The Marriage Wars: Five Myths of the Postmarriage Culture
In America over the last thirty years, we've done something unprecedented. We have managed to transform marriage, the most basic and universal of human institutions, into something controversial.
For perhaps the first time in human history, marriage as an ideal is under a sustained and surprisingly successful attack. Sometimes the attack is direct and ideological, made by "experts" who believe a lifelong vow of fidelity is unrealistic or oppressive, especially to women.
"Even in the early 1960s," sum up social historians Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, "marriage and family ties were regarded by the 'human potential movement' as potential threats to individual fulfillment as a man or a woman. The highest forms of human needs, contended proponents of the new psychologies, were autonomy, independence, growth, and creativity," which marriage often thwarted. The search for autonomy and independence as the highest human good blossomed with the women's movement into a critique of marriage per se, which the more flamboyant feminists denounced as "slavery," "legalized rape," and worst of all, "tied up with a sense of dependency."
"From this vantage point," Mintz and Kellogg note, "marriage increasingly came to be described as a trap, circumscribing a woman's social and intellectual horizons and lowering her sense of self-esteem."1
Even today scholars warn, as one 1995 college textbook put it, "[M]arriage has an adverse effect on women's mental health."2 Reflecting both these broader trends and this expert consensus, the proportion of high-school-senior girls who agreed that most people will havefuller and happier lives if they choose legal marriage rather than staying single or just living with someone dropped about one-fourth (or ten percentage points) between 1976 and 1992, while the opinion of boys remained unchanged.3 Indeed, a journalist recounts the time she congratulated a twenty-four-year-old woman on her impending nuptials. "She grabbed my hand, held it, and said with emotion, 'Thank you!' As it turns out, I'd been the only woman to offer her congratulations without immediately expressing worry that she'd done the wrong thing." Her friends "simply couldn't fathom why she'd tossed away her freedom."4
But for the most part, the war on marriage is not a frontal assault from outside enemies but a sideways tug-of-war inside each of us between competing values: between rights and needs, between individualism and community, between fear and hope, between freedom and love. On the one hand, we cherish marriage as the repository of our deepest hopes and wishes to forge stable families, to find lasting love. On the other hand, we fear being "tied down" or "trapped" and jealously guard our right to redefine ourselves and our lives, with or without our partners' consent.
Mel Harris (the actress who played Hope on thirtysomething), a twice-divorced mother who understands "the logistical problems that can only arise when dealing with three kids and six sets of parents," captures something of the ambivalence toward marriage all Americans share in varying degrees: "The other day [my son] Byron asked me if I was ever going to marry again, and I told him the truth: I don't know. . . . Some people might think I perceive marriage in a flippant way because I have been divorced twice. I'm not proud of the divorces. I feel marriage is a serious, sacred thing."5
Despite the startling rise in divorce, cohabitation, and unwed parenthood, marriage remains a core value and aspiration of many Americans. One might imagine that, as Professor Norval Glenn puts it, "Americans are marrying less and succeeding less often at marriage because alternatives have become more attractive, relative to marriage, than they once were." But, Glenn continues, survey data on attitudes toward marriage provide "scant evidence for it."
We aren't as certain anymore about whether marriage is good for other people, but when it comes to their own life goals, Americans put marriage at the top of the list. Ninety-three percent of Americans rate "having a happy marriage" as either one of the most important, or very important objectives. Asked to select their top two goals, a majority of Americans included a happy marriage as one of the choices, far outpacing such other life goals as "being in good health" (35 percent) or even having "a good family life" (36 percent). In 1992 the number-one aspiration of high-school seniors was "having a good marriage and family life," and the proportion of seniors calling that goal "extremely important" has actually risen over the last two decades.6 Only 8 percent of American women consider remaining single an ideal, a proportion that has not changed over the last generation.7
The paradox, as Glenn writes, is that "marriage remains very important to adult Americansprobably as important as it has ever beenwhile the proportion of Americans married has declined and the proportion successfully married has declined even more."8
Americans are still the marrying kind. But our ideas about what marriage means have changed in subtle ways that undermine our abilityas individuals or as a societyto achieve the goals of wedlock, creating a lasting love between a man and a woman, and a firm bond of mutual support between a mother and a father.
When it comes to marriage, Americans have both high hopes and debilitating fears. As two scholars put it after an exhaustive study of the attitudes of today's college students, "They are desperate to have only one marriage, and they want it to be happy. They don't know whether this is possible anymore."9
But the dreams and hopes of young Americans to forge more perfect unions are hampered by five myths that, despite the recent revival of interest in marriage, remain powerfully, if thoughtlessly entrenched in the conventional wisdom. For although marriage as an ideal still holds a firm fascination in Americans' minds, we believe that it is fair to describe America as a society on the verge of becoming a postmarriage culture. A postmarriage culture is not one in which nobody ever makes it to the altar. Rather, it is a culture in which marriage is viewed as unnecessary, or, strictly speaking, optionala private taste rather than a matter of urgent shared concern.
Chapter 1: The Marriage Wars
01. Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life (New York: The Free Press, 1988), 206-207. (All three previous quotes come from this source.)
02. Randall Collins and Scott Coltrane, Sociology of Marriage and the Family: Gender, Love and Property, 4th ed. (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1995) 372.
03. Norval Glenn, David Popenpoe, Jean Bethke Elshtain, and David Blankenhorn eds. "Values, Attitudes, and the State of American Marriage," in Promises to Keep: Decline and Renewal of Marriage in America, (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996), 28.
04. Danielle Crittenden, What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us: Why Happiness Eludes the Modern Woman (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 60.
05. Alan W. Petrucelli, "Mel Harris: We Are Not the Waltons," Working Mother, December 1996, 21.
06. Glenn, "Values, Attitudes," 20-21.
07. Dennis K. Orthner, David Blankenhorn, Steven Bayme, and Jean Bethke Elshtain eds. "The Family in Transition" in Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family (Milwaukee: Family Service America, 1990), 95.
08. Glenn, "Values, Attitudes," 15.
09. Arthur Levine and Jeanette S. Cureton, When Hope and Fear Collide: A Portrait of Today's College Student (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 95.