Society must get more serious about marriage. For decades now, the United States has tolerated the decline of marriage because it seemed to be what a free society demanded. Feminists viewed marriage as oppressive to women, and progressives welcomed growing liberation from relational constraints. But the costs have become prohibitive.
Today, less than 60% of first marriages last, while many partners never marry at all. Forty percent of children are born outside marriage, with much higher rates for minorities. With less marriage, households often witness multiple changes of partners, producing turmoil for both parents and children. To grow up with both one’s original parents has become a privilege—children who do so have a much better chance of doing well in later life than those raised by single parents. The fact that family disarray is worst at the bottom of society has become a driving force behind growing inequality.
As I argue in my new essay for the Center of the American Experiment, the main cause of marital decline is simply that, while most Americans still affirm the value of marriage, it no longer has moral authority. To restore marriage, adults must again observe the two main conventions that previously supported the institution. First, adults should not form intimate ties for very long without committing themselves in some formal way to remain together for life. This implies not having affairs and not divorcing except in unusual circumstances. Second, children should be born and brought up within marriage, meaning with parents in a committed relationship, rather than with single parents.
Limits on Tolerance
What blocks restoring those norms is the fetish of tolerance. Marriage and the family are commonly seen today as a private realm where government should not intervene. But given the social costs of marriage decline, to maximize freedom cannot be the only goal. Rather, a balance must be struck between free choice and providing the stable, supportive environment that both adults and children need in private life. Society urgently needs a return to firmer marriage norms.
Any change, however, must address the feminist critique. Two generations ago, wives were often subordinated by their husbands or blindly deferred to them. Women’s resistance to this fate was clearly one reason for marriage decline. Even advocates of marriage today recognize that the institution can be rebuilt only on more egalitarian lines. Husbands and wives must be partners, without either ruling over the other. Fortunately, the movement of most mothers into the workforce has already made spouses more equal within marriage, as now both spouses, and not the husband alone, support family income.
The Politics of Marriage
Is it politically feasible to reestablish marriage norms? Polls do show that majorities of Americans see marriage as a private matter than government should stay out of. On the other hand, public opinion has recently supported a restoration of social order in other key areas. It strongly endorsed the stiffening of criminal enforcement since the 1970s, which has helped to reduce crime, and it applauded the strengthening of work requirements in cash welfare during the 1990s. It also has supported moves to raise standards in the schools, and student learning has begun to improve. Marriage is in fact the only major area affecting social order where a collapse of norms has gone unquestioned.
Our leaders and public programs must be willing to defend the two norms I have suggested and—if necessary—disapprove of behavior contrary to them. The instruction young people receive in school emphasizes the physical side of sex—the dangers of pregnancy and disease. It ought to deal more realistically with the emotional side as well. Popular culture spins a fantasy in which people fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after. In fact, the main barrier to maintaining marriage is getting along with one’s spouse after the initial rapture passes. How to accomplish that is above all what youth need to learn.
Both marriage and divorce should be more demanding than they are now. Engaged couples should face pre-marital counseling before they can get a marriage license, to be sure they have faced issues that might trouble them later. And couples who are seeking a divorce, especially those with children, should undergo similar counseling to be sure they have seriously worked to save their marriage.
Some will fear that restoring marriage norms also means restoring stigma against those who violate the norms. True, nonmarriage and single parenthood cannot be deterred unless they face clearer disapproval than they usually do today. But the emphasis should be on the positive—on the gains that more routine and stable marriage can bring to private life. Stigma can be minimized by allowing an element of forgiveness and second chances. Some divorces are necessary. Norms need not be absolutely rigid to be effective.
Above all, we must abandon the idea that marriage is a realm of total freedom where society need have no expectations at all. We have seen where that road leads, and it is time to reverse course. Society can handle marriage better than it has. The answer is neither the silent subordination of the past nor the utter liberation of the present. Rather, it is to take marriage more seriously—and get better at it.
Lawrence M. Mead is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University. This article summarizes his recent essay, “Restoring a Marriage Norm” (Center of the American Experiment, January 2018).
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.