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  • Marriage doomism completely misses the long arc of history. Tweet This
  • Doomism creates a kind of smoke screen that obscures marriage’s benefits, as well as the trajectory of its evolution—a trajectory most Americans see as clearly positive.  Tweet This
  • There are certainly bad marriages out there. But this wave of anti-marriage discourse does the public a grave disservice. Tweet This
Category: Marriage

In the debate about climate change, there’s a tendency to focus on the negative. Warming will devastate our food supplies, the lament goes. It will make popular places uninhabitable and wreak havoc on political systems. The sky is falling. 

Climate change is a serious problem to be sure, but there’s also growing pushback to this apocalyptic tone, which is sometimes referred to as catastrophism or doomism. When it comes to climate change, writers such as Alex Trembath have pointed out that doomism is not justified by the facts and not helpful for crafting policies.

I couldn’t help thinking about climate doomism lately while reading the sudden deluge of media coverage on divorce. Some of this coverage has been insightful and thought-provoking—but some has been startlingly anti-marriage. Slate, for instance, recently published a piece by the author of This American Ex-Wife, who described herself as “anti the legal structure of marriage.” The interviewer characterized the book as “an attack on marriage.” The Atlantic summed up the same book as depicting marriage as a “collapsing edifice.” The book’s own language describes the institution as a “violent prison” and “failed utopia.” 

Of course, this comes against a growing backdrop of social media influencers such as Andrew Tate—whose rantings Brad Wilcox calls out in his new book Get Married—who are ostensibly coming from the ideological right but making similarly doomist arguments about marriage. 

There are certainly bad marriages out there. But this wave of anti-marriage discourse does the public a grave disservice. In the same way that climate doomism exaggerates the threat of apocalypse, marriage doomism completely misses the long arc of history; in fact, the institution of marriage has over the last century become vastly more equitable, inclusive, and aligned with the centrist values of today’s modern Americans. That doesn’t mean the institution is perfect or not facing challenges, but thanks to tireless work across multiple generations, marriage has become decidedly less prison-like. The trajectory is not downward. The edifice is doing the opposite of crumbling.

Take, for example, the idea of inclusion. Going all the way back to the 1600s, a number of states enacted laws that criminalized interracial marriage. These anti-miscegenation laws occasionally resulted in prison sentences, as in the case of Linnie Jackson, and were even upheld in the late 1800s by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

It should go without saying that the existence of anti-miscegenation laws is a stain on our national history. But these laws are gone now. In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Loving v. Virginia that such laws violated the Constitution. It took time—too much time, to be sure—for all anti-miscegenation laws to disappear at the state level, but today interracial marriage is legal everywhere in the U.S. 

Again, the institution of marriage is not perfect. But there’s no way to frame the end of laws against interracial marriage as anything but a victory. It proves Martin Luther King Jr.’s oft-quoted line that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” 

Marriage isn’t just getting more inclusive. It’s also getting safer. For instance, most states formerly exempted marital rapefrom their broader rape laws. That began changing in the 1970s and by 1993, every state had abandoned in some form or another its former marital rape exemption. The laws weren’t immediately perfect and loopholes remained, but advocates and lawmakers have spent the ensuing decades plugging those loopholes and further strengthening protections for women. 

Of course, there’s still progress to be made on issues of spousal abuse, and it’s a tragedy that just a few decades ago, wives couldn’t get justice for the most egregious wrongs their husbands committed against them. But the long arc’s direction is clear: Marriage as an institution has improved and is improving. 

Ironically, divorce has also become much easier. If you’re a fan of old movies, you may have noticed an abundance of private investigators on screen. The reason for that is because no-fault divorce didn’t used to be a thing; people needed private investigators to collect dirt on their spouses in order to split up. 

In 1969, however, California became the first state to allow divorce without evidence of misdeeds, such as adultery. Ironically, conservative icon President Ronald Reagan, then governor, signed the law. Similar laws soon spread across the U.S. Have you noticed a lot of private investigator offices around your neighborhood? No? That’s because no-fault divorce is now universal. You don’t need a reason beyond irreconcilable differences to break up. 

There are some who believe these changes have made marriage too fragile and easy to leave. But sidestepping that debate, no-fault divorce is clearly an improvement to the institution of marriage if you are staunchly pro-divorce; how can one argue that marriage is a “prison” when it has become objectively easier to leave? Shouldn’t the pro-divorce crowd be celebrating the state of marriage today? 

I can already hear the counter arguments that despite tectonic legal shifts, marriage still suffers from cultural shortcomings. Married women, for example, still handle more child care and household chores than married men. But since the 1960s and 1970s, married women are doing less housework and married men are doing more. Which way is the long arc bending here?

The list could go on and on, and these are just a few examples of the ways in which marriage has evolved—in some cases during our lifetimes. But the bigger point is that it’s difficult to think of any metric at all that supports the flavor of downward-trajectory doomism seen in recent coverage of divorce and marriage. 

I’m also not sure how throwing in the towel helps. Do you run 25 miles of a marathon, then give up? And does giving up not disrespect the sacrifices of people who fought for things like the end of prohibitions against interracial marriage, or for laws outlawing marital rape? A multitude of people have worked hard to make marriage better. We’re standing on their shoulders now. 

It’s true that marriage does face challenges today. But as Wilcox (among others) has written extensively, the problem isn’t that marriage itself is a prison. The problem is that too many people are eschewing the institution and thus missing out on its many social and economic benefits. In other words, the problem is that doomism creates a kind of smoke screen that obscures marriage’s benefits, as well as the trajectory of its evolution—a trajectory most Americans see as clearly positive. 

There’s still work to be done. Marriage at both the institutional and individual levels is not perfect. The marriage doomers see the imperfections and have decided to give up. They tell their followers to give up, too. And I get it, it’s easy to become discouraged when things aren’t just right. But when I look at how far we’ve come, I don’t see a failed utopia. I see a story of progress. I see generations of people working, little by little but with great success, to make the world a better place. Which is to say, the story of marriage is not one of doom. It’s a story of hope. 

Jim Dalrymple II is a journalist and author of the Nuclear Meltdown newsletter about families. He also covers housing for Inman and has previously worked at BuzzFeed News and the Salt Lake Tribune.