Cynics sneer at Valentine's Day as a Hallmark-designed holiday, designed to compel the purchase of frivolous gifts. Boyfriends dutifully buy flowers and husbands pay extra for prefixed dinners. Yet even the most cynical often grudgingly agree there's something nice about taking time to appreciate love relationships—even if the occasion is contrived.
Unfortunately, while American culture may benefit from a bit more romance, our real problems won't be solved with chocolates and teddy bears. The numbers can be depressing: Forty percent of first marriages end in divorce, with prospects worse for subsequent marriages. While ten percent of babies were born outside of wedlock in 1970, today, forty percent are.
This means a growing portion of children are growing up outside of two-parent homes and, as a result, are more at risk of serious problems. Kids who are raised by single parents are more likely to drop out of school, experiment with drugs, become incarcerated, get pregnant in their teens, and divorce. In addition to the lost happiness and squandered human potential, these pathologies lead to increased dependency on taxpayer-funded support and strain government budgets.
What can be done? The rise of divorce and out of wedlock births have been fueled by many factors. Liberalized divorce laws, changing societal expectations about pre-marital sex and divorce, and women's increased economic independence—including welfare programs that provide support for unmarried mothers—have all made it easier for couples not to marry or to split up when a marriage is less than perfect.
Perhaps most significant has been the shift in expectations for the marriage relationship itself. Marriage was once in large measure an economic relationship, facilitating alliances of property and preserving resources for the next generation. Few expected a perfect, lasting romance. As resources became more plentiful and the struggle for survival less acute, there was more room to linger on the emotional connection between marriage partners. People began to want more than simple affection; they longed for enduring romantic love.
The expectation of love and romantic companionship in marriage is mostly a positive development. How depressing to think of returning to days when love wasn't the central reason to wed! Yet there's also a considerable downside to the new standards. Too many married couples have come to believe that any wavering from romantic love is a failure of the marriage and a reason to end it. Couples that might have married for the sake of an unexpected child increasingly forgo marriage, holding out for a soul mate.
Our culture desperately could use a more thorough understanding of what constitutes a healthy marriage and a more realistic conception of how love evolves over time. Movies tend to end when a couple is still in the throes of new, passionate romance. Few explore the very different, but arguably stronger and more intimate, love that exists between a couple twenty years later, after decades of negotiating who does the dishes and when to trade in the worn-out car.
Young people—particularly those raised outside a marriage—need role models beyond fictional couples who are perfectly content. They need to see people who've experienced periods of hardship and less-than-optimal happiness, yet still treasure the relationship.
The alarming state of marriage tempts many to seek a set of policies or government programs to improve the situation. And certainly policymakers should consider the areas in which government actively undermines families. Welfare laws, for example, that rewarded mothers for not marrying their child's fathers were exactly the wrong prescription for fighting poverty. By discouraging marriage, they reinforced poverty and helped start a cycle of dependency that's difficult to break.
Yet attempts to use government to fix marriage will almost certainly fail. At their worst, such programs co-opt or displace more successful private (often religious-based) efforts that actually work. And while many people concerned about the state of marriage want to focus on gay couples, statistics show the decline began long before this was even an issue.
In short, family fragmentation isn't a problem that can be solved through the ballot box, by a federal program, or by condemning others. The hard work of improving the culture surrounding marriage must take place at an individual level. It requires married couples working harder to improve their own relationships and talking honestly with young people about what it takes to make a marriage work. Friends need to counsel other friends to work through rough patches and focus on the long-term value of their commitment.
So by all means, let's celebrate romance on Valentine's Day. But let's not forget to appreciate the deeper significance of love and commitment that lasts all year long.