Happy Valentine’s Day. Now Go Get Married.
Marriage isn’t a purely private concern. It impacts you, your kids, and society. America needs to get better at it.
Happy Valentine’s Day. Before you celebrate by heading out and swiping right, let’s have a talk about marriage.
For decades, the United States has tolerated the decline of marriage because it seemed to be what a modern society demanded. But it turns out that “liberation” isn’t free and the costs of subverting the marriage culture have become prohibitive.
Today, only about 60 percent of marriages last and many partners never get married in the first place. Forty percent of children are born outside marriage, with much higher rates for minorities. And all of this has caused a great deal of turmoil for both children and adults. To grow up with one’s original parents has become a privilege: Children of intact marriages have a much better chance to do well in life than those with single parents.
Is there anything to be done? Some experts suggest that generating more good jobs for low-skilled men could reverse the trend, while others hope that some new program will appear that strengthens marriage. But these hopes are probably ill-founded. Because the main cause of marital decline isn’t a policy matter. It’s simply that, while most Americans still affirm the value of marriage, it no longer has moral authority. It has decayed into a distant ideal that no longer governs actual behavior.
To restore marriage, people must again observe the two main conventions that used to support the institution. First, adults should not form intimate ties for very long without committing themselves in some formal way to remain together for life. That implies not having affairs and not divorcing except in unusual circumstances. Second, children should be born and brought up within marriage, meaning with parents in a committed relationship, rather than with single parents.
The problem, of course, is that these conventions run afoul of our modern fetish for “tolerance.” Marriage and the family are now seen as a private realm where nothing—government, the community, even the private opinions of fellow citizens—should be allowed to pass judgment, let alone intervene.
But marriage isn’t only a private concern. One reason lower-income society is falling apart is that the decline of marriage leaves too few adults who are willing and able to help each other. Spouses who cannot get along within the family also cannot contribute much to the wider society. They have little to offer others in the joint work of building strong communities. Government and nonprofit bodies attempt to fill the void, but even they cannot substitute for families based on strong adult commitments.
Because of the social costs of nonmarriage, “tolerance,” while laudable, should not be society’s only goal. Instead, we should be working to strike a balance between free choice and the promotion of the stable, supportive environments that create the best outcomes for both children and adults.
Any return to marriage norms, however, must take into account the feminist critique. Two generations ago, wives were often subordinate to their husbands or blindly deferred to them. Most advocates of marriage today recognize that the institution can be rebuilt only if it is done so on more egalitarian lines. Husbands and wives must be partners, without either ruling over the other. This does assume, however, that the spouses can work out differences more openly than they often did in the past.
Is it politically feasible to reestablish marriage norms? Most people think not. Polls show that majorities of Americans see marriage as a private matter that government should stay out of. On the other hand, public opinion has supported a restoration of social order in other areas: It has strongly endorsed the stiffening of criminal enforcement since the 1970s, which has helped to reduce crime. It applauded the strengthening of work requirements in cash welfare during the 1990s. It also has supported moves to raise standards in the schools, and student learning has begun to improve. On all these fronts, traditional views prevailed because they were popular, despite the misgivings of many experts and commentators. Marriage is one of the few major areas affecting the social order where a collapse of standards has gone unopposed.
Our leaders and policy prescriptions should be willing to advocate those two forgotten norms and—if necessary—disapprove of behavior contrary to them. As one example, the New York City welfare department under Mayor Michael Bloomberg ran advertisements on public transit warning youth that having children as teenagers was undesirable. This sort of common-sense judgmentalism is needed and welcome.
But reclaiming marriage is about more than politics and policy. Popular culture spins a fantasy in which people fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. In fact, the main barrier to maintaining marriage is getting along with one’s spouse after the initial rapture passes. Although religions honor marriage, even they have remarkably little to say about how to do it long-term. And the instructions young people receive in school merely emphasize the logistics of sex, pregnancy, and disease. Instead, education ought to deal more realistically with the emotional side of relationships, and the authors and counselors who deal with marriage professionally have much to offer here.
Some legal changes can help, too. Both marriage and divorce should be more demanding than they are now. Engaged couples should face premarital counseling before they can get a marriage license, to be sure they have at least considered issues in their lives which might trouble them later. And couples seeking divorce should face similar counseling to be sure their marriage can’t be saved. Neither marriage nor divorce should be casual as they often are today—the stakes are too high for adults, children, and society.
There is often a fear—not an unreasonably one—among proponent of tolerance über alles that restoring the marriage culture would also mean restoring stigmas against those who violate the norms. True, cohabitation and single parenthood cannot be deterred unless they face clearer disapproval than they usually do today. But the emphasis should always be on the positive: on the gains that stable marriages bring to private life. Stigma can be minimized by also emphasizing forgiveness and second-chances: Many people fail at a first marriage but succeed at a second; that is an outcome to be praised. Some divorce should still be allowed—norms need not be rigid in order to be effective.
Above all, we must abandon the idea that marriage is a realm of total freedom where society need have no expectations at all. We have seen where that road leads, and it is time to reverse course. Society can handle marriage better than it has. The answer is neither the silent subordination of the past nor the utter liberation of today. Rather, it is to take marriage more seriously—and get better at it.
Lawrence M. Mead is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University. This article is based on his paper, “Restoring a Marriage Norm” (Center of the American Experiment, January 2018).