With the dawn of a new year, many of us are contemplating how to do a better job than last year of keeping the list of resolutions we’ve put together for 2017. Maybe we want to exercise more, or be more organized, or keep a cleaner house, or spend less time on social media—or all that and more. No doubt, we all want to be able to say at the end of 2017 that we were better parents, sons, daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, neighbors, and—for those of us who are married—husbands and wives.
One of the founding principles of the Institute for Family Studies is that the well-being of society is dependent on the health of its families, so a successful 2017 is one where marriage is more valued and more families have the opportunity to thrive. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of three New Year’s resolutions to help strengthen marriage and family life.
1. Teach the value of marriage and married parenthood to younger generations.
We can’t rebuild a healthy marriage culture without talking more about what marriage is and why it matters for men, women, and especially children. Marriage is struggling among young people, especially Millennials, who are delaying marriage longer and cohabiting more than older generations. Unmarried parenthood is also on the rise, with three-quarters of American men and women embracing the belief that “It is okay to have and raise children when the parents are living together but not married,” even though a growing body of research shows that unmarried parenthood is not equal to married parenthood.
Promoting the value of marriage among younger generations requires that we tell a different story about marriage than the story they are hearing from the culture and/or witnessing in their fragmented families. One way to do this is to educate young people about the importance of following the success sequence of education, work, marriage, and then parenthood (in that order). This includes encouraging young men and women to date more intentionally, reminding them that what happens on the way to the altar impacts their future marital stability, and why cohabiting is not the best way to test a relationship or to avoid divorce. We also need to do a better job helping young people understand why married parenthood trumps all other forms when it comes to child well-being. If we want to help strengthen families, it's vital that we keep talking about marriage and why it's still the "gold standard" of family forms.
2. Cherish the power of faith.
One of the most significant pieces of research featured on this blog highlights the link between religion and strong marriages. IFS Senior Fellow W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger have shown that couples who attend church, share religious friends, and pray together are happier, on average, than couples who do not. The positive effects of faith on marriage and family life are particularly evident among African Americans and Latinos, as Wilcox and Wolfinger detailed in their latest book, Soul Mates. More recently, Tyler VanderWeele of Harvard University reported findings from his research showing that married couples who attend religious services are about 30 to 50 percent less likely to divorce than those who do not. Dr. VanderWeele offered the following explanation for the connection between religion and marriage:
Something about the communal religious experience is powerful. Again, in the case of marriage stability, religious communities may provide important teaching about the sacred nature of marriage, extra support for families and children, and a sense of community with shared values. These things don’t necessarily arise with solitary spirituality.
For married couples, the big takeaway from this research is to resolve to worship together more as a family in 2017. But it should also serve as an important reminder to religious leaders about the power of faith to encourage and support lasting marriages. As IFS research fellow David Lapp and W. Bradford Wilcox have emphasized, religious institutions have a unique role to play in helping to restore a healthy marriage culture. These efforts might include educating members about the benefits of marriage compared to other family forms, and offering more marriage-sustaining resources for couples, while also providing practical support for fragmented families.
3. Don’t keep your marriage to yourself.
Perhaps the most effective way to strengthen marriage in our communities is to simply model our imperfect, yet happy marriages to those around us, and to remember that marriage is not meant to be done alone. As David Lapp has written, marriage is a community affair: “Most of us can’t do [marriage] on our own. We need the love and guidance and practical support that come from people planted in a thriving ecosystem of relationships.”
Support from older and wiser married couples is especially critical for men and women who’ve grown up without healthy marriage role models, such as adult children of divorce, or those who’ve been raised by single mothers or cohabiting parents. Those of us who have been married for a while can provide support, guidance, and much-needed hope to struggling younger couples. We can also point our friends and family members who are in troubled unions to helpful marriage-strengthening resources, including some of the articles we’ve published on this blog. At the same time, Steven Harris, associate director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project, reminds us that when our own marriages struggle, we should not suffer in silence, but talk about our problems and reach out to others for help and support.
Marriage is about more than just a husband and a wife; it can be light or darkness to those around us, including our children. As Rhonda Kruse Nordin put it, each marriage leaves a “marriage imprint” that not only influences our children’s future relationships, but also impacts our extended family, friends, and neighbors for better or for worse. So, as we head into 2017, let’s commit to these three family-strengthening resolutions, and do our part to leave a healthy marriage imprint on our families and communities.