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How Many Marriages Actually End In Happily Ever After?

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It is often said that marriage has a 50 percent chance of success. This percentage comes, naturally, from the divorce rate. In February 2012 PolitiFact.com stated that the "overall probability of marriages now ending in divorce falls between 40% and 50%." We tend to assume that the 50% (or 60%) who stay together do so happily. There is substantial evidence to suggest the opposite -- that many of the remaining couples are together but aren't happy about it.

There are a variety of ways to define a successful marriage. For purposes here, I'll define it this way: Two people who've been married for 25 years or more and still take an active interest in each other. They spend time together, genuinely enjoy each other's company, and don't keep super-sized secrets from one another (occasional white lies are okay). They are together purposefully rather than practically.

I happen to know a couple who meet this criterion -- my parents. At a recent anniversary party, my father said, "It's amazing. It's been 30 years and we still love spending time together." As empty nesters of over a decade, my parents have it down. They laugh often, sing silly songs, and manage to make romantic gestures intermittently. Several summers ago my father was climbing up the deck; he grabbed a loose piece of wood and fell 14 feet to the ground. Once he was declared okay, I asked him what the heck he was doing. "Entertaining your mother," confessed the middle-aged Romeo.

My parents will be the first to tell you that marriage is difficult and there are plenty of days when both parties want out, but they will also tell you that life on the other side of those dreary days is good. I am coming to believe my parents are the exception rather than the rule. Although there are no statistics specifically addressing how many long-term married couples consider themselves happy or actively in love -- it would be difficult to assess -- there are other facts and statistics to support the claim many remain together obligatorily ever after. For example:

The Un-Divorced: In July 2010 the New York Times published an article called The Un-Divorced about couples that remain legally married but live separately. One man interviewed quips, "When people ask about my relationship status, I usually just say: 'It's complicated. I like my wife, I just can't live with her.'" According to the article, "the motivation to remain married is financial." These couples don't want marriage nor do they want divorce. When statistics are tallied, however, these couples count as married.

Complacent Husbands: Statistics assure us that women are much more likely to initiate divorce than men (two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women). Therefore, if the husband is unhappy and the wife is content, a divorce is less likely to take place. I used to share my daily commute with a man who exemplified this. Though married to his wife for 20 years, he told me that they "became enemies pretty early on." But even though life at home was awful, he said it never would have occurred to him to initiate a divorce. Once the kids moved out, his wife set the divorce in motion. He says he's very glad she did, but had she not they would still be married.

Baby Boomer Divorce Revolution: Divorce rates in the United States are actually stabilizing except for one group -- baby boomers. According to MSNBC, "the divorce rate of those 50 and older nearly doubled from 1990 to 2009." Experts posit several explanations for this trend, including longer lifespans, willingness to divorce once children move out and greater financial security, among others. While this evidence attests to the couples who divorce rather than those stay miserably married, I can't help but think this means there are other boomers who want out but don't feel they can leave.

Famous people who had a convenient interpretation of "till death do us part" include actor Spencer Tracy and billionaire Warren Buffett. In 1923 Tracy married a woman named Louise Treadwell and never divorced her. In the 1940s, however, he moved out of their home and began a 26-year relationship with actress Katharine Hepburn. In 1977, after 25 years of marriage, Warren Buffett separated from his wife, Susan. The two remained married until her death in 2004. For the 27 years in between he lived with a woman named Astrid Menks who he married shortly after Susan's death.

Although it seems strange to outsiders, living separately while married is probably better than living with someone you no longer feel any connection with. It seems to me that the legal aspects of marriage, which are meant to protect people, also make them feel trapped. Divorce is exhausting and expensive and many people just don't want to bother. I'll think of this the next time a stewardess announces there's a couple aboard the plane celebrating their 50th anniversary. Are they merely together or truly living happily ever after?