The more I listen to debates over whether we
should promote marriage,
the more I am reminded of one of my father's favorite sayings: "If wishes were
horses, then beggars would ride." Yes, kids raised by married parents do better,
on average, than kids raised in divorced- or single-parent homes. Yes, the
long-term commitment of marriage confers economic, emotional, and even health
benefits on adults as well. Certainly, we should remove marriage disincentives
from government programs -- 16 states, for instance, still discriminate against
married couples in welfare policy. We should expand health coverage to include
"couples counseling" for all who wish it. With better support systems, we may be
able to save more potentially healthy marriages and further reduce rates of unwed
childbearing among teenagers.
But there is no way to re-establish marriage as the main site of child
rearing, dependent care, income pooling, or interpersonal commitments in the
modern world. Any movement that sets this as a goal misunderstands how
irreversibly family life and marriage have changed, and it will inevitably be
dominated by powerful "allies" who are not interested in supporting the full
range of families that exist today and are likely to in the future.
For more than 1,000 years, marriage was the main way that society
transferred property, forged political alliances, raised capital, organized
children's rights, redistributed resources to dependents, and coordinated the
division of labor by age and gender. Precisely because marriage served so many
political, social, and economic functions, not everyone had access to it. Those
who did almost never had free choice regarding partners and rarely could afford
to hold high expectations of their relationships.
During the last 200 years, the growth of bureaucracies, banks, schools,
hospitals, unemployment insurance, Social Security, and pension plans slowly but
surely eroded the political and economic roles that marriage traditionally had
played. It increasingly became an individual decision that could be made
independently of family and community pressures. By the early 1900s, love and
companionship had become not just the wistful hope of a husband or wife but the
legitimate goal of marriage in the eyes of society. But this meant that people
began expecting more of married life than ever before in history -- at the exact
time that older methods of organizing and stabilizing marriages were ceasing to
work. The very things that made marriage more satisfying, and increasingly more
fair to women, are the same things that have made marriage less stable.
The outlines of the problem were clear by the early twentieth century. The
more that people saw marriage as their main source of intimacy and commitment,
the less they were prepared to enter or stay in a marriage they found
unsatisfying. Divorce rates shot up so quickly that by the 1920s many observers
feared that marriage was headed for extinction. Books warned of "The Marriage
Crisis." Magazines asked, "Is Marriage on the Skids?"
During the 1930s and 1940s, these fears took a
backseat to more immediate
survival issues, but abandonment rates rose during the Great Depression,
out-of-wedlock sex shot up during the war, and by 1946 one in three marriages was
ending in divorce. At the end of the 1940s, politicians and other concerned
Americans began a campaign to reverse these trends. For a while it looked as if
they would succeed. During the 1950s, the divorce rate dipped, the age at which
people initially married plummeted, and fertility rates soared. But most
historians agree that this decade was an aberration stimulated by the most
massive government subsidization of young families in American history. And below
the surface, the underpinnings of traditional marital stability continued to
erode. Rates of unwed motherhood tripled between 1940 and 1948. The number of
working mothers grew by 400 percent in the 1950s.
By the late 1960s, divorce rates were rising again, and the age of first
marriage began to rise, too. The divorce rate peaked in the late 1970s and early
1980s, and has fallen by 26 percent since then. But the marriage rate has dropped
at the same time, while the incidence of unmarried couples cohabiting, singles
living alone, delayed marriage, and same-sex partnerships continued to increase
throughout the 1990s.
Though welfare-state policies diverge, these trends are occurring in every
industrial country in the world. Where divorce remains hard to get and
out-of-wedlock birth is stigmatized, as in Italy and Japan, rates of marriage
have plunged, suggesting that the historical trends undermining the universality
of marriage will, if blocked in one area, simply spill over into another.
There is no way to reverse this trend short of a repressiveness that would not
long be tolerated even in today's patriotic climate (and that would soon wipe out
many of the benefits people now gain from marriage). Divorced families,
stepfamilies, single parents, gay and lesbian families, lone householders, and
unmarried cohabiting couples will never again become such a minor part of the
family terrain that we can afford to count on marriage as our main institution
for allocating income or caring for dependents.
I don't believe that marriage is on the verge of extinction -- nor that it
should become extinct. Most cohabiting couples eventually do get married, either
to each other or to someone else. Gay men and lesbians are now demanding access
to marriage -- a demand that many marriage advocates perversely interpret as an
attack on the institution. And marriage continues to be an effective foundation
for interpersonal commitments and economic stability. Of course we must find ways
to make marriage more possible for couples who want it and to strengthen the
marriages they contract. But there's a big difference between supporting concrete
measures to help marriages succeed and supporting an organized marriage movement.
Despite the benefits associated with marriage for most couples, unhappily
married individuals are more distressed than people who are not married. Women in
bad marriages lose their self-confidence, become depressed, develop lowered
immune functions, and are more likely to abuse alcohol than women who get out of
such marriages. A recent study of marriages where one spouse had mild
hypertension found that in happy couples, time spent together lowered the blood
pressure of the at-risk spouse. In unhappily married couples, however, even small
amounts of extra togetherness led to increases in blood pressure for the at-risk
For children, living with two cooperating parents is better than living with a
single parent. But high conflict in a marriage, or even silent withdrawal coupled
with contempt, is often more damaging to children than divorce or growing up in a
single-parent family. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance
Abuse at Columbia University, teens who live in two-parent households are less
likely, on average, to abuse drugs and alcohol than teens in one-parent families;
but teens in two-parent families who have a fair to poor relationship with their
father are more likely to do so than teens who live with a single mother.
The most constructive way to support modern marriages is to improve work-life
policies so that couples can spend more time with each other and their kids, to
increase social-support systems for children, and to provide counseling for all
couples who seek it. But many in the center-right marriage movement resist such
reforms, complaining that single parents and unmarried couples -- whether
heterosexual or of the same sex -- could "take advantage" of them. If we grant
other relationships the same benefits as marriage, they argue, we weaken people's
incentives to get married.
But that is a bullet we simply have to bite. I am in favor of making it easier
for couples to marry and to sustain that commitment. But that cannot substitute
for a more far-reaching, inclusive program to support the full range of
relationships in which our children are raised and our dependents cared for.
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