Special Report: Marriage & Family Under Attack, Part II

David Halbrook | Salem Communications | Friday, August 8, 2003

Special Report: Marriage & Family Under Attack, Part II

(Editor's note: The following is Part II of a special, three-part report summarizing "The State of Our Unions," a national report by The National Marriage Project which is an analysis of the health of marriage and marital relationships in America. Sponsored by Rutgers University, the study is co-authored by David Popenoe, Ph.D., Rutgers professor and author, and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Ph.D., author and social critic.)

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this cultural drift is the continuing mass retreat of men from traditional marriage. While a growing number of fathers continue to be actively engaged in their children’s lives, many more aren’t. A shocking divergence has occurred between men who are married and those who have children out of wedlock. Whereas one camp is happily engaged changing diapers and comforting cranky babies at 2:00 a.m., another, larger camp is disengaged or entirely absent. The key factor in this pattern is marriage.

  • Studies show that men are increasingly disengaged from daily tasks of nurturing and providing for their children; are staying single longer and having more children out of wedlock, cohabiting rather than marrying, and divorcing in large numbers.

  • Men who aren’t married to their children’s mother are significantly less likely to be consistently and positively involved with their children.

  • Marriage is the social glue that bonds fathers to their offspring. When marriage and fatherhood come unglued, father involvement weakens, with many dads disconnecting completely from their children.

  • More disturbingly, since men are delaying marriage in greater numbers while continuing to lead sexually active lives, significant numbers now view children negatively, as a source of penalizing financial obligation, conflict and even "trickery" by women.

  • The proportion of children living apart from their biological fathers has increased sharply, from 17 percent in 1960 to 34 percent in 2000.

  • Cohabiting men living with non-biological children, moreover, pose a risk of physical or sexual abuse to those children.

  • Ironically, many men now believe that the legal deck is stacked against men in divorce, so why risk marriage at all?

Shift from "Child-Centered" to "Soul-Mate" Marriage

Not surprisingly, the ideal of romantic friendship in marriage is a distinctive part of the West’s long-standing marital tradition. Yet this idyllic prospect has intensified today to the point that many now expect their marriages to be an endlessly euphoric, deeply spiritualized union of uniquely matched and sexually compatible souls. Needless to say, this exaggerated model portends rampant marital dissatisfaction and, ultimately, traumatized families and disaffected children.

Furthermore, the unfortunate tendency of today’s Americans to see marriage as a "couples relationship," designed to fulfill the emotional needs of adults, tragically undermines the bonds of parental commitment needed to properly bring up children.

  • Among young adults today, an astonishing 94 percent of single men and women (ages 20-29) believe that "when you marry, you want your spouse to be your soul mate, first and foremost." Eighty-four percent believe there is one person "out there" who is specially destined to be their soul mate.

  • Recent surveys show that 70 percent of Americans disagreed with the statement that "the main purpose of marriage is having children," while nearly 80 percent of "younger American men and women" disagreed with the same statement.

  • The uneasy tension between adult desires for intimacy, and children’s needs for security and attention during prime child-rearing years, often leads to greater marital discontent and creates unrealistic expectations that, if unfulfilled, may lead to disappointment, estrangement and even a search for a new soul mate.

  • The exacting emotional requirements of a soul-mate relationship contribute both to unhappier, more fragile marriages and a persistently high rate of parental divorce. In the past, when marriage was more closely linked to the tasks of child rearing, parents believed they had an obligation to stay together "for the sake of the children."

  • Today, children seem almost an afterthought in parents’ thinking on divorce. Only 15 percent of the population agrees that, "When there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don't get along."

  • Finally, all-pervasive media images wage a relentless assault on traditional marriage. At a time when demands of work inflict a heavy toll on many marriages, resulting in chronically stressed, time-starved and sleep-deprived parents, the popular culture promotes images of sexy singles and hot romance that undermine parental commitment to marriage and children.

Demographic Trends Shifting Priorities Away from Children

Americans today live longer, have fewer children, and spend a longer proportion of their lives as single adults than in a continuous marriage. This yields profound demographic effects within families and communities, as adults are less likely to be living with children, neighborhoods are less likely to contain children, and children are less likely to be a presence in daily life.

  • In 1960, the proportion of one's life spent living with a spouse and children was 62 percent; by 1985, the percentage had dropped to 43 percent, the lowest in U.S. history.

  • By 2010, married couples with children will account for only 20 percent of total households, while households with children will account for slightly more than 25 percent, the lowest in over a century.

  • In short, children will continue to be pushed to the margins of society and – except when they cause mayhem – to the sidelines of our social consciousness.

Part III of this report will appear in this space on Monday. To read Part I, click here. -- Editor