The decline and fall of marriage

For a pleasant surprise today, this article has nothing to do with gay marriage. (You may now all breath a sigh of relief.) No, today we’re talking about an entirely different approach to the subject which may tie in to the distressing decline in successful, productive marriages in America. Writing in an opinion piece for CNN, Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, documents why more and more women are remaining single in the United States today. And she lists a variety of reasons as to why that’s just a peachy idea.

As much as I admire happy couples and families, I think this may be one of the few times in history when so many women could choose from such a full range of life choices without penalty or stigma. Since few people “have it all,” why not choose being single if that’s the best option?

Here are the headline reasons, with explanations of various lengths for each at the link.

1. A useless husband
2. Success changes everything
3. Unwilling to make traditional compromises
4. The marriage penalty tax
5. Avoiding cheating men
6. Waiting for the “one”

Playing a bit of the Michael Smerconish headline game, I might have rewritten these headers as follows:

1. Poor men are just going to hold you down.
2. If you’re a financially successful woman, you don’t really need a rich man either.
3. Housework and child rearing are awful and I don’t meet any guys who want to do it full time.
4. Your tax situation can get worse if you marry. (She’s right about that one.)
5. I talked to three women in China who thought that all men want mistresses.
6. I never meet anyone who lives up to my vision of a perfect match, so screw it.

The one glaring omission from Ms. Schwartz’s ponderings is that marriage, while needing to be a compatible, fulfilling arrangement for both partners, fulfills a much broader role than any simple spreadsheet analysis of your career earnings potential can define. Not everyone has to get married. (Heck, I’ll go so far as to say that there are some people who arguably shouldn’t do so.) But I believe marriage developed in human society in answer to a need which is fundamental to most of our species. Whether you approach it from a biblical perspective or an anthropological one, the vast majority of us have a deep seated need to be with someone. To love someone and be loved in return. And, yes, to create new someones who will grow up with the same needs. It’s a survival mechanism which, in many ways, defines us.

Further, our ability to advance as a society – from the local level to the global one – seems bound to our built-in tendency to pair up and create families. These families, in turn, bond together to form communities where they share their faith, their fears, their dreams, and their mutual need for protection and security. No taskmaster forced us into these arrangements. We fell into them naturally all over the planet.

And Ms. Schwartz is correct to note that more than half of the women in the country over the age of 18 are currently unmarried, but she fails to seem the least bit alarmed by that fact. A lot of those in the unmarried category still have children, and those situations add to the already difficult challenge of raising those offspring up successfully to be productive, contributing members to society. I’ve only taken the opportunity to ponder these things as I’ve gotten older, but I find it hard to argue the fact; as marriage and conventional social structures weaken and fall out of custom, society suffers and social problems increase.

You can talk all you want about the joys and advantages of being single and fabulous, and for some that may wind up being their path in life. But it’s hardly something to aspire to.