Recent headlines have made the suggestion that marriage is on the way out, with alternative relationship arrangements becoming the norm. While such announcements often have to be taken with a grain of salt, there is no question that a full-frontal assault on marriage has been well underway for a half a century now. Where it will all end up remains to be seen.
Last week the New York Times ran a front page story with the headline, “51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouse.” The reporter noted that “at one end of the age spectrum, women are marrying later or living with unmarried partners more often and for longer periods. At the other end, women are living longer as widows and, after a divorce, are more likely than men to delay remarriage, sometimes delighting in their newfound freedom.”
William Frey of the Brookings Institution describes this as “a clear tipping point, reflecting the culmination of post-1960 trends associated with greater independence and more flexible lifestyles for women.” These comments are more or less accurate, but the numbers behind them may not be as clear cut as suggested.
Jeff Jacoby has written an assessment of this story in the January 22, 2007 Townhall.com. Like many observers, he is rightly concerned about any retreat from marriage, but he suggests that the figures may be a bit inflated.
As to the 51 per cent figure, he says, “Taken at face value, that’s a pretty disquieting statistic. If society is to flourish and perpetuate itself, it must uphold marriage as a social ideal – it must raise boys and girls in a culture that encourages them to eventually marry a partner of the opposite sex, make stable and loving homes together, and have children who will one day form successful marriages of their own. The news that most American women now live without husbands suggests that society’s ‘ideal’ is dwindling to a minority taste.”
So what about the numbers? Partly it depends on the definitions. Jacoby explains, “‘Women,’ for example, isn’t the word most of us would use to describe high school sophomores. Yet the Times includes girls as young as 15 in its analysis. Not surprisingly, girls who in many cases aren’t old enough to have a driver’s license are unlikely to have husbands. According to the Census Bureau’s 2005 American Community survey, 97 percent of females between 15 and 19 have never been married. Incorporating nearly 10 million teenagers in the ranks of marriage-aged American ‘women; may be a good way to pad the number of those without husbands, but it doesn’t make that number any more enlightening.”
The plot thickens: “Actually, Census data show that even with the 15- to 19-year-olds, a majority of American females – 51 percent – are ‘now married.’ So how does the Times reach a contrary conclusion? By excluding from the category of women with husbands the ‘relatively small number of cases’ – in fact, it’s more than 2 million – in which ‘husbands are working out of town, are in the military, or are institutionalized.’ That startling Page 1 headline is true, in other words, only if the wives of US troops at war are deemed not to have husbands.”
A more sober assessment of the figures shows in fact that the institution of marriage still has some life in it yet. “Marriage in America is undoubtedly less robust than it was 50 years ago. But it is not yet a candidate for the endangered-species list, let alone the ash heap. The Census Bureau reported last spring that by the time they are 30 to 34, a large majority of American men and women – 72 percent – have been married. Among Americans 65 and older, fully 96 percent have been married. Yes, the divorce rate is high – 17.7 per 1,000 marriages – and many couples live together without getting married. But marriage remains a key institution in American life.”
And the truth is, some trends are actually looking somewhat encouraging: “Divorce rates are declining modestly. Teen pregnancy rates are dramatically lower. Rates of reported marital happiness, after a long slide, appear to be rising. And a substantial majority of American children, 67 percent, are being raised by married parents. By even wider margins, young Americans look forward to being married. The University of Michigan’s annual ‘Monitoring the Future’ survey finds that 70 percent of 12th-grade boys and 82 percent of 12th-grade girls describe having a good marriage and family life as ‘extremely important’ to them. Even higher percentages say that they expect to marry.”
Concludes Jacoby, “The ’60s, the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, the rise of single motherhood – there is no question that marriage has been through the wringer. Americans have good reason to be, as David Blankenhorn writes, ‘in the midst of what might be called a marriage moment – a time of unusual, perhaps unprecedented, national preoccupation with the status and future of marriage.’ Yet for all the buffeting our most important social institution has taken, it remains a social ideal: Boys and girls still aspire to become husbands and wives.”
Quite right. Marriage remains an ideal which countless millions around the world aspire to. If one looks only at the past half century or so, the general trends about marriage and divorce do not look too good. But things can and do turn around. Social trends are not static, nor are they irreversible. Thus things may well move in other directions in the near future.
But it does remain true that when many individual marriages break down, the very idea of marriage takes a beating. Also, when the idea of marriage is disparaged and ridiculed in society, that makes it harder for individual married couples to want to stick it out.
Thus on both levels – the individual and the institutional – marriage needs to be protected and promoted.