We’ve all known that marriage in America is undergoing some seismic shifts. The latest data via the Pew Research Center, published Wednesday, only confirms our suspicions: “Twenty percent of adults older than 25, about 42 million people, have never married, up from 9 percent in 1960,” writes Claire Cain Miller for the New York Times. She adds,
The trend has been consistent for decades. Since 1970, each group of young adults has been less likely to marry than the previous generation. Although part of the trend can be attributed to the fact that people are simply marrying older, Pew projects that a quarter of today’s young adults will have never married by 2030, which would be the highest share in modern history.
Why is marriage such an unpalatable prospect to today’s adults? Though “a host of complex factors” are involved, according to the Washington Post, Pew was able to pinpoint some of the biggest considerations for single adults. Many men said they’re delaying (or forgoing) marriage until they’re financially stable—while almost four-fifths of the single women said their biggest consideration is whether or not their potential spouse has a steady job.
This is fascinating—in our age of romance-soaked literature and films, we rarely hear such pragmatic considerations discussed in the public sphere. Why would a woman choose to marry (or not marry) a man based on his career prospects? It sounds positively Elizabethan. Indeed, this marriage trend does seem to harken back to older conceptions of marriage. Anyone who has read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice knows how important money was to brides (and grooms) of the past. In some cultures, still, money is a primary consideration.
American culture has usually adopted a more liberal approach: focusing on one’s inclinations and feelings, rather than one’s pocketbook. But we face tenuous financial times, and Americans have become disillusioned with the prospect of being “in love”: they’ve realized that sexual desires can be assuaged via hookups and porn. Marriage is unnecessary.
Additionally, many Americans have become disillusioned with the institution of marriage. Divorce is rampant. Promises of true love, “for better or for worse,” often end in nasty breakups and broken hearts. Sappy love songs and Nicholas Sparks novels, promising eternal bliss, haven’t matched up to the turbulence and temptations of real life.
It makes sense that people are looking with greater hesitancy on claims that true love is real, eternal. The world many Americans inhabit is rocky and tempestuous: they don’t know what tomorrow will bring. It seems a terribly shaky foundation to build a marriage on, especially when hard times tend to fray and break apart marriage. Additionally, the quality time required to build a strong marriage seems more and more like a luxury, an impossible prospect to the many Americans who work overtime and through weekends. As Miller writes in the Times, “As modern marriages have become more about love than about survival, it has become an indulgence that is easier for well-off people to take advantage of … The benefits of sharing passions are more likely to accrue to people who have the time and money to invest in them.”
These investments of time and shared passion didn’t used to be elitist luxuries—when marriage was an explicitly religious practice, bound by the church and under its accountability and care, both quality time and “shared passions” were a more natural element of couples’ marriage. They were tethered to a religion they both held dear, one that built the fabric of their everyday life around devotional times, mealtime prayers, church attendance. They were surrounded by a community to care, support, and encourage. Today, married couples may run together, take up dancing classes, learn the art of French cooking—but these are weak bonds: easily built elsewhere, without the intimacy, mystery, and spiritual significance of older bonds. The breakdown of religious institutions in America, and their severance from our definitional understanding of marriage, have had a profound effect on marriage. Any understanding of marriage as sacred, as a fundamental religious practice, has largely dissolved in popular culture. It’s a vestige of a former traditions, and in its place, we have resurrected an old conception of marriage as contract, as an exchange of material goods between partners. Thus, marriage’s value now relies more heavily on its inherent practical benefits—its utilitarian goods.
This isn’t entirely bad: if one doesn’t believe in the sacred power of marriage, it seems better to have a realistic and pragmatic approach to it, than to dress it up in all the emotional fluff and nonsense that pop culture tends to plaster it with. Between the woman who marries for money considerations, and the woman who throws herself into relationships a la “The Notebook,” the former option seems to work better with “the way the world works.”
But it seems that, even so, we’re setting up a situation in which marriage will never really be able to survive or flourish. Jobs are lost, all the time. When hard times come, and unemployment rises, will marriages made for money really be lasting ones? Probably not. Which takes us back to square one: our current situation, in which no one wants to get married, because it doesn’t seem at all profitable—on a monetary, emotional, or relational level. Why not just live together, as long as things remain pleasant—or until they’re too terrible to continue? People look at the expense and the pains, the heartache and the frustration of marriage, and ask, “What’s it all for?”
Conservatives shouldn’t make the mistake of hearing that question, and becoming indignant. We shouldn’t merely respond by talking about how married people are happier, or children with both parents do better in school, or the happiest people in the world come from strong families. Even if all those things are true, they have their shadows: divorced people are most decidedly not happy. Children from broken homes often bear lifelong scars.
We can’t look at the broken marriages in our culture, and condemn people for asking them the question, “What’s it all for?” Rather, it seems the best thing we can do is to show them how hollow modern marriage is—show them that, truly, it’s better to do without the empty vows. We don’t need those sorts of marriages. They won’t last.
But we can display something different: a picture of marriage that isn’t bound up in material or emotional goods, but extends past that, into the realm of relational and spiritual significance. We can remind people of what marriage was supposed to be, and how good it can be, when its core and focus are right.