When I hear that one of the news magazines has done a cover story on marriage, I imagine a repeat of Lisa Miller's shoddy Newsweek essay on why Christians really don't know what the Bible teaches about marriage. However, Time's most recent cover story by Caitlin Flanagan details why the institution of marriage is vitally important to the health and sustainability of our society, while asking the inevitable question: Is there hope for the American marriage?
Flanagan explains the benefits of marriage and the consequences of its failure by examining seminal studies on the long term impact of marriage, including some from surprising sources.
The reason for these appeals to lasting unions is simple: on every
single significant outcome related to short-term well-being and
long-term success, children from intact, two-parent families outperform
those from single-parent households. Longevity, drug abuse, school
performance and dropout rates, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior and
incarceration — if you can measure it, a sociologist has; and in all
cases, the kids living with both parents drastically outperform the
Few things hamper a child as much as not having a father at home. "As a
feminist, I didn't want to believe it," says Maria Kefalas, a
sociologist who studies marriage and family issues and co-authored a
seminal book on low-income mothers called Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.
"Women always tell me, 'I can be a mother and a father to a child,' but
it's not true." Growing up without a father has a deep psychological
effect on a child. "The mom may not need that man," Kefalas says, "but
her children still do."
…The groundbreaking research on the effects of divorce on children
from middle- and upper-income households comes from a surprising
source: a Princeton sociologist and single mother named Sara McLanahan,
who decided to study the fates of these children with the tacit
assumption that once you control for income, being part of a
single-parent household does not adversely affect kids. The results —
which she published in the 1994 book Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps
— were surprising. "Children who grow up in a household with only one
biological parent," she found, "are worse off, on average, than
children who grow up in a household with both of their biological
parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background."
The piece closes by examining "the fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century."
What is the purpose of marriage? Is it — given the
game-changing realities of birth control, female equality and the fact
that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized — simply
an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the
adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake now:
there probably aren't many people whose idea of 24-hour-a-day good
times consists of being yoked to the same romantic partner, through
bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional
upsets, until after many a long decade, one or the other eventually
dies in harness.
Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and
function — to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to
instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the
generation's own safe passage into adulthood? Think of it this way: the
current generation of children, the one watching commitments between
adults snap like dry twigs and observing parents who simply can't be
bothered to marry each other and who hence drift in and out of their
children's lives — that's the generation who will be taking care of us
when we are old.