A review of The Marriage Problem: How our Culture has Weakened Families. By James Q. Wilson.

Harper Collins, 2002.

Marriage is a problem, argues Wilson. That is, it is in a problematic state. Marriage is good for societies, for individuals, and especially for children. But the Western world is quickly moving away from marriage. As a result a host of problems are arising.

Wilson begins with what are now well-known and depressing figures. Any other relationship but marriage is bad for the adults and especially bad for the kids. Take cohabitation, for example. People who cohabit before marriage short-change themselves and their children in numerous ways. First, the average duration of a cohabiting couple is 1.3 years. Cohabiting couples are far more likely to divorce when they do marry than couples who did not cohabit before marriage.

Moreover, children of cohabiting couples are likely to be as poor as children in single-parent families. And in England, children of cohabiting couples are twenty times more likely to suffer child abuse than kids from married couples.

Or consider step-families. The homicide rate for children in such families is seventy times higher than for those living with both biological parents. Child abuse is also much higher in these families. The evidence merely confirms what common sense has always told us: “people care for their own children more than for those of others”.

Wilson then examines the social, cultural and biological/evolutionary evidence for why marriage and families exist. In addition, the historical development, and recent decline, of marriage and family are discussed. While a combination of nature and nurture, biology and culture, made marriage a civil necessity, the doctrines of the Enlightenment sowed the seeds of its demise.

Beginning with the Enlightenment, marriage began to be seen less as a sacrament and more as a contract. Today it is seen less as a contract and more as an arrangement. Individual rights and freedoms, the product of modernism, have undermined the rationale for and the basis of marriage. Thus it is surprising that people bother to get married at all in the modern, secular, individualistic West.

But marriage lingers on, with 90% of all Americans marrying at one point or another. How is this explained? For some reason (the product of evolutionary history?) the desire for affection, companionship and child rearing remains strong. Many cultural and social forces war against these deep seated desires: the promise of cheap sexual thrills, rugged individualism, pressures for career, materialism and consumerism, and technological fixes and fads. But none are strong enough to totally eradicate these deeply held longings.

Wilson also examines how government policies, especially economic policies, impact on the family. He acknowledges that many policies have a negative impact on families, but questions to what extent government policies can in fact help families. “Children are not raised by programs, governments, or (in this country) villages; they are raised by two parents who are fervently, even irrationally, devoted to their children’s well-being.” While marriage is in the best interests of children, there are limits as to how much a government can do to encourage marriage. After examining a number of federal programs aimed at doing just that, Wilson concludes: “getting single mums to marry is harder than keeping married couples together”.

Thus while financial incentives from the government can help to an extent, they are no panacea. Indeed, the cultural incentives, or disincentives, to marriage, may be more crucial. And these cultural trends may be harder to overcome. A concern for relationships has replaced a concern for marriage. This is the result of larger cultural shifts such as the Enlightenment, with its attendant rugged individualism, rampant secularism and often amoral utilitarianism. How these forces can be offset is no easy matter. Interestingly, Wilson sees a revival of religion as a major factor if we are to see cultural trends reversed.

While Wilson himself displays no deep religious convictions, he does acknowledge the role religion has played in the past both to curtail some of these forces, and to under-gird and affirm marriage and family. One way religion does this is by acknowledging the value of stigma and shame. Our society, says Wilson, “has managed to stigmatize stigma so much so that we are reluctant to blame people for any act”. Thus our no-fault divorce laws, for example. No one wants to take responsibility for their actions anymore, and our laws are beginning to reflect that.

We somehow need to recover the positive nature of stigma and shame. We need to recognise that not all behaviours are in society’s best interests. Illegitimacy, for example, is one of them. Thirty years ago a mother who brought a child into wedlock had a clear understanding that this was not something to boast about. Today no such moral compunction exists. But it should.

“Shame is the inner sense that one has violated an important social or moral rule. Shame once inhibited women from having children without marrying and men from abandoning wives for trophy alternatives. Today it does much less of either. We wrongly suppose, I think, that shame is the enemy of personal emancipation when in fact an emancipated man or woman is one for whom inner control is sufficiently powerful to produce inner limits on actions that once were controlled by external forces. A truly free man or woman is a person whose actions are controlled by gyroscopes rather than opportunities.”

Turning unhelpful cultural trends around will not be easy. But we must nonetheless try. What is at stake is too important. Says Wilson, it “is not money but family that is the foundation of public life. As that foundation has become weaker, every structure built upon it has become weaker. When our cultural framework is sagging, the foundation must first be fixed.”

Part of the means to fix the crumbling foundations is to overcome our historical and social amnesia. We must resist the trendy nonsense that suggests that marriage and family are recent inventions, and optional extras at that. Instead we must reaffirm the central truth that “Marriage, broadly defined, is a universal feature of all societies and apparently has been since records first were kept.” It is the hallmark of human history, and should not be so hastily dismissed.

Wilson further enforces this message: “In every community and for as far back in time as we can probe, the family exists and children are expected, without exception, to be raised in one. By a family I mean a lasting, socially enforced obligation between a man and a woman that authorizes sexual congress and the supervision of children. Its style and habits will vary greatly, of course, but nowhere do we find a place where children are regularly raised by a mother who has no claims on the father.”

Perhaps part of the way to make for a better future is to recapture an accurate sense of the past. Marriage and family are not dead yet, but have taken a severe hammering. We need to redouble our efforts to affirm and protect these most vital of institutions. This book is an important component in such a defence.

[1169 words]

One Reply to “A review of The Marriage Problem: How our Culture has Weakened Families. By James Q. Wilson.”

  1. Indeed, marriage is “good for societies, for individuals, and especially for children”.

    That’s why marriage should be allowed for gay couples, especially ones with children.

    John Kloprogge, North Croydon

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