it reflects the comprehension that divorce isn’t a panacea any more than marriage offers safe haven.”, and feel that in our youth we are easily influenced by media, marketing and cultural norms to believe that between 18 and 25 whoever you happen to be with, you should marry. Looking back on it, that couldn’t be more mis-guided. The likelihood that you have met your life-long mate by that age or that you even understand who you are as a person by then is simply irrational.
    At the same time, the ease of divorce and the culturally accepted practice of “Starter Marriages” doesn’t bode well for second or even third marriages being the culmination of lessons learned form the prior engagements. Perhaps the reasoning behind the increase in failures of secondary and tertiary commitments.
    Food for thought anyway. Nice post.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Appreciate your feedback, Jack. And while I’m very much in favor of working on marriage, I’m not a believer in being chained to someone for life when you both know you made a mistake. It gets tricky, of course, as soon as kids are involved. It also gets tricky when one thinks he or she made a mistake, and the other doesn’t. Let’s face it – marriage is tricky, and so is its termination. Perhaps the best we can hope for is two adults acting thoughtfully and responsibly for all involved.

      Like you, I look back at who I was at 20 as compared to 30 and know I couldn’t possibly have had a clue as to what would make a good choice of life partner. “Life partner” at 20? You barely have a clue about “life.”

      Yet our parents did it. Their parents did it. And so on. Then again, the expectations of marriage (and life in general) were very different.

  5. says

    Something about that NY Times article annoys me but I think it’s a really big, hard to figure thing.
    However, I’m particularly intrigued by this: “In Why Remarry, writer Nina Collins points out that according to 2007 US Census statistics, for those 25 and older, 52 percent of men and only 44 percent of women are likely to remarry after death or divorce. Furthermore, 60% of second marriages fail, rising to 70% when step-children are involved.”
    I know you call it a statistic of Failure but honestly, I see it as a GOOD thing. I see it as people really DO learn from the first marriage and that’s why so few actually bother doing it again. And it explains the high failure rate in the second marriages– it further reflects a lack of learning from the first time. The fact women are less likely to remarry is extremely encouraging to me. I imagine the process of separation and divorce is a very rich environment for learning about oneself and can be extremely revealing and empowering for many women. I think this statistic reflects that strongly.
    And as for men vs women’s future being undermined I’d say most likely the men are screwing themselves up big time. Think about it. Each wife probably receives something. More comes into play with children.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Mutant Supermodel – Read the Emily Gordon link to do with men remarrying faster – it’s a very thoughtful hypothesis as to why, in my view.

      I also believe that demographics come into play.

      I will say that being divorced with children still to raise when you are 40+ (or older) is a very different dynamic. You are persona non grata in many circumstances – in the workforce as well as the dating pool. As to each wife “receiving something,” I might bet on experience and knowledge, but depending on the state and the circumstances, that and some yellowing wedding photos may be the extent of it.

  6. says

    My parents were the boy and girl next door (or, to be strictly accurate, in the same neighborhood), so at an early age they knew who had values and what those values were. They chose out of a set that they knew well, and I believe that had a lot to do with their success. We rarely have that stability now. When I see childhood friends, I am generally amazed at how much they are like what they were then, only older and more experienced. My parents grew as a couple. Today, there is not that stability, and you often have no idea who the other person really is.

  7. NoNameRequired says

    My comment focuses on the emerging alternatives to marriage, especially for older, divorced people (and perhaps post-children together my circumstance). For the record, I am a practicing, centrist Roman Catholic. Unless I lie or my marriage is reviewed by an extremely sensitive and psychologically astute marriage tribunal, my first marriage will not be annulled. I am, in the Church, not free to be remarried.

    Am seeing a lovely and sweet and gentle, divorced man. Our very preliminary discussions muse about this option: can our relationship — in say – one to two years — be blessed in recognition of fidelity, abiding companionship, and shared life (not sure we will live together). Can this blessing take place without the burdens of civil marriage or the state? In other words, we do not want the burdens of property problems, wanting to protect these “portfolios”: a modest (his) and a paltry (mine) situation? He has care of a young child. I have care of a college-aged student and must rely on a very small alimony about to help this situation, and some safety net concerns for two 20-something children.**

    A kind friend of long standing is offering to bless us — she is an ordained minister — when and if we wish. She says this blessing option is emerging as a liturgy option for couples who feel bonded and stable but do not want or are not able to see marriage.

    ** another conversation is that alimony, though rare, is still a odd situation — does not represent what a wealthier party might owe a former partner who lost financial opportunities when they raised the children primarily — it represents a “owed” support to a former spouse UNTIL THEY REMARRY….blech. I earned this paltry sum based, morally, on my non-economic but invaluable contribution to the family. That alimony can be removed when I either marry again or live with a man (in my state, this must be a man)….is a hideous injustice.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      You always raise so many intriguing issues, NoName – and important ones. Who gets to be married, alternatives to the (complicated) religious-legal marriages. Issues of alimony and the impacts. Overwhelmingly, I’m happy for you that you have created this loving relationship – shared with someone special. You remind me that all things are possible. Or nearly.

  8. says

    As a child of divorce in the 70’s, I too swore “not me”.

    Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. By 1997 I was divorced with two small children. It was a horrible situation, and I decided it was better for the kids to go through a divorce than to grow up thinking our household was normal.

    Thankfully, my ex and I have managed — all these years — to maintain a friendly relationship for the sake of the children. ( The other day I ran across my son’s essay, where he cited his divorced parents’ consistent desire to make things work as having contributed greatly to his own peaceful nature.

    In addition, I remarried 3 years post-divorce to a twice-divorced man with three children. We had five children between us. What are the odds that would work out?

    We’ve been married almost eleven years and although we’ve had our ups and downs, I still trust him to hold all the pieces of my heart. He’s still here, despite me, and I believe he always will be.

    There is always hope.

  9. says

    Great post, Wolfie. (May I call you that? I feel like we’re friends.) I was quoted in said piece, even though I disagreed with its primary thesis: that divorce has lost its “cachet.” The idea that divorce can be normalized to the point of being cool is terrifying; and the idea that our culture would even be trying to do that is terrifying, as well. As I’ve said in numerous radio interviews—when asked the impossibly naive question (by people who’ve never been divorced, I’m sure) “But don’t you think if we normalize divorce too much we’ll just make it easier for people to do?”—nobody goes through two or three years of hell, heartbreak, and hideous financial colonoscopies in a “tra la la” way, just to have the occasional Saturday night to themselves. We Americans still keep trying to trivialize the complexity and ambiguity of deep, personal connections, as if marriages and friendships were made of Legos. Not until we come to terms with the rich bond that is created, and its somewhat spiritual and beyond-our-ken nature, will we stop speaking foolishly and lightly about marriage and divorce in any context. I know this makes me sound like a finger-wagging Grandmama, but to my mind, the only way to receive news of a divorce is to bow your head and make a silent prayer to all we do not know about what comes next for us in life.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Stacy. (And yes, Wolfie is great. :) A nickname I’ve had for years.)

      I saw that you were quoted as well, and I agree that “normalizing” divorce makes little sense. To me it’s akin to saying that a car wreck followed by years of (semi-)healing all the broken bones in your body is “just another incident, so what’s the big deal.” And if you’re a finger-wagging Grandmama, I think many of the “survivors” of divorce are wagging along with you.

      Financial colonoscopies – perfect way to put it!

      As for making divorce easier, I’m con. Then again, I also think we should make marriage harder to enter into. And if divorce is necessary, I believe we need to dismantle the Divorce Industry, cap attorneys’ fees (my, but wouldn’t that change a few things!), and find a way to put consistency into the currently widely divergent state-specific laws. Another discussion entirely…

  10. says

    Wonderful post – sorry I’m coming to it a day late. So… I hate to disagree with you, but in this case I do.

    I do think that starter marriages teach lots of lessons, but the wrong ones. You commented that, “It follows then that we would benefit from the lessons of a first marriage, just as we do from a first job, a first home purchase, a first child, and so on, right?” In theory the answer may be Yes, but in practice I think the biggest lesson taught by a starter marriage is, “When it starts getting hard, this is how I get out.” The starter marriage teaches us how to extricate ourselves from the problem, not how to face it. Marriage is hard work. It is imperfect. And the means for dealing with the hardships it delivers are imperfect too. But we only get any better at them with practice.

    That isn’t to say that some marriages aren’t better left behind. Many cases go beyond mere “I married the wrong person,” claims and into the realm of abuse, neglect, and volatility. Divorce is an intensely personal decision and the stigma that surrounds it is really unfortunate because so rarely do we really know the details of another person’s divorce. Judgment and intolerance accomplish nothing in this situation (nor in any other, for that matter).

    Nevertheless, I still don’t agree with the benefits of a starter marriage. You ask, “Can’t the Starter Marriage yield self-knowledge, sexual maturity, and a better sense of who and what you need in a committed relationship?” Of course it can. But you know what else can? Dating. You don’t have to get married (or even cohabitate) to learn these things. You just have to be in a relationship (whether serious or casual dating) that allows you to explore them. Perhaps in the dating world it’s easy to ignore these difficult topics and just have fun. Perhaps marriage forces us to confront what it is we really want because we’re trapped in something that may not meet our evolving definition. But marriage itself is still not a prerequisite for this breed of self-discovery.

    Lastly, especially given the paltry statistics on remarriage rates and subsequent marriage success rates, I wonder what difference any knowledge gained from the first marriage really makes. Provided children weren’t involved, wouldn’t these starter brides and grooms have been better off to wait, learn whatever life lessons they needed to learn, marry later, and have a better chance of the marriage going the distance?

    • BigLittleWolf says

      Actually, we don’t disagree entirely, Gale. In addition to pointing out the positive lessons to be gained from a starter marriage, I also said:

      Then again, what if the lessons learned include cynicism, debt, and disruption to your career? What about blows to your self-esteem that require years of rebuilding? Aren’t there issues around the disassembling of joined families and friendships?

      And if you’re a woman – what are the odds you’ll remarry if you want to? Is the Starter Marriage a “better deal” for men who remarry faster and more frequently than women?

      I recall one friend who lived through a starter marriage in her twenties. When her husband let her know he was in love with someone else and wanted out – he left her with more than a broken heart, but a legacy of self-esteem issues and debts that took many years to eradicate. So the assumption that if there are no kids, “no harm no foul” is a false one, in my book.

      I’ve also known those for whom the early marriage at barely 20 was followed by another 5 years later, and another 10 years after that, with serial divorces becoming the stereotypical easy out.

      Are these examples extremes? I don’t know. But they are worth considering – as cons to the notion of early marriage – period. Then again, I had a few “offers” in my early and mid-twenties. I opted for “no,” knowing I was too young. But what about those who don’t realize they are? Who assume they’ve “found the one” – only to find out they’ve made a mistake?

      I have no answers, only the conviction that marriage and divorce are very gray areas.

  11. says

    I have watched several friends divorce. Without kids it’s still a devastating blow to a certain dear friend. With kids, another, fairly quickly found a new spouse. Two friends, with little ones, manage quite well, but they had models of happy separations in their parents.

    I often compare marriage to friendship, and I know I carry scars from friendships gone sadly wrong. Even when I was the one who chose to leave. All that is to say how can you end any relationship of meaning without carrying wounds?

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