Do we still need marriage? If you asked my younger self (say, five years ago), she would say “no, marriage is a completely rigid and confining institution that has outlived its usefulness.” My thought process was this: Why get married to one person when you may fall in love with five or six people in your lifetime? Why commit so much of your life to one person? What makes them that special? Now that I’m older (in my mid-twenties), I disagree strongly with those sentiments about marriage and commitment.
As I’ve aged a bit, I’ve learned that marriage supports financial stability, provides a strong foundation for child-rearing and encourages individuals to think about the needs and wants of other people besides themselves. I came to understand the value of marriage by observing the relationship successes and mistakes of some of my friends and relatives. Though I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a few happily married relatives grow blissfully gray with their spouses, I’ve also seen a few friends struggle to accept the reality that they will raise their children as single mothers.
While I’m glad to have realized the value of marriage while I am still in my twenties, I also have to acknowledge that it’s a bit sad that it took me so long to come around. After all, young people of previous generations understood the benefits of marriage long before they hit their mid-twenties. Could it be that our society is not doing enough to educate young people on the benefits of marriage? Or am I just late to the “marriage is great” party?
These were the questions I carried with me when I went to “I Do…I Don’t: The Future of Marriage,” a panel discussion hosted not long ago by the conservative-leaning Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) in Washington, D.C. During the event, panelists discussed the validity of the nation’s declining “marriage crisis” and explored the value of marriage to children and the general well-being of society. Speakers included Isabel V. Sawhill, co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, Kay S. Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and coauthor of Gender and Parenthood: Biological and Social Science Perspectives.
I Do…I Don’t Event
According to the experts, marriage is not in the decline it once was in, though today’s marital rates can be improved greatly. Divorce rates have dropped in the last 20 years―roughly 33 percent of U.S. marriages end in divorce, which is much lower than the widely-shared statistic that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate may continue to fall. According to data compiled from the U.S. Census, 65 percent of marriages started in the 1970s and 1980s reached their 15th anniversary, while 70 percent of couples married in the 1990s celebrated their 15th-year anniversaries.
So, divorce rates are not as bad as we thought. But for poor women or young and vulnerable children, the U.S. marriage rates are disturbing. Marriage rates in the U.S. are also falling: In 1970 about 74 marriages happened annually for every 1,000 unmarried women; by 2012, the marriage rate declined by nearly 60 percent, dropping to 31 marriages per 1,000 unmarried women by 2012, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research (pdf) at Bowling Green State University. Four out of every ten children are born to unmarried women. Here’s a few fast facts about single motherhood:
Unmarried mothers generally have lower incomes, lower education levels, and are more likely to be dependent on welfare assistance compared with married mothers. Children born to unmarried mothers are more likely to grow up in a single-parent household, experience unstable living arrangements, live in poverty, and have socio-emotional problems.
As these children reach adolescence, they are more likely to have low educational attainment, engage in sex at a younger age, and have a birth outside of marriage. As young adults, children born outside of marriage are more likely to be idle (neither in school nor employed), have lower occupational status and income, and have more troubled marriages and more divorces than those born to married parents. Children born to cohabiting parents experience higher levels of socioeconomic disadvantage, and fare worse across a range of behavioral and emotional outcomes than those born to married parents.
During the discussion, Sawhill expressed her concerns about the ways that children are impacted by the decline in marriage: “If we care about kids, we need to go upstream―meaning we need to think about what happens before a child is born, not after a child is born.” Throughout her talk, Sawhill advocated for more accessible forms of birth control.
“The nation’s retreat from marriage may be declining,” said Wilcox. “The data suggests that marriage’s death may have been exaggerated.”
Stating that cohabitation is not stable, Wilcox provided insight to the impact of marriage on adult men, as well as young boys.
“Studies show that boys benefit from being in a two-person married home,” he said, citing studies on the subject. “Boys respond negatively to father exits from the home…Marriage makes men work harder and more successfully.”
Hymowitz took the conversation in another direction by pontificating on the evolutionary history of marriage.
“Every person has a societal interest in attaching men to the children they sired,” she said. “If men weren’t attached to their children, then they wouldn’t be breadwinners. We have to account for body differences: some high-testosterone men have sex with many women and some tend to be violent―society has an interest in channeling that energy…To solve these social problems, society came up with the institution of marriage. It allows men and women to have sex without creating abandoned babies. It also gives us a sense of meaning.”
“The breakdown of the marriage script has caused a raft of problems,” she added. “The breakdown of marriage has destroyed communities and turned men from providers to visitors at best…There is still mobility in this country, but it is much more common in married households.”
“The real problem at this point is that [marriage] is alive but only among college educated couples, and it’s created a big divide. We’re at a crossroad of marriage and child-rearing that is a threat to our sense of equality.”
Set A High Bar
Good advice all around, but now what? How can society better incentivize marriage for young people? What are young single men and women supposed to do once they decide they want to get married? I spoke to Wilcox, the marriage research expert, after the panel discussion ended, and asked him how young women should search for husbands in today’s current hookup culture.
His advice? Set a high bar.
“Set a high bar for yourself and you will meet others who have a high bar as well. Get involved in churches, synagogues and volunteer opportunities to meet great men with high bars.”
Read more: A time to wait for love
Author: Lilac Blue
Lilac Blue is writes about femininity, love and family in a world that has been drastically altered by industrialization, secularism, misandry and misogyny.