At Second Blush: Why Marriage is Far From Obsolete

Stan Guthrie | Thursday, December 2, 2010

At Second Blush: Why Marriage is Far From Obsolete

magazine, knocked off its perch as one of the world's most respected purveyors and interpreters of the news, is trying to stay relevant in the new media world. Perhaps that is the simplest explanation for its latest cover story, "Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution." The piece plays off of the latest study of the Pew Research Center, "The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families." In the article, Time editor-at-large and author Belinda Luscombe produces this remarkable sound bite: "The Pew survey reveals that nearly 40% of us think marriage is obsolete." 

At first blush—and I'm not talking about blushing brides—statistics show that perhaps there is something to the obsolescence of marriage. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the share of households with married couples edged down from 78.2 percent in 1950 to 70.6 percent in 1970.  Then, from 1970 to 1990, it plummeted, all the way to 56 percent. In the last two decades, households with married couples has fallen further—to just 49.6 percent, a minority. 

The phenomenon of delayed adulthood has something to do with it. Cheryl Wetzstein of The Washington Times notes that much of the decline is centered in young adults. "In 1960, two out of three—68 percent—of people in their 20s were married," Wetzstein reports on the survey. "Nearly half a century later, in 2008, only one in four—26 percent—of these young adults had walked down the aisle." The Pew survey also finds that 44 percent of young people (under age 30) believe that marriage is "headed for extinction." 

But at second blush, statistics show that marriage remains a revered cultural ideal. While under-30s are pessimistic, only 5 percent of them actually say that they do not wish to get married. So while they are not sanguine about the big picture, they are quite willing to take the plunge in their personal lives. This attitude accords well with other studies. According to the "Monitoring the Future" survey, over 90 percent of high school senior girls report that it is important to have a good marriage and family life. Only about 5 percent say they do not want to be married. Meanwhile, over 80 percent expect to remain married to the same person for life.

Even Time's Luscombe, once you move past the sound bites, reports this pro-marriage attitude. "We care about marriage so much that one of the fiercest political and legal fights in years is being waged over whom the state permits to get married," she writes. "About 70% of us have been married at least once, according to the 2010 Census. ... Sociologists note that Americans have a rate of marriage—and of remarriage—among the highest in the Western world." 

So what gives, the first blush, or the second? Clearly, the second. As Pew notes, "Americans are more upbeat about the future of marriage and family (67% say they are optimistic) than about the future of the country's educational system (50% optimistic), its economic system (46% optimistic) or its morals and ethics (41% optimistic)." 

Yet all is not well with the American institution of marriage. The key findings of Pew's survey, "The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families," are tw (1) an increasing acceptance of cohabitation and homosexual couples raising children as legitimate expressions of family life, and (2) a growing marriage gap between the college-educated, who are better off financially, and those who have only gone to high school or less. 

Of the latter finding, Pew notes, 

In 2008, there was a 16 percentage point gap in marriage rates between college graduates (64%) and those with a high school diploma or less (48%). In 1960, this gap had been just four percentage points (76% vs. 72%). The survey finds that those with a high school diploma or less are just as likely as those with a college degree to say they want to marry. But they place a higher premium than college graduates (38% versus 21%) on financial stability as a very important reason to marry. 

And because they have not gone on to higher education, most of these folks make less money and will continue to do so. In other words, most of us want to marry, but fewer and fewer of us think we can afford to. Certainly the advent of the wedding that costs as much as a college education used to gets part of the blame. Then there is the expectation that we will have everything materially—right from the start. 

It seems that social pressures, combined with money pressures, are putting the squeeze on matrimony. We don't think we can afford to marry, much as we'd like to, and the culture increasingly tells us we don't have to. 

Certainly it is not wrong to want to be financially responsible. But marriage is not simply an economic contract. We have untethered marriage from its religious moorings, described in the early chapters of Genesis as the man and the woman becoming "one flesh" in the eyes of God, and in the pages of the New Testament as an embodied illustration of Christ and the church. 

There are undeniable social values bound up with a Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage, too. According to Focus on the Family researchers Glenn Stanton and Bill Maier, "Marriage always brings male and female adults together into committed sexual and domestic relationships in order to regulate sexuality and provide for the needs of daily life. Wives help men channel their sexual energy in socially productive and nonpredatory ways. Husbands help protect women from the exploitation of other males." 

"Marriage ensures that children have the benefits of both their mother and their father," Stanton and Maier add, "each in their distinctive and unique ways." 

Yet people under financial stress are less likely to follow this ideal and instead to follow the crowd. So maybe what's obsolete is not marriage, but our high-cost, anything-goes approach to it. 

The church, at its best, has always been, to borrow a phrase from the Christian Vision Project, a "counterculture for the common good." We must do so now, revering marriage not just as an ideal but supporting it in practical ways as a living model of the Christian life. The question is not about obsolescence or relevance. The truth is always relevant, though sometimes difficult. The question is whether we are ready to say, "I do." 

Stan Guthrie, a Christianity Today editor at large, is author of All That Jesus Asks: How His Questions Can Teach and Transform Us (Baker Books). Stan blogs at

Publication date: December 2, 2010