It's not that Americans are anti-marriage -- far from it. But increasingly, as Whitehead and Popenoe note, young people view marriage as "a couples' relationship, designed to fulfill the emotional needs of adults." Certainly both love and friendship between spouses is one of the purposes of marriage.
But when marriage is reduced to "a spiritualized union of souls," the connection between marriage and family becomes harder to see: What's baby got to do with it?
When I speak with the new wave of young mothers who co-habit rather than marry, they say things like: "I don't want him to think he has to marry me."
No, he doesn't have to marry you. Not unless he wants his baby to have an intact family with a fully committed father, instead of a fractured half-a-dad pulled between children of different mothers, plus his current squeeze. For men, this is the heart of what the marriage commitment means: You aren't going to let some new girl pull you away from your baby and your baby's mother.
Our new stripped-down marriage ideal is usually described as a step up: a higher, nobler commitment to pure love. I don't buy it.
Is a baby a good reason to get married? At least to marry a decent guy you love and live with? Yeah. I think so. I think making a happy family is one of the best reasons a man or woman could choose marriage. And until more parents, teachers, experts, friends, neighbors -- in a word, adults -- think so and say so, we won't make much progress in preventing fragmented, fatherless families.
Increasingly, I believe that what we can bring ourselves to say to young unwed pregnant couples is at the heart of the future of marriage and our children's well-being. The main reason we have so many more children born outside of marriage is not that single women are so much more likely to get pregnant than they were 30 years ago. It's that single, pregnant women today are so much less likely to marry their baby's father. Not just young teens, but adults in their 20s.
Right now what we say to those co-habiting parents is usually something like: Whatever you decide; as long as you love each other; you are probably too young; don't marry for the wrong reasons (like having a baby?).
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.
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