In recent days, we’ve become very aware of the external threats to marriage the so-called “same-sex marriages” and homosexual civil unions. There are internal threats, too, that persist in the face of the currently more high-profile concerns. Over the last century, the autonomous individual has come dangerously close to replacing the family as the culturally accepted and encouraged basic unit of society.
The President’s proposed marriage initiative addresses the cultural disintegration of marriage and the trend toward autonomous individuals.
The development of this trend clearly traces back through decades of modern and post-modern philosophy, but it has only been in recent times that the society-at-large has revolted against tradition to implement this dangerous concept. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s heralded the arrival of self-fulfillment as a social goal. This standard grew alongside a skyrocketing divorce rate, teen pregnancy rate and the proliferation of sexually transmitted diseases.
The social indicator warning signs have largely been ignored as if champions of the family and traditional values were akin to Chicken Little. But today’s young people freely admit that their sky IS falling. They have been the painful pawns of ugly divorce suits. They’ve experienced emptiness at the end of meaningless one-night-stands. And their self-esteem has plummeted. Their cries for meaning have produced a web of social institutions that try to fill the void of family connections and to reproduce the security and contentment the family produces. But a growing league of social workers and therapists will never match going home to the kitchen table where loving parents offer cookies along with wise counsel.
The security, fulfillment and love the young people seek can be found in families. The first building block of a stable family is a loving marriage between a man and a woman built on a life-long commitment. But too many of the children who have grown up in the last two decades have not experienced this kind of family. For thousands of young people, forever is something that you can say in fairy tales, but never in real-life marriages.
So, what can we do? Somehow, we must change the negative cultural perceptions about marriage. We must address the value of marriage on both an individual level and at the community/society/national level. We must promote the personal rewards of marriage and the social benefits. We must dispel the myth that a happy marriage is unattainable, and in the process, give young people the tools to seek and build good marriages.
We must begin by examining where America’s future decision-makers are getting their information and developing their attitudes about marriage and family.
The Media: The national media’s misleading portrayal of broken families and its obsession with the promotion of vogue lifestyles has led to a weakened understanding of what family is all about. For centuries, we have understood that “family” consists of related individuals bound together by marriage, birth, blood and/or adoption. Family is a unique relationship characterized by love and commitment, rather than convenience and choice.
It is no coincidence that as the nation has changed its definition of family – expanding family to include nebulous households of every stripe and variety, it has also increased the number of vulnerable children. Similarly, the more “our” children become viewed as a community responsibility, belonging to everyone, the more likely the individual child is to be loved unconditionally by no one.
Government agencies: Since 1996, the amount of detailed information on marriage and divorce has been greatly curtailed. The National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) no longer compiles and publishes detailed annual data on marriages and divorces. In the short form of the Year 2000 Census questionnaire, which went to 80 percent of the population, the government did not ask about marital status. Without information on the basic and fundamental characteristics of family formation and dissolution, perspectives on trends will be hard to gain, and researchers will be less able to analyze the impact of family breakdown on the nation’s culture and society.
Then, we must ask, “What are the effects of misinformation and lack of a moral plumb line?”
The devaluing of marriage has a direct bearing on American families:
- Less than 52 percent of U.S. households include a married couple.
- More than 50 million women lived alone at the end of the twentieth century.
- Since 1970 the marriage rate has declined by about 25 percent and the divorce rate has increased by nearly 80 percent.
- The total number of cohabitating couples at the beginning of this decade is approaching 5 million and the number is rising steadily.
- Half of all marriages have ended in divorce since the early ’80s.
- Of the women between the ages of 15 and 44-those most likely to get married-less than half, only 49 percent, are now married.
The failure to raise children in healthy families costs society a very high price.
When an unmarried woman gives birth to a child, the state makes every effort to persuade her to sign a document declaring the paternity of the child. Without a signature on a certificate acknowledging paternity, she cannot qualify for financial assistance should the need arise. The expense of raising children is such that there is a very high probability that the need will arise for unmarried mothers. If paternity is disputed, genetic testing is required to resolve the question. Also, without legally establishing paternity, the courts cannot issue a child support award to the mother.
- The Federal government spends more than $31 million annually on paternity tests.
- If necessary, a woman is required to obtain a court order to enforce child support. The government spends over $4 BILLION annually administering an increasingly intrusive system of child support enforcement.
We hear so much rhetoric about the importance of taking care of the nation’s children; yet, we foster a culture that is harmful to women and disastrous for children. And, it’s not just individuals who are hurt by these trends, the whole of society is affected.
But there are encouraging signs and we should not lose heart.
Despite all the bad news about marriage in America, the vast majority of high school seniors regard having a happy marriage as “extremely important.” In addition, a number of positive trends have emerged in recent years to address the problems associated with the breakdown of families. For instance, there are signs of a kind of sexual and feminist counter-revolution among the younger generation, who are beginning to reject the sexual license and assumptions about women and the workplace that characterized their parents’ generation: “True Love Waits” and other grassroots abstinence organizations are growing and flourishing.
Attitudes are changing in favor of marriage:
- According to David Popenoe, a leading expert on marriage research, people in their 20s are “the most marriage-oriented of all. They want one person for life.”
- Another study showed that Gen Xers are the least likely to recommend divorce for couples in trouble.
- There is a slight increase in the number of young Americans who say that having a good marriage is an “extremely important” life goal.
- Teen birthrates have recently declined and unwed birthrates have stabilized.
- Divorce rates, though still too high, have been relatively stable since 1980.
- Adults and students have shown renewed interest in marriage skills and education classes.
A few years back, Wendy Shalit published a defense of sexual restraint, A Return to Modesty, that was well-received among colleges students and became a popular subject of media talk shows. Danielle Crittenden, former editor of The Women’s Quarterly, wrote, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us, which launched a frontal attack on the assumptions made by the last generation of feminists about women’s role in the workplace versus their very important roles as wives and mothers, had similar popularity. While such publications targeted women, movements like “Promise Keepers” and the fatherhood movement challenged men to take responsibility for their families. Organizations like “Marriage Savers” continue to help save faltering marriages and strengthen good ones.
Restoring faith in the reality of traditional marriage: But the fate of marriage still hangs in the balance. If these scatter shots on the radar screen of culture are not unified in a clear pro-marriage message that reaches the culture in a transforming manner, then our discoveries and even belief in the positive benefits of marriage will be for naught. In a survey of the attitudes of high school seniors about marriage, the National Marriage Survey discovered that although a vast majority said that having a good marriage is “extremely important,” fewer expressed confidence that their marriage would last a lifetime.
If marriage is seen as one of many viable family structures, or as an unattainable ideal, it will not have a revitalizing effect on the next generation.
Since cohabitation seems to be increasingly prevalent as the first “living together” experience for young people, we must understand the misinformation that has created this tendency, as well as understand the repercussions of this trend. Although the increase in longing for marriage is encouraging, it is absolutely necessary that we equip young people to act on this wish for marriage. Since many young people grow up with very poor examples of marriage, or the good examples seem elusive in their own circumstances, we need to increase young peoples’ understanding of commitment, provide couples as examples in how to build a marriage, encourage marriage counseling at the grassroots level- particularly through faith-based initiatives and continue to erase the idea that divorce is a good choice for struggling couples.
Support Political Change: Since the Welfare Reform movement of 1996, there has been a growing realization that public policy has a significant effect on the marital choices of the populace. It is important that we not only encourage more positive attitude toward marriage, but also provide a political climate that favors marriage and creates strong incentives for marriage and discourages sexual promiscuity, single parenthood, cohabitation, and other lifestyles that threaten traditional marriage. As with past efforts on the marriage tax penalty and abstinence funding, we must promote further tax relief for families, further state support of pro-marriage initiatives- such as those taken by Gov. Frank Keating in Oklahoma, and to promote the inclusion of curriculum on marriage in government sponsored abstinence programs- to educate teenagers on why to wait for sex and that the wait should be until marriage.
Nothing short of the proposed marriage initiative will bring about the desired cultural sea-change that is necessary for strengthening American families.
Dr. Janice Shaw Crouse has written and spoken extensively on marriage and family issues over the past decade.