Marriage in Obsolescence
It's a shocking claim, but is it true?
According to recent media reports, the institution of marriage is dying, especially among the poor and lower educated. At the same time, child-bearing and cohabitation are rising dramatically among the 20- and 30-something age groups. More children are living with unmarried parents than ever before.
All of these details are true and more can be found in a new survey from the Pew Research Center.
In response, Thursday's USA Today framed the front-page story with a disturbing headline:
We're Just Not That Into Marriage: Survey reveals declining interest
A good headline will often tell readers the whole story, but a misleading one can sometimes tell more about the person who is telling it—or the culture in which it is being told—than about the substance of the story itself.
To be fair, marriage and family trends have been headed in the wrong direction for some time. From a family- and marital-health perspective, almost every positive indicator that should be up is down and nearly every one that should be down is up. Only the divorce rate has stabilized, which isn't saying too much given that it's close to 40 percent.
Still, to suggest that marriage is on the verge of obsolescence doesn't quite square with the opinions of the very people who account for its future standing.
According to the Pew survey, 60 percent of American adults currently living with a significant other and not yet married desire to eventually wed. Conversely, only 16% of these individuals express no interest at all in tying the knot. In fact, Pew's data shows that more want to marry today than did in 2007.
Put bluntly and more colorfully, more Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth (18 percent) than say they have absolutely no desire to ever marry (13 percent). (A much larger number of us often think both the sun and the earth revolve around us!)
When it comes to overall attitudes about family, 76 percent of the respondents indicated that their own family was "the most important element" in life, while 22 percent said it was "one of the most import elements."
This is all very good news, but there remains a nagging question: why is there such a drastic disconnect or disparity between what people think and say they believe about the sacred institution - compared to how they act and behave?
It is not a modern development that people don't always act in accordance with their stated beliefs. Colonial America was rife with cohabitation. In his book, Sexual Revolution in Early America, Richard Godbeer quotes a clergyman who was appalled at the prevalence of sex outside marriage in the province of New York in 1695. Upon reflection on his visit there he wrote, "many couples live[d] together without ever being married in any manner of way" and in doing so, engaged in "ante-nuptial fornication" which was "not looked upon as any scandal or sin."
Even the most casual observer or critic of marriage would acknowledge that the institution is too often held in very low cultural esteem. From television to movies to music, the bonds of matrimony are often lampooned as chains that bind and confine as opposed to the great anchor of stability God intended them to be.
Since the church is only as healthy as its most unhealthy people, we, too, bear blame. Have we not often been more inclined to focus on the challenges of marriage than on the joy it brings? When the divorce rate within the church is nearly as bad as it is outside of it, we must take a hard and honest look at ourselves and our attitudes toward what we say we hold dear.