The secret to a long marriage? Coming from a big family helps

Betty Grotheer was a 16-year-old high school student from Carmichael when a young civil engineer named Lewis Pritten asked her parents for her hand in marriage. He was already 22, a friend of one of her older brothers. Truth be told, she wasn’t all that interested in him.

“I met him when I was 12,” she said. “At 16, when Lewis asked me out, I didn’t want to go. I had a boyfriend. But Mom saw something in him.”

So at her mother’s urging, she began seeing Pritten, and a year later, in 1956, when she was just 17, they were married. Now Betty and Lewis Pritten, who live in Elk Grove, have three children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. They are approaching their 60th wedding anniversary.

Her sister, Nancy, met her husband when she was 18, and in October 1964, not quite two weeks after she turned 19, they married. Nancy and David Holtry, a retired El Dorado Hills couple, will celebrate their 50th anniversary in a few weeks.

And Nancy will become the seventh of the nine Grotheer siblings to reach that marital milestone.

Marrying young and sticking it out was a tradition for the Grotheer offspring, born into a hard-working German family during the 1930s and 1940s. The Grotheers may be statistically unusual in terms of their combined marital longevity, but for their generation, marriage was the solid foundation of adult life, of their families and their future: Many older adults, more likely to be parted by death than divorce, celebrate similar milestone anniversaries.

Even now, many couples who get married manage to stay married a long time. More than half of American marriages have lasted more than 15 years, census figures show, and about 30 percent of married couples celebrate 25 years together.

About 6 percent, like the Grotheer siblings and their spouses, reach their golden anniversaries. Year in and year out, through good times and bad, they find ways of making their marriages work.

A key reason, said University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox, is that a greater proportion of older adults come from large families, born into an era when big families were the norm in American life – and research shows that having lots of siblings correlates with a lower statistical likelihood of divorce.

“In terms of some social outcomes, kids from large families are more likely to flourish,” said Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project. “They’re less likely to get divorced. It might be the experience early in life of learning to share so much and live with the exceptional stress of having all those different personalities to deal with.”

Ohio State University research suggests that only children are the least likely to marry and most at risk of divorcing, while people with four to seven siblings have markedly lower rates of divorce.

Maybe people from big families grow up knowing that they’re not going to win every battle. Maybe they understand from birth that they’re not alone in life. Or maybe they learn early on to play well with others.

“All those life experiences may have prepared them better for marriage,” Wilcox said.

These long unions stand out in the shifting landscape of marriage. While 78 percent of American adults were married in 1950, according to census data, only about half are married today, and they’re waiting longer to do so. The age of first marriage for men has risen to almost 30, compared to 23 in 1960. Fewer people marry each year, and confidence in marriage is at such a low point that a recent Pew Research Center survey showed that 40 percent of unmarried Americans think the concept of marriage is outdated.

Even for older Californians, the chances of staying married are decreasing. The number of adults ages 60 and older who are divorced has risen steadily in Sacramento County and across the state during the last decade, census figures show. About 19.2 percent of Sacramento County residents past 60 are currently divorced, compared to 14.1 percent in 2005. Statewide, about 15.2 percent of residents 60 and older are divorced, compared to 13.1 percent nine years ago.

Todd Migliaccio, a California State University, Sacramento, sociology professor, has researched marriages that have lasted 30 years or longer to figure out what keeps couples together. The traditional reasons for marriage – financial support, child-rearing, family stability and longstanding gender roles – aren’t necessarily factors that speak to 21st-century couples. So what makes marriage last?

Friendship, his research shows: Marriages that endure no matter what tend to involve couples who genuinely like each other and enjoy each other’s company.

“We’re seeing more and more couples that have lasted where friendship is one of the big factors,” he said. “And if they’re from a close family, that provides a huge social network that contributes to marital longevity.

“Couples have more to draw on and more commitment to the greater good of the family.”

The Grotheer siblings, not surprisingly, have given their family’s long marriages quite a bit of thought.

“Young kids don’t realize that marriage takes a lot of work,” said Nancy Holtry, 68. “There will be ups and downs in all marriage, but divorce wasn’t in our vocabulary.”

When she was growing up, she and her eight siblings lived in a two-bedroom house in Carmichael, and their grandmother lived with them. Their father was a carpenter. Their mother grew vegetables and raised chickens. There was, clearly, a lot of togetherness in that small house. Their parents, who married in 1930, were parted only when Gilbert Grotheer died at age 57 in 1961.

“My father treated my mother very nicely and respected her,” Nancy said. “And my mother really respected my dad. She was a good example.”

And the family was religious, attending Protestant church services together on Sundays. Over time, four of the siblings, including Nancy, converted to the Mormon faith. Others now attend services in the Lutheran and Baptist churches.

“I think the thing that holds us all together is Christ in our lives,” said Betty Pritten, who is 75. She and her husband, 81, belong to a Baptist church in Elk Grove.

“Amen,” Nancy said.

“We love the Lord, and we love each other,” Betty said. “There are ups and downs and dry spells. But the closer you are to God, the closer you get to each other.”

According to the Barna Group, which researches faith and culture, it’s unclear if religion makes a difference in marital longevity. Its research shows that at least one-third of Americans have been divorced at some point in their lives – and that figure includes 34 percent of Protestants and 28 percent of Roman Catholics. Similarly, about one-third of born-again Christians as well as one-third of Christians who don’t identify as born-again have been divorced, Barna studies show.

“The important thing is that people are integrating into a religious community as a couple,” said the National Marriage Project’s Wilcox. “People who regularly attend religious services together are more likely to stay together.

“But people who don’t go to church together are more likely to get divorced than the average American.”

To Nancy and David Holtry, the secret to a long-lived marriage is simple.

“I love my husband, and he loves me,” Nancy said. “We work together. We talk things out, even though sometimes it may not be a quiet discussion.”

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