Is Marriage Finished?

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 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.

[981 words]

7 Replies to “Is Marriage Finished?”

  1. Hi Bill

    Yet again a facinating topic and commentary by your good self!

    A few comments:

    Topically, given his recent promotion to Federal Cabinet, Malcolm Turnbull gave a speech a couple of years ago pointing out, among other things, the relationship between poverty and a society where marriage is not encouraged.

    Your point about the changable nature of our society is also well made. I believe it possible to hypothesise that the popularity of marriage in the west has suffered from factors including the fact that in earlier times women were very often ‘second class citizens’ in society in general, and marriage in particular.

    More recently, a disproportionate value is being placed on the variety and number of experiences or sensations that individuals encounter in their lifetimes. So much so that many people see it as being a key indicator in whether someone has led a good life. Inevitably, there is a risk in this environment that people’s expecations about their relationships and marriages – particularly the perceived quality of areas such as emotional reward, physical and career attributes of the parties and the lifestyle enjoyed can become unrealistic and make relationships, much less marriage, untenable.

    However, as with so many things in our society, marriage seems to be responding and adjusting; looking for the elusive balance.

    I believe that in coming years ( I think an embryonic start is already underway) there will a readjustment in our expectations from relationships and life – not to the extent that we will go back to largely dismal ones but perhaps so that the paradoxical complex ordinariness of life is not seen as such an obstacle to happiness.
    Ben Carter

  2. What has been for me the thing of most concern in regards to the institution of marriage is that, like in other key current areas of moral conflict, many churches and those christians that attend them have a watered down view of what the covenant of marriage is and entails.

    I have witnessed the depressing example of church leaders encouraging and even advocating divorce as an acceptable option in what would be classed as “no-fault marriage” break down ie. where one of the partners decides that they no longer love the other, or have “irreconcilable” differences.

    In fact statistically in some quarters the church has even more divorce than the world! And indeed, it does come down to unrealistic expectations, and lack of education on what realistic expectations and how to satisfy those expectations within a marriage. There seems to be a lot of support for mothers who decide “it just isn’t working” but quite often little support for the men whose lives are ripped apart by the loss of family. The government and the church make it very easy for women to make the choice that they can “have something better” out there. Unfortunately divorce statistics are resoundingly depressing on the damage that is done to all parties and the less than 20% of cases that result in long term satisfactory (let alone desirable) remarriages, not to mention the high number of split families that suffer long term and some times life-long financial and emotional difficulty from it.

    There *are* some good cases for separation and divorce where continued abuse and infidelity is suffered, but the edicts of love, forgiveness and commitment have seemed to have been lost in the attempt to provide the appropriate “out” for the minority of cases. The pendulum has swung solidly the other side away from the core message of forgiveness and getting it right for the children, to using excuses such as “kids may be better off when there aren’t any arguments”.

    As one secular publication from a recent UK study noted in reference to the ‘social experiment’ that society has conducted for the last 30 years in regards to the ease of access to divorce and alternate parenting arrangements, there is no dispute that divorce damages children (much as many would like to think otherwise), but it’s largely the behaviour of the parents throughout that determines by how much and for how long they and each of the parents suffer. [This is sort of like the Roe vs Wade decision – let’s stop the alarming (but unsubstantiated) threat of wide-spread back-yard abortions by allowing abortions over the counter thereby resulting in massive unborn children’s deaths and horrifying mental fallout from this for women (and men).] Also, the article highlighted that the actual process of divorce itself causes more problems than it solves and results in long-term destablilisation for everyone involved, quite often the parents as much as the children – essentially divorce is rarely the best option for anyone.

    I pray that the pendulum is swinging back though. There are hints of a return to a more word-based focus in Christendom, away from the doctrine of Jesus being our on-demand dream fulfiller, and away from the expectancy of living the “perfect American dream” of wealth, beauty, pastoral position or ‘personal ministry’ and social standing back to the tenet of “His life for ours, and our life for Him” where our life is focused on finding His expectations for us and doing them.

    Garth Penglase

  3. My parents have been married for over 50 years and are still very much in love. Their Christian faith has been evident in raising 5 children and the positive effect it has had on numerous other marriages. A happy marriage is a result of total love & commitment to one another, not the starting point. This is one mistake I see many make today. They want to ‘feel happy’ and if the feelings go so does the desire to keep building a marriage. Love is a choice not a feeling.
    Lyle Hutchinson

  4. Marriage is a relationship based on a covenant. A covenant cannot be broken! A lasting marriage starts with courtship. On the other hand, dating is like trying and testing—–simply unbiblical. The habit of having many romantic relationships with multiple different partners is not part of God’s plan and design.
    Thus, marriage is not finished if it is based on courtship. The rose of our heart has all the petals intact for a covenant relationship.
    Sergio Andriez

  5. Erm… marriage is misery for most people. Shouldn’t we be trying to find something reasonable to take its place, that doesn’t make men and women as unhappy as they are today?
    Kai Thorsten

  6. Thanks Kai

    But it sounds to me like you may have had a bad experience of marriage (either your own, or your parents, or your friends) and are now extrapolating from this to everyone else. But most people do not have such lousy experiences. Billions of people throughout human history have wed, and enjoyed the experience, and there are millions of happy married couples now enjoying this. So I am sorry you may have had some bad experiences here, but I am afraid your jaundiced view of marriage is neither representative nor universal.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  7. No!!! Marriage is definately not finished. In fact marriage was created by God after all. It is a covenant and not a contract as it is often seen these days. It is up to parents to display good examples for their children. how can we expect our kids to behave with sound Christian principals such as commitment and truthfulness and diligence if we don’t show them how by staying together?
    Having been through marriage and divorce myself I have first hand experience of the devastating effect divorce can have upon even adult children. I believe every person even considering divorce should reassess their motives and if selfishness is playing a role that person might ask themself if their own desires really should be put higher than those of God Himself. Divorce is no longer a decision to be taken lightly.
    Del Tatnell

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