A recent Pew study made headlines last week, revealing that "as values, economics, and gender patterns change . . . the share of American adults that have never been married is at an historic high." According to the report "adults are marrying later in life, and the shares of adults cohabiting and raising children outside of marriage have increased significantly. . . . In addition, shifting public attitudes, hard economic times and changing demographic patterns may all be contributing to the rising share of never-married adults."
The report also reveals that the American people are about evenly split in their opinion about whether or not this trend is harmful to society, but given the mountains of anecdotal and statistical evidence demonstrating the unequivocal societal benefits of marriage, it seems safe to say that this trend has ominous implications for society, regardless of the divided public opinion on the matter.
As disappointing as this trend away from marriage is, it's not really surprising. It is no secret that American society has always venerated the ideal of self-determination. Americans blaze their own trails, we are risk takers and barrier breakers, etc. We have never been satisfied with doing things the way they've always been done, simply because they've always been done that way.
There is much to admire in this attitude, and in many areas it has served America well. Unfortunately, in recent decades the principle of self-determination has morphed into a cult of self-worship. Any institution that impedes the individual's pursuit of happiness or stifles one's journey towards self-actualization is decried and condemned as parochial, old-fashioned, and oppressive. The mere suggestion that marriage is a better domestic arrangement than cohabitation or singledom (particularly if there are children involved) is rejected as narrow-minded and simply passé.
Like so much of the new self-centered ideology, however, this ambivalent attitude towards marriage is at odds with reality. Marriage still matters. Historically, marriage – marriage between one man and one woman – has been the foundation of civil society. It is this unique relationship that has produced children, secured the inter-generational transmission of values, provided a solid foundation for the economy and security for women and children, etc. Marriage is and always has been more than the sum of its parts, more than a mere social convention. As traditionally understood, the bonds of marriage are forged not by man, but by God. They are not merely legal, physical, or emotional, they are spiritual and sacred. This understanding of marriage views marriage as a formative institution. It's something that changes you for the better. It requires self-sacrifice and humility. It establishes a new relationship that is more important than either of the two individuals that constitute it. In this sense, it's not about what your marriage can do for you, but what you can do for your marriage.
It may be that part of the disregard the current generation has for marriage is a result of so many young people today having grown up as children of divorce. The divorce narrative is something they internalized at a young age, to the point where divorce almost seems the natural course of marriage and the idea of lifelong partnership with one person naïve and idealistic. Seeking to avoid making the same mistake their parents did, people today are more inclined to wait, to cohabit before taking the plunge, or to forgo the institution altogether. The fact that the term "starter marriage" has become part of the cultural vernacular is a testament to this idea. Many people enter into marriage almost expecting that it will eventually fail as a matter of natural course.
It is particularly unfortunate that the move away from marriage is most strongly impacting demographics that are already vulnerable for a host of other reasons. It is one thing for an upper middle class, college-educated person to decide to bypass marriage as a cost of career advancement or self-actualization, it's something else entirely when domestic brokenness is the norm for certain socio-economic and racial groups. Stable, lasting marriage, it seems, is quickly becoming yet another privilege of the one percent.
Bottom line: we abandon marriage at our peril. In doing so, we put children at risk as well as the preservation of our own society. If marriage doesn't endure, you can be sure the unraveling of society is not far behind.