If you’ve ever read something that felt like you were reading your own thoughts, you will understand how much I connected with the July 2 Time Magazine cover story, with the same title as this post—most of it anyway.
Writer Caitlin Flanagan explains how marriage has changed during the past 40 years, and how these changes are affecting American families today. As an example of our obsession with high-profile marriage disasters, she pokes a bit of fun at South Carolina governor Mark Sanford (with his too-much-information mistress emails) and Senator John Ensign of Nevada, who recently made a similar public confession, but was nice enough to leave God out of it, “which must have been a nice break for the Almighty,” she says.
Flanagan calls marriage “an increasingly fragile construct depending less and less on notions of sacrifice and obligation than on the ephemera of romance and happiness as defined by and for its adult principles.” While the two-parent family remains our cultural ideal, frequent bombardment by things like affairs, boredom or lack of commitment are changing its face. (For example, 39.7% of births are now to unmarried women, most of whom are uneducated with low incomes.)
Why does this matter, she asks? Because the collapse of marriage is causing more “measurable hardship and human misery in this country” than any other single cause. And, because it hurts children, reduces their mothers’ financial security, and devastates the underclass. It’s a “catastrophic approach to life,” argued against by the current President and last two Presidents.
As I’ve frequently written about in this blog, she asserts every outcome measured on the wellbeing of children is higher when children are from two-parent, intact families. They live longer, perform better in school, have lower rates of teen pregnancy, criminal behavior, and on and on. Flanagan even quotes an ardent feminist, who after researching, was loathe to admit, yes, a father is important to children, even when he is not important to their mother.
The effect of divorce is true regardless of the child’s race or the family’s income. David Blankenhorn, the president of the Institute for American Values, says, “Children have a primal need to know who they are, to love and be loved by the two people whose physical union brought them here. To lose that connection, that sense of identity, is to experience a wound that no child-support check or fancy school can ever heal.”
What about committed cohabitors? According to researchers, it’s possible to provide a similar level of stability for a child without marriage. Unfortunately, very few cohabitors actually remain committed. Once stress enters the picture, often in the form of a child, “the new mother starts to make wifelike demands on the man, and without the commitment of marriage, he is soon out the door.”
What’s odd, or at least interesting, is that Americans as a whole still say they value lasting marriage as the gold standard. Yet, they may actually hold standards that are impossibly high. Remember that touching moment on Inauguration Night with the Obamas dancing lovingly all night? Flanagan suggests part of the awe and wonder was in “the sight of a middle-aged man and woman still together, still in love.” “We want something like that for ourselves; we recognize that it is something of great worth, but we are increasingly less willing to put in the hard work and personal sacrifice to get there,” she says, adding, “A lasting marriage is the reward, usually, of hard work and self-sacrifice.”
What can be done? “It is time to come to terms with both our unrealistic expectations for a happy marriage and our equally unrealistic beliefs about the consequences of walking away from the families we build,” Flanagan says.
She asks if marriage is simply an institution designed to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it. (If so, forget it; life sometimes includes sickness and pain.) Or, is the purpose of marriage “to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the generation’s own safe passage into adulthood?” After all, these are the children, who will be taking care of us when we’re old.
What do you think the purpose of marriage is? I have hope for the American marriage, do you?
Read the Time Magazine article in full: http://tinyurl.com/nbbmkn