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  • In today's toxic environment, shaping individuals' beliefs about marriage won't be enough to strengthen families. Tweet This
  • A marriage is held together not only by the two spouses, but by the web of relationships that surrounds them. Tweet This

How is it that despite deep poverty, Appalachian farmers and miners who moved in the mid-twentieth century to Maytown, Ohio—where my wife and I have interviewed many working-class young people—typically got married and stayed married, whereas their relatively more economically secure children and grandchildren are more often delaying marriage and divorcing?

At the beginning of my research with working-class young adults, I had a simple answer: the older generation thought differently. They saw marriage as sacred and divorce as shameful. Moreover, their example, I believed, suggested that the most efficient way to strengthen the working-class family was not bolstering their economic position, but changing their beliefs about marriage and family. In other words, mind over matter. What’s in one’s mind is more consequential than what’s in one’s pocket. After all, if older and poorer generations got married and formed families, why can’t today’s young people?

Today, though, I see it a little differently. The story of Cassie, whom we interviewed, illustrates why.

Cassie’s boyfriend, Paul, works as a cook at a hometown restaurant for $10/hour (full-time hours, no health insurance) by day and as a cashier at a big-box retailer for $10/hour by night (part-time hours, no health insurance). Cassie attends classes at the local community college for healthcare administration. When she’s not studying or in class, she cares for her toddler, whom she had by her ex-husband. In their mid-twenties, Paul and Cassie still live with their parents—not because they want to, but because they have to. They’re not alcoholics and they’re not law-breakers; they’re responsible, law-abiding people trying to make their way. They don’t feel that they have the financial stability they need to get married.

If older and poorer generations got married and formed families, why can’t today’s young people?

But Cassie has been married before. Her ex-husband, Austin, worked at a fast-food service chain. A few weeks after they got married, his hours were cut, because as the manager explained, they were spending too much on labor—even though only the manager was ever allowed to work full-time. At the same time, Cassie, a few months pregnant with their firstborn, got fired from the auto dealership where she worked as a receptionist. The official reason for her firing was that she made too many mistakes. But according to Cassie, they never informed her that they were unhappy with her work. She suspects she got fired because they didn’t want to give her the six-week maternity leave that, by company policy, they would have been required to give her. When her employer failed to produce paperwork documenting their warnings to Cassie, she was awarded unemployment compensation. About a month later, she and Austin separated.

In my previous way of thinking, I would have said, “Yeah, sure, job instability is a part of the story. But the real problem is that easy divorce attitudes leave marriages like Cassie’s more vulnerable to financial distress.” And those easy divorce attitudes certainly matter: Cassie says she subscribes to her mom’s advice that “If I ever woke up next to your father and think, ‘I cannot stand him,’ I would divorce him that day.”

So I still recognize the salience of beliefs and attitudes. But I now see that it’s unreasonable to expect that most young couples could, as it were, pull their marriage attitudes up by their own bootstraps. To borrow from the late Yale psychologist Kai Erikson, who studied the West Virginia mining communities devastated by the 1972 Buffalo Creek Flood, every marriage exists in a “force field” of communal relationships. Without a strong force field, an individual marriage is more vulnerable:

It is clear enough that marriage is something of a community affair. It is validated by the community, witnessed by the community, commemorated by the community, and every married couple in the world knows something about the pressures exerted on that union by interests outside of it. In one sense, then, a marriage between two persons lies in a kind of gravitational field. The human particles who form the union are held together by interpersonal charges passing between them, but they are also held together by all the other magnetic forces passing through the larger field; and when the outer currents and tensions lose their force, the particles find that the inner charge, the interpersonal bond, begins to fade as well. Wholly devoted husbands and wives were to discover on Buffalo Creek that they did not know how to care for each other or to work together as a team or even to carry on satisfactory conversations when the community was no longer there to provide the context and set the cadence.

In the face of job loss and reduced hours, Cassie and Austin were left struggling on their own to sustain an emotionally intimate marriage, even as Austin’s brother (and best man) kicked Cassie out of the house they were sharing. When the couple moved into Cassie’s parents’ house, Cassie’s parents openly entertained the idea of Cassie’s ex-boyfriend moving in with the family and eventually kicked Austin out of the house. The “force field” Cassie and Austin found themselves in did not hold them together; it worked to tear them apart.

In today’s toxic environment we can’t strengthen the working-class family merely by focusing on individuals’ and couples’ beliefs.

By contrast, the literature on old Appalachia suggests that kinship networks were the indispensable source of meaning and support for individuals and couples. Many poor and working-class people today don’t have the practical support and deep sense of belonging that that rich web of relationships provided. Moreover, the webs of relationships that they do have increasingly include divorced family members transmitting cynical attitudes about marriage, or relatives who, though still married themselves, make no effort to support others’ marriages. In such a toxic family and social environment, it’s unreasonable to think that we can strengthen the working-class family by focusing on individuals’ and couples’ beliefs while largely ignoring their economic state.

Instead, if we want to strengthen marriage, we have to take into account the complex relationship between person and community, between soul and body. We have to think about the force field that helps to hold together or tear apart a marriage. The Wall Street Journal crowd should consider how a living wage can help to build strong families, and the New York Times crowd should consider how family-friendly cultural messages matter. It’s not a question of mind versus matter, but about the head-spinning interaction of the two.

Kai Erikson was right: marriage is a community affair; most of us can’t do it on our own. We need the love and guidance and practical support that come from people planted in a thriving ecosystem of relationships.