by Theresa Notare
July 9, 1999
Did you know that the marriage rate in the U.S. has dipped by 43% in the last forty years? This is the finding of a new survey by Rutgers University's National Marriage Project. The report is bleak. It reports the lowest marriage rate in recorded history (49.7 marriages per 1000 women in 1996, in contrast to 87.5 marriages in 1960). It reveals that increasingly young adults, particularly young women, are pessimistic about finding a life-long marriage partner and that they are more accepting than past generations of single parenthood and cohabitation. The report also notes that nearly half of those aged 25 to 40, at some point, have set up a joint household with a member of the opposite sex outside of marriage.
The authors attribute the declining marriage rate, in part, to people postponing marriage until later in life. But, they are quick to add that some of the blame rests on the fact that more unmarried couples are living together. Thus, the authors argue, marriage is no longer the presumed route from adolescence to adulthood and has lost much of its significance as "a rite of passage." Today, marriage is far less likely than it once was to be associated with first sexual experiences for both men and women. In fact, the authors say changes in marriage patterns have contributed to new attitudes toward marriage itself-- and that spells disaster. In their view, "the institution of marriage is in serious trouble."
What can we make of all this? In the final months of the twentieth century we could chalk this up to yet another "doom and gloom" survey, and not take it too seriously. In some ways it is. We really don't need another survey to tell us what we already know--that "marriage is in serious trouble." We need to read this survey in context. Marriage has been in serious trouble (at least in the United States) since the turn of the century. A brief walk through the last hundred years reminds us that many facts have contributed to the present situation. Among them can be cited, the disintegration of the extended family (at one time it really did matter what Grandfather and Grandmother thought). With the loss of the extended family's authority, came the loss of its supportive network leaving mom, dad, and the kids (or mom and the kids) to cope with the increasing tensions and complexities of modern life on their own. The birth control movement took the baby out of sex (at least theoretically). Pressure for easier divorce laws started way back in the 1920s. The then "free love" movement of the 1960s (whose roots can also be traced to birth control leaders such as Margaret Sanger) took sex out of marriage. And financial stress causing many families to have both parents work outside the home to make ends meet, has been a continual problem throughout the century.
So, at the end of 100 years of a social experiment in dismantling the institution of marriage, what can be done? I would make two suggestions--one, civil, the other, religious. Civil law is the great educator of the people (this is something which all Americans need to remember). It encourages us to do good and excuses that which is not good. Because law molds and shapes public values, our country should reexamine its divorce laws. This idea is already being acted upon. Several states have taken a look at their no-fault divorce laws and some, notably Louisiana and Arizona, have amended their laws to restrict the grounds for divorce. We must continue the hard work of telling our elected representatives that divorce laws need to be written for the health of our nation.
Another type of reexamination must also occur. Beliefs regarding the solemnity and sacredness of marriage should be reflected upon and taught. The Judeo-Christian belief that marriage is a sacred covenant, not unlike the one which the Lord God established with the Israelites, must mean something very real to contemporary believers. For Christians, in particular, the faith reality that the marriage relationship reflects Christ's own relationship with His Church, must become more than words.
Both images--that of Covenant and that of Christ's relationship with the Church--speak of a relationship which involves so much more than just a man and a woman. Marriage involves God Himself and is simultaneously radically intimate and "other" centered. Marriage thus provides a supremely stark education into the mystery of the body of Christ, for Christ can not be separated from the Father or from His Church. Marriage mirrors this reality. No one can arrive at this belief without study (under the guidance of qualified teachers) as well as through prayer.
If we can make a duel effort--civil and religious-- marriage will not only survive the experiments of the twentieth century, but will reemerge as the strong loving support of human relationships that it was designed to be.
Theresa Notare is the Special Assistant of the Diocesan Development Program for Natural Family Planning, Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities, National Conference of Catholic Bishops.