I have seen this type of argument many times, in many forms. This particular instance, by one Stephanie Coontz at the WaPo, happens to deal with the decline of marriage, but the subject could just as easily have been alcoholism, or school violence, or pornography.
The tone is always one of worldly sophistication. The argument itself goes something like this: “Yes, a good marriage is a lovely thing. Yes, people are emotionally attached to the institution, and it’s quaint to watch them try to promote it. But let’s face the facts: we are in the grip of powerful and irreversible forces, over which we have no control, and these forces have determined that marriage as a public institution is finished. Get real. Get over it.”
Coontz’s theory is that the trouble with marriage is love and choice. Love placed unreasonable expectations on a human institution. Choice, which arrived for women with birth control and their entry into the labor force, meant that, short of love, women could afford to avoid or escape marriage. The proof, for Coontz, is in the steep hike in divorce rates since 1970, and the later increase in both unwed mothers and unmarried women worldwide. On the one had, marriage “as a private relationship” is more prized than “ever before in history.”
But marriage as a public institution exerts less power over people’s lives now that the majority of Americans spend half their adult lives outside marriage and almost half of all kids spend part of their childhood in a household that does not include their two married biological parents. And unlike in the past, marriage or lack of marriage does not determine people’s political and economic rights. [. . .]
Nor does a solution lie in preaching the benefits of marriage to impoverished couples or outlawing unconventional partnerships. A poor single mother often has good reason not to marry her child’s father, and poor couples who do wed have more than twice the divorce risk of more affluent partners in the United States. Banning same-sex marriage would not undo the existence of alternatives to traditional marriage. Five million children are being raised by gay and lesbian couples in this country. Judges everywhere are being forced to apply many principles of marriage law to those families, if only to regulate child custody should the couple part ways.
We may personally like or dislike these changes. We may wish to keep some and get rid of others. But there is a certain inevitability to almost all of them.
Marriage is no longer the institution where people are initiated into sex. It no longer determines the work men and women do on the job or at home, regulates who has children and who doesn’t, or coordinates care-giving for the ill or the aged. For better or worse, marriage has been displaced from its pivotal position in personal and social life, and will not regain it short of a Taliban-like counterrevolution.
Forget the fantasy of solving the challenges of modern personal life by re-institutionalizing marriage. In today’s climate of choice, many people’s choices do not involve marriage. We must recognize that there are healthy as well as unhealthy ways to be single or to be divorced, just as there are healthy and unhealthy ways to be married. We cannot afford to construct our social policies, our advice to our own children and even our own emotional expectations around the illusion that all commitments, sexual activities and care-giving will take place in a traditional marriage. That series has been canceled.
Where to begin? First, with a factual cavil. I don’t know where Coontz got her figures, but if she’s going to claim that Americans spend more than half their lives outside marriage, and that 5 million children have been adopted by gay and lesbian couples, she had better produce some supporting evidence. I certainly find none in the census figures. And as long as we are talking about facts, it would be useful to introduce into the discussion the economic effects of the trends Coontz is urging us to bow before. These have been disastrous for women, even worse for kids. The human toll, while less quantifiable, is almost certainly as great.
Such a human and economic disaster alone invalidates Coontz’s curious notion that marriage has become, or should become, a “private relationship.” To equalize circumstances between married and unmarried mothers, huge transfers of funds would be required, an approach many European countries have embraced. But this in essence is taxing marriage to subsidize unwed parenthood: whatever one thinks of this proposition, it’s uncontroversially a public, not a private, issue.
Then, of course, there’s the moral angle. Coontz writes about choice as if all choices were equal. But manifestly they are not. The man who abandons the mother of his child does not choose as rightly as the man who stays and supports both mother and child. The man who commits to a lifelong partnership makes a superior choice to the man who hedges and looks for escape clauses. Good parents behave better than selfish or neglectful parents.
All this is obviously and trivially true. Moral tragedies happen, and good people, despite the greatest efforts, may end up divorced. But it is as morally dim as it is insensitive not to grant the pain and loss and unhappiness that such a rupture wreaks upon men, women, and kids. Between husband and wife, there can be no private parting. Children, friends, property, whole lives, are sundered by each divorce.
So, we quaint unsophisticated types must speak up for what is right. Even if the trend against marriage were irreversible, it would still be wrong. And morality does not equate with legal compulsion. We can leave the Taliban in their caves. But we must speak up. We must judge people, as Martin Luther King requested, by the content of their characters, and we can only know their characters by their choices in life.