Every generation has its life-defining moments. If you want to find out what it was for a member of the Greatest Generation, you ask: "Where were you on December 7, 1941?" or "Where were you on D-Day?" For Baby Boomers, the questions are: "Where were you when Kennedy was shot?" or "What were you doing when Nixon resigned?"
For much of Generation X, born between 1965 and 1980—there is only one question: "When did your parents get divorced?" Their lives have been framed by the answer. Ask them. They remember everything.
"Whatever happens, we're never going to get divorced."
Over the course of their marriage and especially after children were born, that is what Gen X spouses say to each other. Apparently, much of this generation feels at least roughly the same way: Divorce rates, which peaked around 1980, are now at their lowest level since 1970. In fact, the often-cited statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce was true only in the 1970s—in other words, their parents' marriages.
According to a 2004 marketing study about generational differences, Gen X age cohorts "went through its all-important, formative years as one of the least parented, least nurtured generations in U.S. history." Census data show that almost half of Gen Xers come from split families; 40% were latch-key kids.
But that may not be the case for Gen X marriages. According to U.S. Census data released this May, 77% of couples who married since 1990 have reached their 10-year anniversaries. They are also marrying later in life, if at all. The average marrying age in 1950 was 23 for men and 20 for women; in 2009, it was 28 for men and 26 for women.
Before Gen X couples get married, they want to know what their daily relationship with a partner will be like. Are we good roommates?
A 2007 study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research showed that, among those entering first marriages in the early 2000s, nearly 60% had previously cohabited with their future spouses. According to the U.S. government's 2002 National Survey of Fertility Growth, 34% of couples who move in together have announced publicly that marriage is in the future; 36% felt "almost certain" that they'd get hitched, while 46% said there was "a pretty good chance" or "a 50-50 chance."
Sociologists, anthropologists and other cultural observers tell us that members of Generation X are more emotionally invested in their spouses than previous generations were. They are best friends; their marriages are genuine partnerships. Many studies have found that Generation X family men help around the house a good deal more than their forefathers. They depend on each other and work together.
But marriages do dissolve, even among those determined never to let it happen. For who knows what makes a good marriage? Mark Twain was right when he wrote in an 1894 journal: "No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century."
Today, a number of Gen X married couples are deciding to split. The phrase "friendly divorce" may strike some as an oxymoron, but it is increasingly a trend and a real possibility. Relatively inexpensive and nonadversarial divorce mediation—rather than pricey, contentious litigation—is now more common than ever. Many Gen Xers are all too familiar with the brutal court fights of our parents, and they have no intention of putting their kids through it, too.
According to a recent University of Virginia study, couples who decide to mediate their divorce are more likely to (than those who go to court) talk regularly about the children's needs and problems, to participate in school and special events, daily activities, holidays and vacations.
According to a 2001 study, couples with such arrangements report less conflict with their former spouses than sole-custody parents—an important finding, since judges have worried, historically, that joint custody exposes children to ongoing parental fighting. Some divorced couples have even decided to continue living together in different parts of the home—or to "swap out" each week—in order to maintain some measure of stability for their kids.
Sources: The Wall Street Journal, July 9, 2011 and