Wedding Bell Blues

Posted Nov. 25, 2010, at 11:44 p.m.

Those who believe marriage is an essential building block of a stable and well-functioning society may soon be in the minority. Nearly 40 percent of Americans, according to a major survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in conjunction with Time magazine, believe marriage is outdated, up from 28 percent who believed so in 1978. This view, which is likely to grow in the coming decades, has the potential to remake society in ways that are largely undesirable.

Among the other key findings in the survey are that only about half of adult Americans are now married, compared with 70 percent in 1960. In 1960, “two-thirds of 20-somethings were married,” Time reports. By 2008, just 26 percent of Americans were married, so marriage is being delayed as well as demurred.

Currently, almost one in three children lives with a single parent, a parent separated from the other spouse or with a parent who has never married. In 1960, 5 percent of children were born to unmarried women. In 2008, a staggering 41 percent of children were born to parents who were not married.

There are important reasons to not dismiss the decline of marriage as the inevitable fallout of changing times. If marriage is defined as the public affirmation of lifelong commitment to another person — even if it often does not last a lifetime — then married couples are different from everyone else. As committed couples, they are more likely to buy a house, maintain and improve it, start savings accounts, stay with one employer for an extended period, get involved in community institutions such as clubs and churches, and care about what their local government is doing. Married people are healthier, too, probably because one spouse nags the other to see a physician regularly.

All these outcomes are good for the rest of us.

Then there are children. Clearly, a two-parent household is the ideal environment in which a child can grow toward successful adulthood.

One reason more people believe marriage is obsolete can be explained by the snowball effect. The children of failed marriages are less likely to commit to a partner, and when they do, they are statistically more likely to divorce, creating another generation of children who are broken-home victims, and on it goes. The marriage rate may decline at an accelerating clip if this trend is not reversed.

Public policy can take a carrot-and-stick approach. The carrot can continue to be tax breaks for couples who are married. The stick can be legal ties that are costly to undo, reversing the no-fault divorce trend of recent decades.

Despite the pessimism about marriage, Americans cherish their families. Three-quarters of those surveyed said their family was their most important social tie. And Americans have broadened their definition of family — 86 percent see a single parent and child as a family, 80 percent an unmarried couple with a child, and 63 percent call a gay or lesbian couple with a child a family.

Some of marriage’s PR problems can be traced to its practitioners — the happily married among us must do a better job of singing its praises, or subsequent generations will be less grounded, less productive and less happy.

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