Marriage Is Heading off a Cliff

For the first time in history, less than half of Americans now live in married-couple households. The new finding by the Census Bureau reflects the most profound change in the nature of American society ever to have occurred, yet practically no one talks about it. Only 48 percent of American households are made up of married couples. These numbers reflect a sea change in living arrangements. In 1950, married couples were 78 percent of all households.

Some of these figures reflect our aging population: We have more widows and widowers than at any time in the past. But they also reflect changing mores. People are marrying at older ages, and larger numbers are choosing not to marry at all, not to stay married, and to have children outside of marriage. A new Gallup poll shows that more people now approve of both out-of-wedlock births and divorce. Only 41 percent of Americans believe it is morally wrong to bear a child outside marriage, and a mere 23 percent think divorce is morally wrong.

What all this means is that increasing numbers of children are growing up without two parents, and few policymakers seem to care, even though the societal consequences bode ill for the future. Myriad studies have documented that children who grow up without two parents are more likely to do worse in school, drop out, commit crimes, and earn less during their lifetimes than those who are raised with both parents, even adjusting for economic status and race. They are also far less likely to have stable relationships and marriages as adults, thus fueling the cycle of marriage breakdown.

Perhaps the most alarming result of this family breakdown comes from a new analysis of longitudinal data from a large cohort of young children — primarily bright, white children born to middle-class and affluent parents — who were followed throughout their lives. The study found that even relatively privileged children suffered when their parents divorced. According to researchers Howard Friedman and Leslie Martin, the children of divorce had an average lifespan five years shorter than those whose parents stayed married.

And children of divorce aren’t as bad off as children whose parents never married, who now make up the vast majority of African-American children, and a growing number of Hispanic and working-class white children.

So what are policymakers doing about the problem? Not much. Indeed, the rare discussions that take place on public policy toward marriage focus on whether gay couples should be allowed to marry. But that’s hardly the biggest issue. However individuals feel about gay marriage, the real threat to the institution of marriage is one posed by the decline in the institution among heterosexuals.

There isn’t much government can do to encourage people to marry; but for the last 40 years, government has been heavily implicated in encouraging divorce. All states now have no-fault divorce laws, which make it easier to dissolve a marriage contract than a cellphone contract. One thing policymakers could do is revisit the ease with which we allow couples — especially those with minor children — to dissolve their marriages.

A new group, the Coalition for Divorce Reform, is trying to do just that. Chris Gersten, a former Bush administration official and my husband of 44 years, started the organization — and he is joined by many of the leading marriage and divorce experts in the country. They are working together to promote legislation that will require divorcing couples to take research-based skills-training programs, which have been shown to reduce divorce. The aim is to help those couples in low-conflict marriages if they have minor children and neither partner has engaged in physical abuse or is addicted to drugs or alcohol. More information can be found online at

This effort may not rescue the institution of marriage from the peril it’s in, but it’s a start. New research tells us that 30 percent of divorcing couples say they would be willing to reconcile if there were low-cost approaches to saving their marriages available.

In the end, it’s the children who pay for the devastating effects of divorce. It’s time we start putting our kids first.





Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a nonprofit public policy research organization in Falls Church, Va. She also writes a weekly syndicated column for Creators Syndicate that appears in newspapers across the country and is a political analyst for Fox News Channel. Chavez has held a number of appointed positions, among them chairman, National Commission on Migrant Education (1988-1992); White House Director of Public Liaison (1985); Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (1983-1985); and she was a member of the Administrative Conference of the United States (1984-1986). Chavez was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senator from Maryland in 1986. In 1992, she was elected by the United Nations' Human Rights Commission to serve a four-year term as U.S. Expert to the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities.

  • Kathryn

    Better question: What is the Church doing about the problem? There seem to be plenty of parish based “divorce recovery” program in my town. Not too many “marriage savers.”

  • TomD

    One of the potential hidden benefits from a discussion of the issue of same-sex union or “marriage” may be to focus on the distinction between the legal and sacramental dimensions of marriage.

    As pointed out in the article, with the advent of no-fault divorce, legal marriage has become a non-binding, legal “contract” that can be dissolved, essentially, by either party, at any time, for any reason. One could even argue that the real effect of legal marriage has been to set up the specific rules, guidelines, and binding elements for when the legal marriage ends. When you “sign” the legal contract, you legally establish the obligations for after you dissolve the marriage, not any obligations to maintain the marriage.

    This is a perfect opportunity for the Church to draw the important distinction between legal marriage and sacramental marriage. While it is probably inevitable that the US Supreme Court, given its current make up, will eventually rule 5-4 that there is a legal right for homosexual marriage, within our secular society those marriages are purely legal entities . . . they can never be sacramental.

    Clearly highlighting this difference will help to clarify an otherwise lost distinction in modern secular culture – the quintessential superiority of sacramental marriage over legal marriage.

  • The positive social effects of marriage have been well-documented:

    Married couples typically contribute more and take less from society.

    Married couples support and care for each other financially, physically and emotionally and often contribute more to the economy and savings.

    Individuals who are married are less likely to receive government entitlements.

    Individuals who are married statistically consume less health care services, and often give more to churches and charities.

    And married couples are better able to provide care and security for children.

    So maybe someone can help me understand what negative impact committed loving relationships have on society, and why Gay couples should be excluded from the same benefits and responsibilities of marriage?

    I do know that Ms. Chavez has been an outspoken opponent of marriage equality for Gay couples, and this is ironic given the context of this article.

    Why is it that it’s perfectly acceptable, even admirable, for Straight (i.e. heterosexual) couples to date, get engaged, get married, and build lives together in the context of monogamy and commitment, and that this is a GOOD thing … but for Gay couples to do exactly the same is somehow a BAD thing? To me this seems like a very poor value judgment.

    • TomD

      Chuck, rather than respond directly to your question, I will refer you, and other readers who are interested, to an article in the 2011 Winter issue of the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy by Robert P. George, Ryan T. Anderson and Sherif Girgis entitled, “What Is Marriage?” They do a much better job addressing your question than I could ever hope to do. And in the end, rather than belabor the issue here, I suspect, we would end up having to simply agree to disagree anyway.

      Instead, I would ask you a question: why restrict the definition of a loving, committed relationship to only a couple – to only two people? It is merely traditional that we define marriage as between two people. Can’t a man and four women form a loving, committed relationship? Can’t a woman and four men form a loving, committed relationship? Can’t two men and two women form a loving, committed relationship? Why restrict marriage to only TWO people?

      In a sense, you are right. In our secular society, the legal definition of marriage will ultimately be determined through our secular legal system. Sadly, I believe, in the United States, it is most likely that 5 US Supreme Court Justices, in our otherwise self-governing, democratic system, will dictate the legal definition of marriage to a society of 310 million citizens.

      As part of the broader discussion within our faith communities, and while we must not abandon the discussion and defense of the traditional definition of marriage, this provides an opportunity for our society to begin to make a critical distinction between legal marriage and sacramental marriage. It is the sacramental nature of marriage that is quintessential.

      While continuing to defend the traditional definition of marriage, perhaps that distinction is the real value judgment that people of faith should begin to focus upon.

      • Gee Tom, if I had a dollar for every time I heard someone draw a connection between marriage equality for Gay couples and polygamy, I’d probably be able to pay off my mortgage. But it’s a red herring. The only difference between a married Gay couple and a married Straight couple is the gender (and presumably the sexual orientation) of the two people who have made the commitment. Using your logic, I could just as easily say, “If you allow a man to marry one woman, it just logically follows that he should be allowed to marry as many women as he wants!”

        It’s the federal government has complicated the issue more than anyone. While it is true that the Constitution says nothing about marriage, there are 1,138 legal benefits, protections, and responsibilities (according to the Government Accounting Office) that the federal government automatically bestows on married couples. Much of this has to do with tax law and Social Security. So it simply wouldn’t do for a Gay couple that is legally married in Iowa to suddenly become UN-married if they move someplace else.

        Straight couples have never had to jump through these kinds of hoops. Thanks to the “Full Faith & Credit” clause, if any Straight couple flies off to Las Vegas for a drunken weekend and gets married by an Elvis impersonator, that marriage is automatically honored in all 50 states. First cousins may marry in only a few states, but when they do, THEIR marriages are still honored in all 50 states.

        But Gay couples are held to a different legal standard. How could this possibly be Constitutional?

        You mention “sacramental” marriage. In the Catholic church marriage is considered one of the seven holy sacraments. But from a legal standpoint the only thing a church can offer a couples is a ceremony. None of the legal benefits, protections, and responsibilities of marriage come from the church. They come from GOVERNMENT.

        Anyway, it is not the purpose of government, nor of the Constitution, to make things “sacred.” Those who believe that marriage is sacred usually choose to be married in a religious ceremony. Gay couples may or may not be making a religious or moral statement; though most Christian denominations do not recognize such commitment, some do. Regardless, Gay couples simply wish to be legally bound to each other by law. We wish to have all the same privileges of any lifelong couple.

        If the government still considers “marriage” to be a religious designation rather than a legal one, it has no business making any laws concerning that institution. If, as confirmed by its actions, the government believes “marriage” to be a legal contract, it has no business denying that contract to any two people, no matter what their gender might be.

        • TomD

          Chuck, based on the standard that you stated concerning committed, loving relationships, I simply asked you why restrict marriage to only two people?

          • “Why restrict marriage to only two people?”

            Gay people are not arguing that people should be able to have whatever marital arrangement they want. We argue only that everyone should have access to marriage as it is now commonly understood. Nor are we arguing for any legal rights other people do not have. We are being denied the right that Straight (i.e. heterosexual) people take for granted: The right to marry someone we love.

            By contrast, an advocate of legal polygamy cannot argue that he (or she) is seeking anything akin to traditional marriage – unless the Old Testament is considered “traditional.” Nor can he argue he is being denied a right that everyone else has. He would have to argue that he desires and deserves a new right that no one currently has. Perhaps that argument could be made but it has not been so far.

            Now, if Gay marriage opponents wish to argue that it could lead to polygamy, they also have to explain why polygamy is undesirable. As for myself, I would simply suggest that legalizing polygamy would make a mess of laws dealing with taxes, Social Security, inheritance, child custody, etc.

            Actually there are already tens of thousands of polygamous couples in North America. Although their relationships are not recognized or registered with their state or provincial governments, they are allowed to exist with little or no harassment. But the issue of polygamy was pretty much put to rest when Utah sought statehood, and that’s good enough for me.

  • Jason Negri

    Hi Chuck. Good discussion here!

    You said: “If, as confirmed by its actions, the government believes “marriage” to be a legal contract, it has no business denying that con to any two people, no matter what their gender might be.”

    First of all, I don’t acknowledge your premise that government believes marriage to be no more than a legal contract. But even if it did, the government also has requirements for entering into contracts, including capacity. So minors can’t usually enter into any contracts. And brothers and sisters usually can’t marry (each other), etc. Being of opposite genders is a requirement because the definition of marriage assumes it (until recently, it was not codified in many states because it didn’t occur to our lawmakers that something so intrinsic to the nature of marriage could be changed). Change something as fundamental as that, and the understanding of “marriage” loses its meaning. This is important when so much of our society is based on this normative, historical view.

    Now, it’s certainly arguable that the understanding of marriage (one that assumes a man and a woman, a witness, a solemnization, a lifelong commitment, etc.) has already undergone such a change that further change is functionally meaningless. And maybe we’re there already. But substantially changing it to “allow” homosexuals to marry is perhaps not so much “immoral” as it just doesn’t make sense.

    • “To allow homosexuals to marry is perhaps not so much immoral as it just doesn’t make sense.”

      Why not, Jason? Is it because you, as someone who is presumably heterosexual, wouldn’t consider marrying another man?

      It certainly can’t have anything to do with parenthood; otherwise, it wouldn’t make sense for heterosexual couples who don’t plan on having children to marry.

      That Gay couples seek to marry is not an attack on marriage. If anything it is an ENDORSEMENT of marriage, an acknowledgment that it far better to encourage couples toward monogamy and commitment, rather telling them, “You’ll just have to sacrifice your life and any hope of finding somebody to love. Tough luck, kid.”

      Ask any Straight couple why they choose to marry. Their answer will not be, “We want to get married so that we can have sex and make babies!” That would be absurd, since couples do not need to marry to make babies, nor is the ability of even desire to make babies a prerequisite for obtaining a marriage license.

      No, the reason couples choose to marry is to make a solemn declaration before friends and family members that they wish to make a commitment to one another’s happiness, health, and well-being, to the exclusion of all others. Those friends and family members will subsequently act as a force of encouragement for that couple to hold fast to their vows.

      THAT’S what makes marriage a good thing. Gay couples recognize that and support that. And I suspect that those who want to prohibit Gay couples from marrying do so only because they don’t want to allow Gay couples the opportunity to PROVE that they are up to the task.

      You should ask yourself why law-abiding, taxpaying Gay Americans should be forced to subsidize all the legal benefits and responsibilities that Straight couples enjoy, when we are unable to take advantage of those same incentives to marry.

      • John2

        “…we are unable to take advantage of those same incentives to marry.”

        That basically wraps it up. Because of your ‘gaiety’ you are unable.

        Do you see?

      • Jason Negri

        Because marriage by its nature involves a man and a woman, normatively able to procreate (despite individual cases of couples who can’t). Just because many couples today choose not to procreate doesn’t demolish the standard we use to identify something.

        And does the historical record count for nothing? Homosexuality has been around since the earliest recorded history, including in societies much more sexually tolerant than ours, but as far as I know, no society ever allowed these relationships to rise to the level of a marriage.

        And I would question just how many gay couples will actually take advantage of a changed legal definition of marriage . Sure, there are poster boys for your cause who talk about how much they want to get married (to each other). But from my (admittedly, casual) observation of the “gay rights movement”, many gays aren’t interested in the committed, exclusive, domestically-oriented real life that marriage is. Will allowing them to marry suddenly transform those who are profligate pleasure-seekers into quiet, stable homebodies who form the essential stable foundations for a society? It rarely works for heterosexuals; I see no reason it will work for homosexuals.

  • Briana

    @Chuck,a heterosexual couple’s ability to procreate is essentially the reason why marriage is typically restricted to straight couples. If a man and a woman get together for what they say will be the rest of their lives, there is a huge chance that kids will come into the picture. Therefore, the purpose of marriage law is to regulate sex to ensure that any kids who come along are born into households where their mother and father are present. If all it took for a marriage was love and fidelity, you could say that a relationship between a pair of life-long friends qualifies as a marriage. But because there is potential for kids to be born who will be dependent on so much, financially and otherwise, there are certain legally-recognized privileges that come with marriage. By the way, with regards to your remark about couples who say they don’t want kids, I’m sure there are plenty of couples like that who say they don’t want to be parents only to have kids come along when they least expect it and you would want to err on the safe side.

  • Briana

    *dependent on their parents for so much* I meant. Pardon me.

  • TomD

    In an attempt to refocus the discussion, it is quite true that, “[t]here isn’t much government can do to encourage people to marry; but for the last 40 years, government has been heavily implicated in encouraging divorce.” This is, sadly, quite true.

    One of the implications of this statement is that modern society has tended to focus almost exclusively on the legal aspects of marriage. While marriage-strengthening programs will help, my initial thought was that a refocusing, particularly within communities of faith, on the sacramental nature of marriage will provide a new path, and perhaps ultimately a more effective path, toward strengthening marriage.

    Children will benefit from this renewed focus, in multiple ways.

  • Cord Hamrick

    Reply to Chuck Anziulewicz:

    Chuck, I’d like to reply to your questions and challenges.

    Because these are contentious topics and feelings can run high, I’m going to try to adopt a fairly detached and clinical tone. If at any point I say something irritating, please understand: I intend no offense, but only respectful and objective discussion.

    Okay, here we go….

    Marriage is directed towards (exists in order to enable) the creation and healthy rearing of human beings.

    Every human being has an unalienable human right to be lovingly raised by a married man and woman who are his/her biological parents.

    This sometimes fails through misadventure (e.g. the death of the father or mother or both) but as such is not a human rights violation.

    It also sometimes fails through the will of a human being (e.g. the divorce of the parents). As a willed violation of the human rights of the child, divorce ought therefore (for parents of minor children at least) to be a criminal act in most cases (but sadly usually isn’t). And you can fill in the blanks for anonymous sperm donation; et cetera.

    Now marriage is more than, but not less than, a commitment to confine one’s sexual life exclusively to the marital act, and exclusively with the person to whom one is married.

    What is the “marital act?” It is that sexual act which, barring bodily dysfunction through illness or (periodic, chronic, or permanent) infertility, is able to produce new human life. That is why it is called the “marital act”: Because marriage is ordered towards procreation, and this particular act is (barring inadvertent inability) procreative.

    All other forms of sexual act fall into two categories differentiated according to whether orgasm is achieved; namely, foreplay and masturbation. The former is licit inasmuch as it is the Introit to the marital act, so to speak. But the latter is a replacement of the marital act with a lesser thing, like taking a 3-carat flawless white diamond out of its platinum setting and replacing it with a paste gem from a gumball machine.

    Why does marriage confine sexual expression to the marital act to one’s spouse? Because it is directed towards the creation and optimal raising of children. The lack of exclusivity would tend to fray the bonds of love and trust. Those bonds make marriage more permanent (and thereby make it easier to avoid depriving the child of his/her human rights). Meanwhile the mutual affection between spouses increases not only their own love and trust, but increases the confidence-level of the children and assists in their development (not least psycho-sexual development).

    It is, in short, all about having and raising children in a fashion which loves them rather than harming them. Or, at the least, it is more than that but definitely always that, at minimum and never less than that.

    (We could go beyond that, and get into the whole thing about being an earthly mirroring and partial inclusion in the divine life of the Trinity; that is to say, the sacramental character of marriage. These things are not unimportant; indeed, they’re probably more important. In a certain way, they may be the most important thing in the whole universe. But when a person is asking questions such as you are asking, it is better to start small. When a person expresses doubt whether 2+2=4, one does not answer him by immediately discussing matrix algebra or differential equations.)


  • Cord Hamrick


    So when you ask the question, “Why shouldn’t men be allowed to marry men, or women, to marry women?” …the answer must begin by establishing what it is that the participants really propose (!) to do.

    In general, what they propose to do is contractually commit one another to exclusivity in mutual masturbation. They are not capable of the marital act, but that, they can do.

    (There is, of course, the side-issue of inheritance rights and family visitations in hospital and what-not, but it is very much a side-issue inasmuch as it is utterly unconnected to one’s sexual actions. Ought it to be legal and easy for a man to designate another man as his heir or to grant him power-of-attorney? The answer is: Of course it ought to be, whether they are sexual partners, or business partners, or law partners, or tennis partners.)

    So: Is sexual exclusivity in mutual masturbation the same thing as marriage? The answer is no (as you can check for yourself by examining the description of marriage given above).

    And that is the case even if one sets aside the sacramental character of marriage. Bring that back in, and the whole thing is even more preposterous.

    Why, then, all the confusion?

    Well, I’m afraid the answer is one of those things about which the Catholic church has been hugely, almost embarrassingly, right: Contraception. Artificial contraception has existed since Biblical times, of course. But during the last eighty years or so it has become very popular among married Christian couples for various reasons, notably their lack of understanding of what marriage is, and is about.

    Thus for eighty years or so Christian couples have been doing a lot of mutual masturbation in preference to the marital act. They whose obligation it was to be the “salt of the earth” (preserving civilization across the generations and giving it its proper flavor), lost their saltiness. That explains why civilization, rather than being preserved, has tended rather to rot.

    Indeed, between that and the mainstreaming of pornography, our civilization is no longer best characterized by the adjectives formerly applied to it (Western, free, technological, et cetera). The adjective which best sums up this most prominent aspect of its character is masturbatory. (Others, coupling this observation with the scandal of legal abortion, simply call it “anti-life,” or the “culture of death.”)

    So that is why, when you ask an orthodox Christian in whom the Holy Spirit is doing His sanctifying work, “Can’t men marry men?” he answers, “No. It isn’t marriage. No marital act.”

    And when you ask him, “Well, why not just call it marriage, as a social convenience, for lack of a better term?” he answers, “With the state we’re in right now, we need to better remember the definition of the word ‘marriage’; the last thing we need to do is further obscure it!”

    And when you ask him, “Well, why not call it something different, but still allow it as a legal status?” he tends to waffle, according to whether his philosophy of government does or does not include a civil right (for, of course, there can be no natural right) to contract to things which are immoral provided they do not violate the rights of others. But even if he permits it as a civil right to make such contracts, he remains concerned about the appearances of it further undermining the procreative definition of marriage.

    And when you get accusatory and say, “Well, haven’t you heterosexual types done far more damage to marriage with easy divorce and your own substitution of masturbation for the marital act?” he looks simultaneously sheepish and exasperated and says, “Yes, yes, yes! Nobody has any call to act holier-than-thou when it comes to sex these days; or at least, very few people do. But look, the patient on the table is in critical condition because of injuries already sustained. Is now the time to (a.) add insult to injury? …or, (b.) skip both the insults and further injury, and start healing the patient?”

    The patient, in this case, is not just the “institution of marriage” but the civilization we call home and the persons we call “us.”

    I hope that answers some of your questions, Chuck.

  • Cord Hamrick

    Addendum for Chuck (and any other reader of my preceding post):

    You’ll notice I make a distinction between something being a civil right and a natural right. They are distinguished in the following fashion:

    A natural right is something God has not forbidden under the Moral Law as revealed through Natural Law (without benefit of special revelation apart from natural). Under God’s Moral Law, however revealed, some things are obligatory, some are forbidden, and some are neutral. That which is obligatory or neutral (which you either may or must do) is a moral right; and that which can be seen to be a moral right without supernaturally-acquired information is a natural moral right, or “natural right.”

    A civil right is a broader category and includes actions which are morally wrong. Being morally wrong they are not among one’s “natural rights” (they couldn’t be, inasmuch as they violate the laws of nature and Nature’s God), but they are wrongs of a kind which men cannot lawfully use force to prohibit. Thus, while a person has no immunity from God’s judgment in such matters, he does have immunity from prosecution by the civil authority.

    I hope that clears up how I was using the terms in the preceding post.

  • Matt

    And of course, as with every marriage discussion, the comments thread gets hijacked by people arguing about homosexuals.

    The article is _not about_ homosexuals. Whatever one may think of homosexual relationships, it’s not the gays who broke marriage in this country.

    The present state of affairs, where a sacramental marriage is easier to legally walk away from than a cell phone contract, is entirely the work of straights like us.

    Indeed, if gays want to seem “normal” to mainstream society, marriage is the last thing they ought to be fighting for. Real marriage hasn’t been normal for decades.

  • Michael PS

    As to encouraging people to marry, it is interesting to note that the Roman laws, enacted under Augustus that penalised, in various ways, particularly in the matter of legacies and inheritances, the unmarried and the childless and privileged those who were married with children (The Lex Julia de maritandis ordinibus and the Lex Papia Poppaea) were repealed under Constantine. It was the Christians who lobbied for their repeal, amongst whom widowhood and the single state were highly esteemed. Their clergy were notorious as captatores, or legacy-hunters, assiduous in their cultivation of the childless.

  • Aengus O’Shaughnessy

    Reply to Cord Hamrick:

    Jings, could you maybe think about writing a book on this subject? My own self has been trying for absolute ages to say all that so well, and there you sum it up in three short posts. . . I’m going to copy down everything you said and memorise it.

  • Lee

    How about we start really parenting our children? That producing children without marriage is unacceptable? That having indiscriminate sex with just about anybody is unacceptable? That you are responsible for your own actions? That marriage is not “playing house” or a game, that can be undone when you don’t want to play anymore? Is no one embarrassed by being an unwed mother anymore? My child is proud that she is the product of a married couple who had her AFTER they were married. She knows who her parents are and that they care for her and want her to be a moral, loving person who respects herself and others.