Popular shows like Married by America or The Bachelor might lead you to believe that marriage, which has been declining for 30 years, is making a comeback. But look closely at these shows: their focus is more on romantic relationships and lavish weddings.
Is marriage only about fulfilling our emotional needs, or is it something more?
According to Dr. David Popenoe, co-director of Rutgers' National Marriage Project, marriage means much more than that.
“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 that it's worth a good fight to correct the current situation. He says the weakening of marriage has contributed to a new kind of child poverty: 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 materially abundant society, signs of emotional want and deprivation are growing - even among the most economically-privileged young. Anxiety, depression, eating disorders and other psychosocial difficulties are on the rise. Overall, a child's quality of life 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.
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. But they also protect them from 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. It also 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 40 years, the percentage of two-married parent families has slightly increased. Through conflict resolution, mediation, premarital education and communication skills, couples are learning how to have a healthy, long-lasting marriage. While marriage is a covenant between two adults, research shows 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.”