Hopeful News from the Marriage Front

America is a pro-marriage country. After debating the value of matrimony for several decades, Americans have come down firmly in favor of tying the knot. Cue the wedding bells.

Some readers may be scratching their heads at this point. That is understandable. No reasonable person could claim that the institution of marriage is healthy in America today. It has been declining for some time, particularly among the poor. Charles Murray has documented this quite dramatically in his recent bestseller, Coming Apart, which examines marital trends in America from 1960 through 2010. Murray’s analysis shows that wealthier and better-educated Americans became highly divorce-prone in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. After that period, marriage made a modest recovery in this demographic, which gradually became less tolerant of divorce and cohabitation. Today marriage is still an institution of great social significance among the elite, and college-educated women who bear children overwhelmingly do so within the bonds of wedlock.

For the poor and less educated, the story is quite different. Among this demographic marriage declined in the 1970’s, and then declined further. There has been no recovery. We now live in a world in which approximately a third of prime-age working class men have never married, and women without a high school education are substantially more likely to have a child out of wedlock than in it.

The social consequences of this cultural shift have been grim, especially for children. As Murray points out, the children of married, biological parents who are living together have the best chance to thrive and succeed in life, according to virtually every measurable indicator. For poor children in America, the decline of marriage has been nothing short of catastrophic. Murray regards it as the single most significant dividing line between the privileged elite and the struggling underclass in an increasingly class-segregated United States.

These are sobering facts. Still, the social dissolution comes with a silver lining. Americans may be inept at making their marriages work, but most now agree that it is worth trying. This is particularly true among the rich and educated, who have the most influence on our cultural institutions. Far from sneering at marriage as a repressive and bourgeoisie institution, they have become enthusiastic advocates.

As a nice indicator of how far things have come, recall the storm of controversy that Dan Quayle once precipitated by criticizing Murphy Brown (a sitcom character) for having a baby on her own and describing this as a “lifestyle choice.” Quayle suggested that the show was setting a bad example by presenting a capable, successful woman as a single mother by choice. The show had always been obnoxiously enamored with its own clichéd liberal values, and it predictably seized the opportunity to thumb its nose at America’s nerdiest politician. The episode in which Murphy Brown swung back at the vice president was not-so-cleverly entitled You Say Potatoe, and it allowed Murphy to self-righteously excoriate the vice president for failing to appreciate that families come in “many shapes and sizes.”

Flash forward to today. We do not see successful women (real or fictional) proudly flaunting their single parent status. Instead, we see the New York Times (hardly a bastion of conservatism) running pieces like “Two Classes, Divided by ‘I Do,’”  which uses both statistical and anecdotal evidence to make the point that single parenthood is extraordinarily challenging for everyone involved. This is true even when the single parent is hard-working and conscientious, as in the story’s featured case of Jessica Schairer, the single mother of three whose Herculean efforts to give her kids a good life still leave them obviously disadvantaged in comparison to the children of a married friend and colleague. The story is extraordinary both for its honesty and for its pathos. It even includes a heartbreaking anecdote about the excitement that Schairer’s son feels when she finds a boyfriend (“we’re going to do boy stuff!”), and the disappointment that follows when the boyfriend shows no interest in being a substitute dad. The piece does not go so far as to state explicitly that children need fathers, but the implication is fairly clear.

It is amazing to read such a story, and reflect on the improbability of finding it in a mainstream publication twenty or even ten years ago. And yet, this piece is not an outlier. One can find literature on “the marriage gap” sprinkled all through the liberal press. It’s official: marriage is once more in the good graces of the liberal elite. Not many are lining up to apologize to Quayle, but the fact remains that he has been vindicated. Liberals are now largely in agreement with his basic point that single parenthood is decidedly non-ideal, and that stable two-parent families overwhelmingly make the best homes for children.

Why are liberals suddenly willing to embrace marriage? I think the reason is basically threefold. The first reason is that the statistical and sociological evidence has become all but impossible to ignore. Whether you value wealth, health or happiness more generally, marriage is good for people. This is why the elite have embraced it, and also why they are now somewhat willing to discuss how sub-optimal family structures may be hurting the poor.

The second reason is that liberals have undercut the traditional understanding of marriage and changed it into something that is less offensive to them. The liberal ideal of “capstone” marriage unites two already-mature-and-professionally-established adults in what is meant to be a mutually beneficial relationship. This model does not threaten young people’s (and particularly young women’s) professional advancement in the way that conjugal marriage once did. It focuses heavily on love and mutual support, and passes lightly over the obligation to bear children. There are serious reasons to lament the popularity of the capstone model of marriage, which is bad both for American demographics and also for the poor. (If we envision marriage as an institution for professionally established people, what happens to those who never reach that bar?) Still, it has worked fairly well for the liberal elite, and has brightened their attitudes towards marriage more generally.

The third reason (which I will discuss in more detail in a forthcoming column) is that liberals have used marriage as a tool for normalizing homosexuality. This somewhat perverse strategy endangers marriage on many levels, but it has (somewhat ironically) had the effect of turning American public opinion more decidedly in favor of marriage. Far from arguing that marriage is a bourgeoisie institution that should be abolished, most Americans will now agree that it is very much a positive thing, which promotes both individual welfare and also the common good.

Clearly, the fact that Americans support marriage in principle does not mean that we should sleep easily at night. Widespread-but-nominal support for marriage does not translate into a healthy marriage culture. For that, we would need the public to have a proper understanding of what marriage is, together with well-formed sensibilities concerning sexuality and family life. Sadly, it is all too obvious that those conditions do not obtain in American society at large.

The fact remains, however, that conservatives have lost a tremendous amount of ground in the marriage debate, and they now need to make the most of whatever tools they have. Americans today are overwhelmingly pro-marriage. They recognize that the collapse of marriage is a social problem, and are willing to discuss it as such. This is good news. We must find ways to use it to our (and our country’s) advantage.

(Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.)

Rachel Lu


Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Divorce rates rose at an accelerating rate throughout the 20th century, something that was masked by the absolute numbers being, originally, quite small.

    Taking the figures for my own country, Scotland, in 1930, there were 469 decrees. A generation earlier, in 1890, there had been 87. There were 890 decrees in 1939, but in 1949, there were 2,447, an increase of 175% over 10 years.

    In the 1950s, the annual average was 2,071; in the 1930s, the annual average had been 597, representing a 250% increase on the 1930s average. So much for the family-friendly ’50s

    There were only 1,828 decrees in 1960, but in 1965, there were 2,691 and in 1969, there were 4,246.

    In 1970, there were 4,618 decrees and in 1974, the last full year before no-fault divorce, there were 7,221, a 168% increase on the 1965 figure. In 1976, the first full year of no-fault divorce, there were 8,692.

    The 1960s merely continued a trend already well in place.

  • publiusnj

    The author is a bit too optimistic in saying America is pro-marriage. Just look at the Tax Structure and the related Earned Income Structure–or the “welfare” structure, for that matter–which offer positive inducements to cohabitation rather than marriage, at least for people to whom government subsidies mean more than what their spouse would likely bring to the marriage. There is a very cynical reason for the “Welfare State” to promote concubinage and cohabitation instead of marriage: it makes the women who still have to bear any children born dependent on “Daddy State” rather than on the sire of the child. Dependency is a very powerful tool in ensuring political loyalty. Hence the “gender gap” which is really a single woman gap.

    • Adam__Baum

      One qualification, Publius. Based on my experience as a Medicaid auditor and having read thousands of patient histories in assessing the validity of claims submitted by managed care organizations to the state welfare department, what is encouraged isn’t cohabitation, but sexual itineracy.
      In short, the typical unwed mother is more likely to become pregnant by an individual with almost no interest in ongoing relationship. The recently publicized case of Orlando Shaw, who had 22 children by 14 women is quite frankly, not that unusual.

      • Art Deco

        SIring 22 children is in the papers because it is unusual.

        Please note, blacks are not particularly fecund. They reproduce at the replacement rate.

        • Adam__Baum

          The fertility rate is not at issue here, what is at issue how children are being conceived and reared.

          It is unusual in that the magnitude is unusual and he knows the number and publicly attests to it-that doesn’t mean the occurrence of indiscriminate procreation is unusual. If he had one child that he wasn’t caring for, he’s still be a scoundrel.

          Having read thousands of MA eligible maternity care files, (one of my favorites was a 41 yr. old who spontaneous aborted her seventh child, the surviving six had three different surnames. If memory serves me, two had the same first name) I know there’s a whole lot of guys out there that are looking for meaningful overnight relationships, as there always has been, but without the social opprobrium that once met with abdicating paternal responsibility.

          What does race have to do with anything? Until the 1950’s, illegitimacy was lower among blacks than whites, it wasn’t until the federal doctor provided “help” of the kind described by publiusnj that the present iatrogenic social pathiologies took root. They just happened to be more vulnerable to the effects of the welfare state when LBJ hit the accelerator.

  • Steven Jonathan

    The statistics are worse than misleading and one ought to shudder at the prospect of the quality of our culture in 30 years in the aftermath of what “marriage culture” and “family” have become today. The soul damage is incalculable. Is this really good news? I don’t know. We have in front of us a golden opportunity to evangelize our Catholic brothers and sisters on the true purpose of marriage, which is procreation and education of children and its true meaning, authentic love- The way of the cross. Marriage culture will see no real recovery unless marriage is properly understood and the attempt is made to live it out.

    • Rachel Lu

      Which statistics?

      • Steven Jonathan

        I was thinking of the statistics Murray uses for his “analysis.” Contrary to modern notions of virtues being tied to socio-economic status, I believe truth, goodness, beauty and virtue are not bought and sold but are either acquired or not through culture. Who was it that said “can’t afford morals guvnor” ? I suspect there may be other reasons why the better off classes are marrying at higher rates and having children within the bonds of marriage that are not as bright as a “modest recovery” of marriage. I hope I am wrong and that you and Murray are right. Thank you for a thought provoking article.

        • Rachel Lu

          Ah, now I think I understand, Steven. I think the reason why the better off classes are doing better with marriage is primarily rooted in the “capstone” ideal, which is largely shared across classes, but works better for the educated and rich than for the uneducated and poor. But I also think that marriage is genuinely harder when couples face financial difficulties, unemployment etc. And, once particular patterns become prevalent, that does in itself form something of a marriage culture, whether or not people are understanding marriage correctly. In other words, kids raised in an environment where most people who get and stay married will expect to do so themselves, and that expectation in itself improves their chances of doing so. At least on the level of pubic morality, staying married “for the wrong reasons” is still much better than divorcing or cohabitating.

      • Patsy Koenig

        Your article is a perfect example of a “false postive.” Or are you just conservative-bashing because you work at a so-called Catholic University?

      • Adam__Baum
        • Rachel Lu

          Okay, it was just the “misleading” part that confused me. It seemed the implication was that I was citing misleading statistics. I certainly agree that marriage is in very bad shape, but when a situation is bad I think it’s best to look for any smidgen of common ground that might be built upon in trying to make it better. If people have at least come around to the idea that marriage is a good thing, that might be the smidgen we need.

          • Adam__Baum

            It’s not just marriage in the present. It’s marriage in the future. How many children are growing up with absent fathers, in homes with a parent who is now residing with a different individual than than the child’s other parent, etc, etc.
            It’s one thing to tell subsequent generations that marriage is a life-long indissoluable bond, but that message must be modeled and normalized.
            It’s been said that failing to plan is planning to fail, and however useful that might be in economic matters, it doesn’t apply in marriage, where “failure is not an option” must be in a person’s mind and that’s a terribly difficult idea to imbue when marriage is defined by the circus that is the Kardashians and their public chaos.

  • Patsy Koenig

    Marraige versus no-fault divorce is still a “choice,” depending on whether it is personally advantageous for an individual to stay true to their covenanted vows…or not. The problem is the spiritual decline, in the world, which results quickly in moral decline…on many fronts, and most signifianctly, in the marriage laws. That leaves open the door to easy exits, when marragie is inconvenient or the grass looks greener elsewhere.

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  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    I am not sure that birth outside marriage is a very good guide to family structure.

    I do not know the figures for the United States, but in France, in 2012, according to the INED, births outside marriage, represented 44% of all births, more than half (56%) of the births of first children, a third of the births of second children, and almost a quarter of the births of third children.

    However, 85% of children under 15 lived with both their parents.

    • Adam__Baum

      Pardon my suspicion but in France is a parent defined as adult coresiding with a a child.

      • Michael Paterson-Seymour


        No. It is defined as the birth mother and the father, defined by marriage or acknowledgement.

        Some 82% of children born outside marriage were recognized by their father within one month (compared with only a third of children born outside marriage in 1965 and 1970), and 92% were ultimately recognized. Some 94% of babies recognized by their father within a month were living at that time with both their parents, whereas the proportion was only about 80% in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

        Only 15,000 children born in 2012 are expected to remain without paternal recognition, about as many as in the 1960s, when fewer than 6% of births took place outside marriage.

  • Beth Ann Vosskuhler-Waleski

    Forgive me if someone already pointed this out, but I believe that the reason the liberal cultural elite like marriage these days is so they can say: if you find yourself single and pregnant, have an abortion.

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