- What does it do to modern marriage when its core meaning shifts to the parent-child relationship rather than the dyadic, romantic relationship? Tweet This
- The hope of an enduring, post-parental love is what gives married parents needed energy and strength during the intensive childrearing years when romance often struggles for air. Tweet This
- An effective rebalancing calls for weaving romance and parenting together into a stronger (and egalitarian) social bond called marriage rather than ripping romance from its core meaning. Tweet This
In a recent Big Think video and IFS blog post, Brookings Senior Fellow Richard Reeves argues the reasons that motivated people to get married in the past—religion, money, pregnancy, status, and even love—have lost much of their cultural pull to the altar. The economic dependency and gender inequality in the old model of marriage that was once taken for granted now has been rejected.
But still, Reeves is uneasy. Though he sees this as progress, he also sees too much domestic fracture and instability. Too many marriages are unstable, and many more fail to form at all, leaving children with fewer human and financial resources. In this egalitarian age, Reeves writes that “the challenge we now face is to find ways to create more stability in our family life, without sacrificing the goal of [gender] equality.” This call to action implies—to us—that Reeves and many others believe there is still a powerful gravitational pull in marriage towards gender inequality.
Reeves thinks that the way to create such stability for the 21st century is to promote a “new model [of marriage] founded on shared parenting.” Not on romance or financial security or gender complementarity; rather, he argues, that “a shared commitment to kids” is the way to find a new (and more enduring) foundation for marriage. We agree that children should be a central part of any discussion about the future of marriage. But this rearticulation of marriage raises as many questions as it answers for us.
How far can the focus on children be separated from the relationship of the parents? And what does it do to modern marriage when its core meaning shifts to the parent-child relationship rather than the dyadic, romantic relationship?
A focus on shared parenting seems to separate the sexual relationship of marriage from the children that such sex produces. This approach also brackets the question of whose children are being raised. Does biological parentage matter? The logic of traditional marriage was that every child has exactly two parents, and that the child has a right to care and support from those (biological) parents. Does the call for parenting-centered marriage entail a downgrading of the importance of biological ties? It’s hard to see how it doesn’t.
In contemporary society, we struggle to articulate a publicly agreed-upon rationale for marriage. Yes, children are a crucial part of the institution of marriage, but we don’t think that children alone should bear the weight of the institution’s primary meaning and purpose. Marriage is a union of two people, which (in our view) is naturally fulfilled by the coming to be and rearing of children. And marriage is a basic human good even if the marriage is never blessed with children. Children account for much of the interest of the state in marriage, but marriage can exist without children, just as loving and compassionate homes for children can exist without marriage.
We appreciate the call to attention to the reality that children’s needs remain a central element of modern marriage. But we can’t help but see this new child-centered model as rather utilitarian and a little flat. It intends to accomplish a crucial task of rearing the next generation, but it seems undefined or even empty beyond that. We confess a bit of queasiness at how a too-enthusiastic embrace of the parenting-team-marriage model. We are not only modern cheerleaders for mature love-based marriage but acknowledge that love is core to its traditional and historical meaning. (In this assertion, we diverge from some popular histories of marriage, as Alan wrote in a previous IFS blog.)
Here’s one worry. Contemporary patterns of intensive parenting bracket about 20-25 years, only about a third of our adult life span. Upon completing active child-rearing duties, are spouses left with a weak connection in the dusk of their post-parental years? Would new romantic relationships—ones better suited to new post-parental explorations and adventures—be an ethical option now? Is there little meaning (and social capital) in the glowing embers of later-life, post-parental marriage? The co-parenting marriage risks constricting the meaning of marriage to the intensive parenting years.
We agree that children should be a central part of any discussion about the future of marriage. But this rearticulation of marriage raises as many questions as answers for us.
So, we push back against a “new” model that downsizes the meaning and value of mature romance and of new-growth love built on a lengthy and rich history of shared experience rearing children and building a meaningful life together. In fact, we suspect that It is the fuller package of marriage, with romance and dyadic love, and parenting and companionship, and intergenerational connection and societal integration that imbues marriage with staying power—that makes it a societal “good” as well as a personal aspiration.
Reeves acknowledges that there are other options beyond marriage for rearing children in our society, and the stigma of these other options is nearly gone. Why, then, reinvent modern marriage with co-parenting at its core? Is it because marriage still provides the best social glue for cementing long-term commitment to children, which is undoubtedly an essential ingredient to effective co-parenting? Isn’t that commitment powered by the romantic bond as it is the intergenerational relationship? And if so, we need to sustain that bond to support the co-parenting team.
We look forward to continued conversation and debate on how to strengthen the institution of marriage for the 21st century, especially when the needs of children are spotlighted. Absent more details, however, we struggle to see how a new model of marriage based primarily on shared parenting is, well, all that new. But more importantly, we struggle to see how it enhances children being raised in stable, two-parent families, which is what Reeves and all of us want. Will 21st century sexual partners be more careful to avoid conceptions outside the formal commitment of marriage when society widely recognizes co-parenting as the proper and primary function of marriage? Are unmarried parents more likely to marry each other when conceiving a child, even absent the stigma, because parenting is viewed as the proper purview of marriage? And will married parents be more likely to stay together for the sake of the children (or stay together longer) because it’s not good to break up an experienced parenting team? If Reeves answers yes to these questions, we need him to connect the dots for us.
But come to think of it, this train of questions resulting from this proposed new model bears remarkable resemblance to pre-Sexual Revolution times and mores. Perhaps the ascendence in modern times of romantic love to the pinnacle of marital meaning and purpose is responsible for a portion of the increased family instability we have experienced over the past half-century. An effective rebalancing, however, calls for weaving romance and parenting together into a stronger (and egalitarian) social bond called marriage rather than ripping romance from its core meaning. Which all sounds pretty retro to us—not really a progressive path to a better future for children and parents.
Alan J. Hawkins and Daniel H. Frost are professors of family life at Brigham Young University.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.