It’s no secret that marriage is on the decline in America. But even for those who know the general trends, the statistics can be surprising.

Marriage rates are now at historic lows, falling to just 50.3 percent of American adults in 2013, according to Census Bureau data. Meanwhile, cohabitation is becoming an increasingly common alternative; a 2013 National Center for Health Statistics study found that 48 percent of women had moved in for the first time with a man to whom they weren’t married, up from 34 percent in 1995. And while the overall divorce rate has remained steady, it has doubled for people 50 and older over the past two decades, according to a study by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.

In the face of such trends, how can we help to build thriving, enduring marriages? Biola Magazine recently connected with Christopher Grace, the director of the Biola University Center for Marriage and Relationships, a new initiative that seeks to “combine the timeless, cross-cultural wisdom of Scripture with scholarly research, insights and tools — equipping individuals, couples and families to flourish in the way God created them to.”

Chris, if our society was going in for a marriage “checkup,” how would you evaluate it?

The optimist in me would point to the fact that most people who marry stay married, many of these couples — perhaps 25 percent — will thrive, and marriage is still a hoped-for reality (e.g., most college-aged people have plans to marry one day). The pessimist would see a larger percentage of married couples who are not flourishing and are in need of tune-up specialists, and quite a few who should immediately check into an intensive care unit. So it really is a mixed bag of a checkup. Our society shows increasing acceptance of — and even support for — breaking our commitments, ironically leading to an overall malaise and lack of hope around the institution of marriage. Americans are still the marrying type, but we seem to have lost track of any ultimate purpose for marriage: to journey together as best friends, intimate companions and trusted helpmates, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, till death do us part.

What does the latest research say about the overall state of marriage in America today? What’s most encouraging and most discouraging to you about current marriage findings or trends?

Discouragingly, marriage in America is aging badly and showing signs of being in trouble. The National Marriage Project finds that “divorce is high, nonmarital childbearing is spreading and marital bliss is in increasingly short supply,” and that Americans are more likely to engage in behaviors that hinder their prospects for marital success — from multiple sexual partners to marital infidelity. More couples are choosing to cohabit before committing to marriage, and a substantial number of them end up having their first child prior to marriage, if they marry at all. Scott Stanley notes that “in terms of both divorce and marital happiness, marriages that were preceded by cohabitation are less successful than those that were not."

In the encouraging column is new research showing that the divorce rate in the U.S. may have been inaccurately pegged at 50 percent. (It may actually be closer 30 percent or lower.) Marriage is still on the minds and in the plans of today’s young adults, with 80 percent planning to tie the knot one day. People are waiting until they are older to get married, presumably allowing for more opportunities in education and employment, more time for growth and development, perhaps gaining a clearer understanding of the type of person they are compatible with.

And of course, today’s couples still face the same issues and problems as they had in every previous generation — sustaining a deep and abiding friendship in the midst of life ups and downs, learning to better manage conflict and communicate better.

One of the goals of CMR is to help build and sustain healthy marriages. From a biblical perspective, what does a healthy marriage look like?

Our marriages on earth model the relationship between Christ and his bride, the church (Eph. 5:31–33). We know that marriage unites a man and a woman together in heart, mind, soul and body in an all-encompassing, permanent and exclusive bond. And while marriages can look as different as each of us looks, with our different life histories and personalities, all healthy marriages seem to share five similarities.

First, they are marked by a deep and abiding friendship, with an enjoyment of each other’s company, evidenced by affection (i.e., feelings of sympathy, empathy, compassion), and a caring for each other above one’s own needs (Phil. 2:3–4). Second, healthy relationships are emotionally and physically safe. Such “interaction safety” is the confidence that one can be emotionally vulnerable and still find acceptance, understanding and support, free from chronic negative patterns of contempt, criticism, stonewalling and defensiveness.

Third, healthy relationships are marked with trust and kindness (Eph. 4:32). They allow for the making of mistakes without fear of judgment. Kindness helps us feel loved, understood and cared for, and is a key predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Fourth, healthy relationships are marked with generosity and a growing appreciation for each other. As the author of Hebrews puts it, we are to “consider how to motivate one another to love and good deeds.” Finally, healthy relationships include an expectation of longevity — a hope-filled sense of a future together, of growing old together.

As you teach classes at Biola and speak at marriage conferences around the country, what are some of the questions you’re asked on a consistent basis? What kind of advice and wisdom are people most hungry for?

Many want to know how to navigate what appear to be “irresolvable” conflicts. Some seek help on how to process and heal from deep hurts and broken trusts. I try to offer encouragement and hope, convinced we serve a God who has the power to redeem and heal and restore. I tell them that there are known, tangible ways to manage perpetual conflicts and documented steps that can be taken to help even the most difficult of marriages. There are ways to resolve conflicts that leave both partners feeling satisfied. It involves being able to identify our emotions, hidden issues and anxious thoughts that are relevant in the interactions we have each day. Many are looking for advice on such tools, and learning how to use them offers great encouragement and hope.

Happily, there are many couples that are simply looking for a tune-up, wanting to go from good to great, and those who want advice finding resources and materials about healthy marriages and relationships. Talking through issues, attending relationship retreats or education programs, and even couples’ therapy can be very helpful.

You note that you speak to people across a wide spectrum — from those in strained relationships to those who are healthy and want to continue growing healthier. What are some key things that all couples can be doing to improve the quality of their marriages?

Couples who want to improve the quality of their marriage can start with four simple changes that can be started right now. First, pray. Give your relationship to the Lord in prayer. Every day. Like David (Psalm 139) ask for God to reveal your heart and your anxious thoughts, and root out the hurtful ways. Keep seeking and relying on his leading. Know that marriage, like all relationships, requires work and prayer.

Second, pay attention to each other. Marriage expert John Gottman finds that couples often ignore each other’s emotional needs not out of malice but out of mindlessness. He found that struggling couples acknowledged their partner’s bids for emotional connection only one-third of the time. Couples who thrive meet these bids for attention almost nine out of 10 times. They have learned the benefits of paying attention to each other, responding to each other’s bids for attention, however momentarily it may be (“Isn’t that a beautiful sunset outside?”). When couples are “turning toward” rather than “turning away” and not responding, they form stronger emotional connections.

Third, be kind and affectionate. C.S. Lewis said that affection is responsible for nine-tenths of whatever solid and durable happiness there is in our lives. Show kindness, and be concrete and specific in the ways you express appreciation (“I admire the way to spoke to our neighbors this morning” or “I love the way you always dress up nicely when we go out to dinner.”) Aim to achieve a 5–1 ratio — five upbeat interactions to every one negative interaction, because kindling your love starts with the small things, like being kindhearted, and affectionate, and generous in spirit.

Fourth, strive to be understanding rather than understood. Work at resolving conflicts in a way that leaves both partners feeling satisfied. And practice becoming a better listener, working on discerning not only the content of what your spouse may be saying during times of conflict, but the feelings and deeper emotions that are driving the situation. Healthy relationships put into practice James 1:19, where we are quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.

What is one thing you wish more couples knew or did before getting married?

I wish more couples would seek out and get premarital counseling, especially from someone trained to provide such services. The divorce rate for these couples goes down by as much as 30 percent compared to those who received no premarital counseling. In one national study, less than half of all couples (43 percent) reported having participated in premarital education, and those that did had higher marital quality than those who didn’t. Studies suggest that the seeds of marital distress and divorce are there for many couples when they say, “I do.” These studies show that premarital (or early marital) variables can predict which couples will do well and which will not with surprising accuracy (up to 90 percent.)

What is important to realize, say experts from the National Marriage Project, is that our past experiences (family, love, sex) are linked to our future marital quality. Processing early our hopes and intentions and styles of communication and conflict will help all new couples to avoid falling into bad habits and traps that can set a marriage on downward trajectory. I wish couples understood from the start that conflict appears in virtually all marriages, but it only becomes an issue when it is mismanaged. Learning how to manage conflict early on could save many couples a tremendous amount of heartbreak down the road.

There has been a surprising rise in people who get divorced later in life, even after many years of marriage. Over the past two decades, the divorce rate has doubled for people 50 and older, according to a study by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University. What do you think is driving this particular trend?

According to the National Survey of Family Growth, 43 percent of people agree that divorce is the best solution when a couple can't seem to work out their marriage problems. Other researchers report that the No. 1 reason why divorces occur is because of conflict that is mismanaged (especially in the first five years of marriage) and a deterioration of intimacy and connection (felt most acutely after 10 years). We reap what we sow, and such reaping may be delayed until the children start to leave the nest. As couples enter this life stage, deep fissures in intimacy that had been growing and unmanaged for years begin to be revealed. And as the culture around us veers toward a greater acceptance of leaving marriages that no longer meet our needs or make us happy, more couples simply choose to give up rather then stay in and fight for their marriage.

Your work with the center aims to integrate biblical wisdom with scholarly research. Are there any particularly interesting recent studies that help to illustrate ways in which biblical values lead to more successful marriages?

The CMR is interested in is combining the timeless, cross-cultural wisdom of Scripture with scholarly research, insights and tools — equipping individuals, couples and families to flourish in the way God created them to. There are some great researchers in the field exploring ways that biblical values such as forgiveness and gratitude and humility and grace can lead to profound insights and healing of the most damaged of relationships. For instance, forgiveness in all its contuours is helping people both repair relationships and heal personal brokenness. Findings in this area have revolutionized our understanding of the dynamics of healing. The findings from the study of gratitude and humility and grace are likewise providing significant insights into how humans can better thrive by applying timeless, biblical values.

One of the aims of CMR is not just to reach out to Christian audiences, but to offer events on secular college campuses as well. How receptive are non-Christians to biblical wisdom about marriage — at a time when this biblical perspective can be so countercultural?

A Google search on “marriage” or “relationships” each return over a half-billion results. Advice can be found literally anywhere. What all people crave is wise advice that comes from a deep foundational source of knowing and being known. Everyone intuitively knows that there is something good about forming exclusive, permanent unions that we call marriage. Young people are seeking happiness and fulfillment and purpose in life, and marriage is one of the most reliable indicators of happiness. Martin Seligman writes in his book Authentic Happiness that “marriage is robustly related to happiness,” is one of the best predictors of life satisfaction and that married couples express the highest levels of happiness and satisfaction. All people, even the most cynical academicians, find the studies that explore deep and significant issues like forgiveness and grace and gratitude to be of profound value to the human condition, with insights and applications to help our relationships and marriages.

About the Expert

Christopher Grace serves as the director of Biola’s new Center for Marriage and Relationships and teaches psychology at Rosemead School of Psychology. He and his wife, Alisa, speak regularly to married couples, churches, singles and college students on the topic of relationships, dating and marriage. Grace earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in experimental social psychology from Colorado State University, and previously served as Biola’s vice president for student development and university planning.