Make Over the American Marriage

The big news from the release of The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America 2010 was that marriage is becoming a less important fact of American life. Worse, for the pro-marriage crowd that includes the groups behind the study, The Center for Marriage and Families and The National Marriage Project, it’s no longer just the left-leaning, latte-sipping cultural elite who are losing faith.

Class is no longer a reliable predictor of marital attitudes. Less educated Americans are now abandoning the institution of marriage at the same rate as their more educated brethren.

Conservatives, both fiscal and social, predictably see this as a sign of the apocalypse. If the good old Middle Class can’t embrace an institution as unapologetically bourgeois as marriage, what will become of the children? That is, after all, the biggest and best argument supporters of marriage have: American children do best growing up with two married parents living in the same household.

Fair enough. I’m not math-minded enough to argue with their statistics (though others are). The study has a much bigger problem: the decline in religious observance—also much lamented by the right—has left the National Marriage Project leaning harder on marriage’s secular and civic virtues. But they haven’t realized those virtues demand a different gospel.If the idea is to promote marriage as “Good for America,” the argument should seem plausibly patriotic in spirit. By that I mean, the United States—at least since 1920 or so (earlier and later for African-Americans)—has aspired to live up to its founding premise: all men and women are created equal.

If marriage is an institution that is good for the country, then it should be equally good for men and women. To suggest that marriage is better for women than men, or vice versa—that’s un-American.

Unfortunately, that’s the argument the National Marriage Project uses.

When the discussion ties the “disappearance” of marriage in the Middle Classes to the growing popularity of the “soul mate” ideal and its emphasis on affective individualism (a development, by the way, that scholars have been noting for centuries), or puzzles over how Americans are far less likely than Europeans to view childbearing as the primary purpose of marriage, or better still, comes right out and says that the problem with kids today is that they’re a lot less willing than their grandparents to “make do” in marriage and in life—we don’t need an anatomically correct doll to guess who they’re really talking to.

The problem isn’t that marriage has changed or that our culture’s attitude toward marriage has changed. The problem is that women have changed, and the way our culture thinks about women has changed. And to my delight, it looks like that filly’s galloped out of the stable and locked the door behind her.

The problem isn’t that Middle America has become less likely to think that marriage is for the purpose of having children, the problem is that women have caught up to the men, who historically have not only been both capable of and inclined to father children both within marriage and without, but have—despite the best exhortations of many millennia’s worth of religious dogma—somehow stumbled upon the faint possibility that sex may be about more than making babies, after all.

The way I see it, marriage advocates can either step up their efforts to remind men that it’s their civic duty to remain chaste until—and during—marriage (I can see the mother-son Purity Balls now!) or they can grow up and make contraceptives safe, cheap, and easily accessible now.

About Jodi:
Jodi is a freelance writer and recovering academic with more enthusiasm for sports than athletic talent and a prodigious taste for the health food known as dark chocolate.


  1. I think you do a good job of problematizing the class implications of the marriage study. I think that race also needs to be taken into consideration, since Chinese Americans and African Americans (for instance) have historically been denied the right to get married as a means of population control. Marriage is a white institution, as both a metaphor and a literal interpretation.

  2. I’m a feminist, consider myself very liberal, but still think that overall marriage can be a very good thing, despite not believing that marriage is only related to having kids. Marriage shouldn’t be about sex or babies. Then again, I also don’t fall into their definition of “Middle America,” and am probably considered a liberal-leaning, latte-sipping, cultural “elite” (and totally lacking any religion), yet one who still thinks there’s a lot to be said for the benefits of marriage. I’m not sure why there’s this idea that being supportive of marriage automatically places on in the cultural conservative camp. The other thing that jumps out at me from this article is the reference to the liberal elite “losing faith” in marriage; granted, I haven’t had the chance to sit down and read the report carefully yet, but their point seems to be the opposite: it’s the highly educated liberal “elite” who are the most supportive of marriage, have the best marriages, and who have the most faith in the institution. Their abstract points to this as a “striking reversal of historic trends.”

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