The Evolution of Marriage?
- Michael Craven Center for Christ & Culture
- 2008 5 May
Stephanie Coontz, the director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, offered a defense of same-sex marriage which appeared in a Dallas Morning News editorial. The article, The Heterosexual Revolution argues that it is not the legitimization of "gay marriage" that threatens "traditional" marriage but rather it was the earlier abandonment of marriage and all that it embodies by heterosexuals that destroyed our traditional commitment to marriage.
In this latter sense I could not agree more. The Sexual Revolution of the 1960s succeeded in extending sex beyond the previously exclusive relationship of legal marriage. For the first time in America sex outside of marriage became increasingly accepted. As a result sex was divorced from marriage which then opened the door to the acceptance of out-of-wedlock child-bearing further eroding the socially-perceived necessity of marriage. With the increased separation of sex from marriage and marriage from parenting; marriage simply became unnecessary and outdated in the minds of many.
Indeed, today 35 percent of children born in the U.S. are born out-of-wedlock. Sixty-percent of these are to single, non-cohabitating mothers. Out-of wedlock birth has surpassed divorce has the leading cause of single-parenthood in America. However the number of children born to non-married cohabitating couples has increased steadily over the last decade. While statistics demonstrate a continual decrease in the rate of divorce since its peak in 1980 this is largely due to a corresponding reduction in the number of couples marrying. No marriage - no divorce. Conversely non-married cohabitation increased 1200 percent from 1960 to 2004. Today, over half of all first marriages are now preceded by living together, compared to virtually none 50 years ago.
For many, cohabitation is seen as a prelude to marriage and for a growing number of couples, it is considered an acceptable alternative to marriage with a growing percentage of these cohabiting households, now over 40 percent, containing children. The belief that living together before marriage is a useful way "to find out whether you really get along" and thus avoid a bad marriage and an eventual divorce, is now widespread among young people. But the available data on the effects of cohabitation fail to confirm this belief. In fact, a substantial body of evidence indicates that those who live together before marriage are more likely to break up after marriage. The most recent research reveals that 50 percent of cohabitating relationships break up by the fifth year as compared to a 15 percent dissolution rate among married couples.
I would add that cohabitation undermines the very heart of a successful relationship and subsequent marriage by fostering a condition in which couples begin with a "reserved" level of commitment to one another. This is the essence of a successful marriage; decreased commitment to "me" replaced by a mutual commitment to "we." In a cohabitating relationship couples still hold, in varying degrees, to their individualism, their wants, their needs, etc. This might explain in part why these relationships experience considerably higher break up rates.
Of course none of this would have been possible were it not for the reduced societal commitment to the ideal of marriage. By loosening the societal expectations for marriage as the exclusive and only acceptable context for sexual activity and the essential institution for producing and raising children, marriage ceased being important or necessary.
Consider for example that, according to researchers at Rutgers University, the number one reason given by men today for their unwillingness to marry is that "they can get sex without marriage more easily than in times past."
Where I disagree with Ms. Coontz article is when she argues, "Marriage has been in a constant state of evolution since the dawn of the Stone Age. In the process it has become more flexible, but also more optional." Historically speaking this is simply untrue. While marriage and its expectations may vary across cultures, among the world's civilized cultures the definition of marriage has been fairly universal. One man and one woman bound together legally and morally and jointly prohibited from extra-marital sexual liaisons.
Furthermore, marriage in these civilized cultures represented and reinforced society's interest in the manner and place in which children came into being and were subsequently raised. The societal ideal was that couples marry, procreate and remain married for life in order to provide the best possible structure for the raising of healthy and productive children. This also ultimately served to regulate sexual behavior (procreative acts) thereby reinforcing a higher moral order.
Among civilized cultures marriage was by no means optional and this is where Ms. Coontz fails to acknowledge history. In every instance where marriage as a means of regulating sexual behavior became "optional" sexual immorality increased followed by increased family dissolution rates which inevitably produced a host of deleterious effects that contributed directly to that civilization's demise.
Ms. Coontz finally suggests that same-sex marriage is a natural step in the ongoing "evolution" of marriage and therefore should not be opposed. Of course this "evolution" is a first in all of human history since there never has been another culture to legitimize homosexual acts in this way.
I hasten to add that this so-called "evolution" of marriage has produced anything but improvement. The U.S., despite a two-decade drop, still has one of the highest divorce rates in the world and among Western nations the U.S. has the lowest percentage of children being raised by biological parents. Traditional marriage has already been "upended" as Coontz acknowledges and the facts are that marriage and the family are in serious trouble in America.
This matters because children deprived of this ideal family structure suffer the most and subsequently the society in which they ultimately live and reign. According to Dr. David Popenoe, the acclaimed Rutgers University sociologist, "children are highly dependent for their development and success in life on the family in which they are born and raised, and a convincing mass of scientific evidence now exists pointing to the fact that not growing up in an intact nuclear family is one of the most deleterious events that can befall a child."
It is only because traditional marriage has fallen into this anemic condition that marriage between persons of the same-sex even becomes conceivable. Continuation down this present path will only further weaken our already fragile social commitment to the institution of marriage. Recall also that this devolution of marriage has taken place within just one generation - imagine the state of the family in one or two more generations in the wake of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Same-sex marriage will not strengthen our society's perception of and commitment to marriage, quite the contrary, same-sex marriage only reinforces the message that traditional marriage is outdated and that virtually any family form is acceptable.
*This article originally posted on Crosswalk.com July 22, 2005. Copyright 2005, National Coalition for the Protection of Children & Families. All rights reserved.
Statistics cited in this article were taken from David Popenoe, Ph.D. & Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Ph.D., The State of Our Unions: The Social Health of Marriage in America 2002 & 2005 reports, The National Marriage Project; an initiative of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey.
S. Michael Craven is the founder and President of the Center for Christ & Culture. The Center for Christ & Culture is dedicated to renewal within the Church and works to equip Christians with an intelligent and thoroughly Christian approach to matters of culture in order to recapture and demonstrate the relevance of Christianity to all of life. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture, additional resources and other works by S. Michael Craven visit: www.battlefortruth.org
Michael lives in the Dallas area with his wife Carol and their three children.