The popularity of television shows about marriage such as Married by America or The Bachelor might lead us to believe that the institution of marriage, which has taken a nosedive for the past 30 years, is making a comeback. But if you look closely at these shows it appears that they focus on romantic relationships and lavish weddings.
Is the whole point of marriage fulfilling the emotional needs of two individuals, or is it something more?
According to Dr. David Popenoe, co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers, marriage means much more not only to the couple, but to others as well.
“What people seem to have forgotten is one very important element or purpose of marriage,” said Popenoe. “Throughout history, marriage has been viewed as a child-rearing institution. As a society, we, like other modern societies, are drifting ever further from that understanding. While Americans aspire to marriage, they are evermore inclined to see it as an intimate relationship between adults rather than as a necessary social arrangement for rearing children.
“There is a robust body of research that indicates that children raised with their two, married biological parents (mother and father), who are in a low-conflict relationship, on the whole do much better in life than children raised in other family forms. To the degree that we as a society want our children to do well in life we should be very concerned with what is happening to marriage.”
Popenoe believes that the stakes are high and it is worth a good fight to correct the current situation because the weakening of marriage has contributed to a new kind of poverty among children: a poverty of connectedness.
Four decades of persistently high levels of marital disruption and non-marriage have taken a toll on children’s primary sources of emotional nurturance and security. Parent-child, especially father-child ties, have become more fragile, inconsistent and distant. Children’s emotional lives have become more turbulent, insecure and anxiety-filled as a result.
In the midst of a society of material abundance, there are growing signs of emotional want and deprivation even among some of the most economically privileged young. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other psychosocial difficulties are on the rise. Overall, the quality of life for children was no better in 1998 than in 1975. Children have borne more than their fair share of the burdens associated with the weakening of marriage in recent times.
American society today requires ever-higher levels of individual competence and educational achievement for a successful adult life. To meet these demands, children need strong character, healthy bodies and able minds. Warm, consistent and firm parental attachments help children defer gratification, set and stick to goals, and resist harmful peer pressures. Close parent-child bonds protect teens from emotional distress and risky behaviors such as early sexual activity, smoking, drinking and drug use. Young adults’ ability to form strong, lasting marriages enhances their own emotional well-being and confers psychological benefits on their children as well.
“One of the best things that the society can do for children is to create the conditions for healthy marriages,” Popenoe said. “This does not mean pushing marriage at any cost on everyone. But it does mean increasing the proportion of parental marriages that are low in conflict and high in mutual respect, cooperation and duration. It also means reducing the economic and social obstacles that stand in the way of successful and long-term commitment to marriage.”
The research is encouraging. For the first time in four decades there has been a slight increase in the percentage of children in two-married parent families. Through vehicles such as conflict resolution, mediation, premarital education and communication skills, couples are learning what it takes to have a healthy, long-lasting marriage. Research shows that while marriage is a covenant between two adults, it is not just for their benefit; it benefits children and society as a whole.
“We go to great lengths to educate our children in hopes that they will have a bright future,” Popenoe said. “Certainly, having a strong marriage and family is every bit as important as having a good education.”
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