Is the U.S. out of love with marriage?
First of four parts
In the beloved holiday movie “It’s aWonderful Life,” George Bailey is allowedtoseehowmiserablethefuture is without his everyday acts of heroismandself-sacrifice—andhis marriage.
Calamities are revealed in scene after scene, but none are more powerful than the loss of his family. His cozy home is a ghostly ruin. Wife Mary is a dried-up spinster. There are no rose petals from daughter Zuzu because there is no Zuzu.
Even his town has become ugly and crude — with plenty of “adult entertainment” but no family homes, no loving couples, no playful children.
The Frank Capra film, released 60 years ago last month, ends with George’s redemption and new ap- preciation for his most precious achievements — being a good man, husband, father, friend and brother.
In reality, Americans seem to be swirling in a mist of confusion about familylife.Inmanyways,theycrave aworldinwhichmarriageandchildren are the pinnacles of life. But year after year, the country seems to be inching toward a culture in whichadultpleasuresandpastimes haveahighervaluethanmonogamy and minivans.
In this series, The Washington Timesexaminesthechangingviews of marriage and what institutions such as religious groups, govern-
ment and businesses are doing to preserve it.
“ToomanyyoungAmericansare growing up with a radically wrong view of life,” Paul M. Weyrich recently wrote in an article for the Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank that he founded. “They view marriage as a temporary bond between a man and a woman or, I fear, increasingly between a member of their own sex.”
What children need is a “mother and father who honor their commitment to remain united ‘for better or for worse,’ and who instill a respect for God, their religion, their family and work,” Mr. Weyrich wrote.
However, others see “family diversity,” “good divorce,” “childless by choice,” same-sex “marriage” and “happily unmarried to each other” as inevitable and even culturally enriching options.
“It’s time for all levels of society to adapt to reality: Stop penalizing people who don’t conform to a rigid institution,” said Nicky Grist, executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, a group that advocates on behalf of “healthy relationships in all their diversity.”
The question becomes: Can the model of marriage, in which one man and one woman raise their children together in a lifelong, loving union, survive in a culture that increasingly practices — and approves of — nonmarital sexual lifestyles and childbearing?
Benefits of marriage
Social science overwhelmingly supports the idea that marriage is a valuable institution.
Compared with other groups, married men and women are more likely to be wealthy and healthy, live longer lives, and have high levels of sexual satisfaction and low levels of depression and suicide, Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher wrote in “The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier and Better Off Financially,” which was published in 2000.
Marriageespeciallybenefitschildren: Those in married-parent homes are at low risk for living in poverty or suffering neglect or abuse, the women wrote. They are more likely to do well in school and avoid risky behaviors, such as premature sexual activity and drug and alcohol abuse.
Growing up with successfully married parents provides children with a home in which security, trust, safety, problem-solving skills and, typically, a spiritual life are present, the women wrote.
Married-couple families also bind extended families, creating “clear ties of begetting and belonging, ties of identity, kinship and mutual interdependence and responsibility,” about 70 scholars wrote in a paper released in July by the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J., on how marriage is linked to “the public good.”
Marriage and family even stand as pillars in a free society, historian AllanCarlsonwroteinhisnewbook, “Conjugal America: On the Public Purposes of Marriage.”
“The first target of any totalitarian regime is marriage,” he wrote, citing examples from Soviet and Chinese communist regimes and Germany under Nazism.
Marriage for pleasure
Muchhasbeenwrittenaboutthe changing characteristics of American families — notably, the slow declineofmarriageratesandtheincrease in unmarried cohabitation, single-person households and unwed birthrates.
“Americans have become less likely to marry,” concluded the 2006 State of Our Unions report, written by National Marriage Project (NMP) co-directors Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe.
Researchers have attributed the enormous changes in America’s family formation to the introduction of the birth-control pill, which permitted sex without pregnancy; the en masse entry of women into the work force; and the growing belief that couples should postpone marriage until they get a college degree, asteadyjoboramortgage—preferably all three — even if it takes until they are almost 30.
Another factor is the relatively modern idea that people should marry “for love,” said history pro- fessor and author Stephanie Coontz.
When marriage changed from a “mandatory economic and political institution” into a “voluntary love relationship,” it became more flexible — and more optional, said Mrs. Coontz, director of public education at the Council on Contemporary Families.
“Trying to revert to antiquated and unfair traditions is not the answer,” she said. “We need to figure out how to build on the opportunities and minimize the risks associated with the ongoing modernization of marriage.”
Mrs.WhiteheadandMr.Carlson see other factors at work, including the belief that marriage is first and foremost a personal relationship for adults.
Having children often is viewed as a disruption in one’s life course rather than a defining purpose, Mrs. Whitehead wrote in an essay accompanying the NMP’s report.
The“mostsatisfying”adultyears are those “before children” and “after children,” while the childrearing years are the “bone-wearyingandtime-consumingwork”that cuts into time that could have been better spent, she writes.
The 24/7 work culture quietly reinforces these perceptions. Married parents are tied down and tired, while childless adults and couples not only have energy but the freedom to pick up and move, work odd hours and go on the road.
The marketplace, too, likes dualincome couples with no children because they have both the inclination and the income to dine out, take vacations, buy big-screen TVs, join health clubs, go to sporting events and enjoy $4 cups of coffee.
In contrast, raising children is viewed as a budget-buster: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated that it costs $237,000 to raise one child to adulthood.
On top of this, child-rearing means years of high anxiety and even psychological shock to adults — especially educated, professional women who are accustomed to spending their time in ways that are personally satisfying, intellectually fulfilling and socially independent, Mrs. Whitehead wrote.
“Motherhood is an abrupt departure from this pattern” in that it monopolizes time and requires outstanding performance but offers none of the “workplace” perks. “No onegives[mothers]abonusoreven a pat on the back for sitting up all night with a sick child or playing peekaboo and patty-cake with toddlers all day,” she added.
“What’s more,” Mrs. Whitehead wrote, “contemporary motherhood now threatens contemporary marriage.”
Most Americans marry for love, friendship and emotional intimacy, a goal that requires high levels of time and attention, she wrote.
“The problem is that once a real baby comes along, the time, the effort and energy that goes into nurturing the relationship goes into nurturing the infant. As a result, marriages can become less happy and satisfying during the childrearing years.”
Decline of civilization
Mr. Carlson takes these views even further, calling the bond between marriage and procreation the “social and moral foundation of Western Christian civilization.”
Early Christian fathers favored procreative marriage to encourage sexual fidelity and the divine blessings of children, Mr. Carlson wrote in “Conjugal America.”
Eventually, especially in America, he added, loving married couples and big families became an ideal so obvious that the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noticed it. “There is certainly no country in the world where the tie of marriage is more respected than in America, or where conjugal happiness is more highly or worthily appreciated,” de Tocqueville said after visiting here in the late 1820s.
However, America is moving away from the view that marriage is a public good and the nation must have an abundance of “functional, child-rich homes” to thrive, says Mr. Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society.
Family policy “should not try to re-create the framework of 50 years before. It must do better,” he says. But “new protections and encouragements to marriage are now imperative.”
In the marriage arena, two forces for change have been particularly notable.
One is a “marriage movement,” formed six years ago to reverse the trend of family breakdown in America.
Current domestic policies “are based on acceptance of family breakdownandarefocusedondealing with the aftermath and fallout,” Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, said when the group’s “statement of principles” was announced in June 2000.
The original statement — signed by more than 100 academic, religious, political and civic leaders — was updated in 2004, with 86 pledges for action, including expanding marriage education, reforming state divorce laws and developing model pro-marriage legislation.
Pro-marriage allies also received an unprecedented boost this year when 225 pro-marriage and responsible-fatherhood organizations were awarded federal grants worth nearly $120 million a year.
The new five-year funding “shows where our priorities are,” saysElizabethMarquardt,authorof “Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce” and director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.
It also revealed an important political consensus — that both Republicans and Democrats think marriage matters, she says. Such a
Today — especially now that 28 definition, purpose and value of family-diversity statement. there [. . . ] the next question will states have held public votes on marriage has sparked some proA new voice entered the marbe polygamy,” he says. And while constitutional amendments to deposals that were unthinkable to riage debate this summer when the polygamy has a long history and fine marriage as the union of one most people a few years ago. Witherspoon Institute issued a still exists today, “the great majorman and one woman — homosexIn August, for instance, about paper, “Marriage and the Public ity of societies” settled on monogual rights groups and traditional270 homosexual activists and their Good: Ten Principles.” amous one-man, one-woman marconsensus “is a significant achievevalues groups have honed their allies issued a statement about why “As scholars, we are persuaded riage as they became more ment” that should bring long-term arguments, and Americans have legalizing same-sex “marriage” that the case for marriage can be civilized, he says. dividends, beyond the marriage been repeatedly forced to think doesn’t go far enough. Because made and won at the level of reaMeanwhile, say the scholars — grants. about the definition, purpose and marriage is “not the only worthy son,” said the 70 scholars of history, including Robert P. George of
A second force for change is the value of marriage. form of family or relationship,” it economics, psychiatry, law, sociolPrinceton University, Mary Ann push for same-sex “marriage.” “I think the same-sex marriage “should not be legally or economogy and philosophy who signed the Glendon of Harvard Law School
When the debate over homosexdebate has wakened us up,” Mr. ically privileged above others,” principles. and Jean Bethke Elshtain of the uals’ right to “marry” emerged in Carlson said. “For 40 years, Amersaid the statement titled, “Beyond The paper lists divorce, nonUniversity of Chicago — the “great the early 1990s, traditional-values ican policy-makers and American Same-Sex Marriage: A New Stratemarital childbearing, cohabiting goal” is for more children each year groups were tongue-tied in their citizens have allowed marriage law gic Vision for All Our Families and and same-sex “marriage” as to be “raised by their own mother defense of marriage. How could and marriage policy to drift into Relationships.” threats to marriage — the latter and father in loving, lasting marital anyone question the value of a such some terrible problems. The“challengethatliesbeforeus because “it would create a new unions.” a bedrock institution, they thought “We’vegonefrombeingthe‘maras a nation is how to support all reway of looking at marriage,” says “The future of the American ex— until the Hawaii Supreme Court ryingest’ people” in the world to the lationships and families, not just Luis Tellez, president of the board periment depends on it. And our ruled in 1993 that restricting marnation with one of the highest, if not married ones,” says the Alternaof trustees for the Witherspoon children deserve nothing less,” they riage to bride-and-groom couples ilthesay.highest,divorcerate,“andthat’s tives to Marriage Project, which Institute. legally discriminated against samenot a healthy change.” calls for an end to “discrimination “If we institutionalize marriage sex couples. Of course, all the talk about the on the basis of marital status” in its between just anybody, it won’t stop
Part 2 of this series can be found on page 15
I’ll drive, Mom: Scarlett Richko, 6, and her mother, Phoenix Richko, bounce off a snow bank while sledding down Pine Street during a snow storm in Gold Hill, Colo. on Dec. 28. The winter storm was expected to dump up to 16 inches of snow on the Denver area, one week after a pre-Christmas blizzard shut the city’s airport for more than two days.
Outdated values? When the iconic Jimmy Stewart character George Bailey saw his life without family in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” he realized what really mattered. Sixty years later, many Americans voluntarily forgo traditional marriage and having children.