December 2011 – There is good news and bad news when it comes to marriage and family in the United States today.
According to research from the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project the national divorce rate “has declined since hitting the highest point in our history in the early 1980s.” The rate has almost fallen to what it was in the 1960s, prior to the divorce boom of the 1970s. In fact, Generation X couples actually prefer monogamy to divorce. So much so that they “would rather put chocolate syrup in the baby bottles than put the children through a family breakup,” explains Susan Reimer of The Baltimore Sun.
Citing a November 2010 study published by The Pew Research Center, Glenn Stanton, author of The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage, explains that “young adults have the strongest desire to marry of any generation alive today. … And the unmarried folks in other generations are not, nor have ever been, disinterested in marriage.”
“Americans in general aspire to marriage,” Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, told the AFA Journal. “That’s one of the pieces of good news we still see in younger adults. Often times, they take a very grim view of divorce.”
Wilcox identified several factors that have contributed to a decline in the divorce rate, the first being that couples marry later in life.
Two other factors are education and religion, and marriage is becoming a much more selective institution when it comes to these two areas.
“The people who are better educated and the people who are more religious today are more likely to get married [and stay married] than their less educated and more secular peers,” Wilcox explained.
For example, among those who are highly educated, only 11% divorce during their first 10 years of marriage, while 37% of the remainder of the population divorce during their first decade of marriage.
The declining divorce rate is also driven by the fact that the public is adopting more restrictive, more conservative attitudes toward divorce.
Along those lines, it’s logical to conclude that some couples stay together for the sake of their children.
“I think there are more couples out there who have been married and who realize, ‘Hey, we may not be experiencing the life of bliss that we were hoping for, but it’s the best thing for our kids for us to stay together and try to make this marriage work,’” Wilcox said.
Wilcox believes today’s strong, lasting marriages are the result of men being more engaged in the household and in the lives of their children – both physically and emotionally. Men who help with household responsibilities, who spend time with the children and who make an effort to be emotionally engaged, affectionate and understanding will have happier wives. However, women must understand and accept that men do function differently.
Wilcox also said it’s important for couples to be intentional about growing in friendship with one another, for example, by having a regular date night.
But unfortunately such marriages are harder to come by these days, in part because fewer Americans are actually getting married. Therefore, another reason that there are fewer divorces is that there are fewer marriages to begin with.
During the October 11, 2011, broadcast of NBC’s Today Show, national correspondent Jenna Wolfe reported: “Research shows that marriage is declining in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. In 2010, 50% of the adult population was single compared to 33% back in 1950.”
Some argue that the disappearance of marriage is the result of women choosing to be single instead of marrying down, since there is an increasing number of uneducated, unemployed men.
New York writer Kate Bolick uses her own life experiences to provide a secular explanation of this in an expose titled “All the Single Ladies” featured in the November 2011 issue of The Atlantic magazine. She believes this is “the end of ‘traditional’ marriage as society’s highest ideal.”
Sadly, many people find their hopes of marriage dashed, and their reality of a successful marriage out of reach due to financial plight resulting from a lack of education. This is evidenced in a report from The National Marriage Project titled “When Marriage Disappears.”
Many marriages today have a shaky economic foundation, especially if the husband doesn’t have a college degree. Without a degree, a man is more likely to experience unemployment, making it difficult for him to make a good economic contribution to his family or future family. He suddenly becomes less attractive to today’s thriving women. For obvious reasons, such men have a hard time getting married and staying married.
“I think we live in a low-commitment culture where people are reluctant to really commit to something long term, and marriage, of course, is one of the most fundamental commitments,” Wilcox explained.
As a result, young people who truly desire to marry don’t have much faith that they can make a go of it, so they are resorting to cohabitation.
Stanton describes unmarried cohabitation as “the fastest growing family/domestic form in the United States as well as most of the Western World.”
He said cohabitation has “increased 15-fold since 1960. And that growth has more than doubled in real numbers since the mid-1990s in the U.S. …”
If couples do decide to marry these days, more than 60% of those marriages follow some form of cohabitation.
Results from a new study by the Institute for American Values and The National Marriage Project reveal that about 24% of children are now born to cohabiting couples.
Needless to say, cohabitation may seem like a good way to avoid divorce by foregoing marriage, but it doesn’t come without damaging consequences. To name a few:
▶ Cohabitation of parents almost doubles a child’s risk for having educational, psychological and drug problems.
▶ Cohabitation prior to engagement actually increases the likelihood of divorce for couples who do marry.
▶ Cohabitation increases a woman’s chance of becoming a victim of physical, sexual and verbal abuse.
▶ Cohabiting couples are three times more likely than married couples to live in poverty.
While most couples cohabit with an eye toward marriage, many just slide into cohabitation and never make their intentions or commitments clear, Wilcox explained.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Wilcox identified four factors leading couples to cohabit. They want freedom and flexibility. They lack college degrees, resulting in fewer job opportunities/less income. They are less likely to feel stigmatized for living together as a result of a decline in religious attendance and the secularization of society. They are gun shy about marriage, having come from a divorced home themselves.
“[C]ohabitation has emerged as a powerful alternative to and competitor with marriage,” according to a report titled “When Marriage Matters,” from the Institute for American Values.
And it’s not just the poor communities – as it was in the 1970s and 1980s – that are cohabiting. The trend is rapidly infiltrating the working-class and lower-middle-class communities. All the while, marriages seem to be working and thriving in the more educated and affluent communities.
So what does this mean for marriage in America?
The Institute’s report reveals “that the United States is devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime, where the highly educated and the affluent enjoy strong and stable [families] and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy and unworkable ones.”
“Unless we turn things around here, it’s going to be pretty bad,” Wilcox said. However he also says that there is no silver bullet when it comes to eliminating the nation’s bias against marriage. But there is hope, and there are actions to take to restore the value of marriage to all Americans. Wilcox made the following suggestions:
▶ Seek to reform divorce law and end marriage penalties found in many public policies.
▶ Support public service campaigns that educate people on the benefits of marriage and fatherhood.
▶ Be intentional about cultivating a family-friendly environment in the workplace.
▶ Support and advertise TV shows that are family friendly.
▶ Engage people where they are and make religious/congregational life more attractive to the working class and the poor.
▶ Make religious institutions more male friendly.
Wilcox added, “Americans who are religious are more intentional about cultivating a strong family culture in their communities and in their own marriages.”
But Chuck Colson, founder of the Christian worldview ministry BreakPoint, believes that one reason marriage is held in such low regard today is that people have not seen what a good marriage looks like. “Defending marriage involves more than just talk,” he said. “Are we Christians committed to showing our neighbors the love, fidelity and joy that ought to accompany a marriage founded on God and His plan for human flourishing?”
Economic benefits of marriage
A 2002 study of older adults found that individuals who had been continuously married throughout adulthood had significantly higher levels of wealth than those who were not continuously married. Among the reasons:
1) Marriage provides economies of scale. (Two can live more cheaply than one.) And as it implies a long-term personal contract, marriage encourages economic specialization. An individual can develop skills in which he or she excels, leaving other skills to the spouse.
2) Married couples save and invest more for the future, and they can act as a small insurance pool against life’s uncertainties such as illness and job loss.
3) Men tend to become more economically productive after marriage.
Adapted from The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2010 from the National Marriage Project