Marriage’s Vanishing Act

Is it possible that secular liberals, some of them anyway, are starting to realize  that knocking the supports out from under traditional marriage may not be such a great idea? If so, and if their next step is to think seriously about how to halt this destructive process, it will be the dawning of a new day.

The latest indication of such stirrings on the left that I’ve come across is an op-ed piece by Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. “If current trends hold,” Marcus writes, “within a few years, less than half the U.S. adult population will be married.” And that, she adds solemnly, is bad news.

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Bad news indeed, but not exactly new. The numbers have been piling up for a long time. The U.S. marriage rate (marriages per 1,000 population) was 8.4 in 1958, 10.9 in 1972, and 10.6 in 1981. But by 2009, the rate had fallen to 7.1 and in 2010 it declined still further, to 6.8. The birth rate has followed a similar trajectory, falling from 23.7 in 1960 to 13.5 in 2009.

One obvious reason for what’s happening is that people are marrying later. The median age of first marriage in 1960 was 22.8 for men and 20.3 for women, but by 2003 it had risen to 27.1 and 25.3 respectively.

Another large part of the explanation, however, is that more people aren’t getting married at all. Put the late-marriers and the non-marriers together and then add people who are in-between marriages, and you find that while nearly three-fourths of Americans 18 and older were married in 1960, the figure was a measly 51% in 2010, with the trend still headed down. (Among the college-educated, 27% say marriage is obsolete, while the percentage is 45% among those without college educations.)

Drawing her numbers from a new Pew Rearch Center study that Marcus calls “startling and disturbing,” the Post columnist informs us that the falling marriage rate “isn’t just a social problem. It’s also an economic problem.”

Well, yes. There’s a very visible correlation between marriage and education (nearly two-thirds with college degrees are married but fewer than half of those with high school diplomas or less) and between education and income. (The more education, the higher the income.) As marriages decline, the gap between rich and poor grows wider.

But even though the cluster of problems here has very real economic dimensions, reducing it all to economics while ignoring the links to cultural pathologies and destructive personal values is a mistake. Marcus touches on this other dimension when she speaks of “generational impact”—the impact on children of being raised by cohabiting parents or a single parent. Less education and lower income are part of it—but so are psychological and behavioral difficulties expressed in dropping out of school, law-breaking and incarceration, and other life-destroying behaviors including those that militate against stable marriage.

Unfortunately, Marcus weakens her argument by knee-jerk sneering at  conservative “rhapsodizing about the benefits of marriage.” (Maybe good secular liberals don’t  rhapsodize.) Remember: “promoting marriage among welfare recipients was a big deal during the George W. Bush administration.” Which makes it wrong? Ideological blinders like that are obstacles to seeking and finding solutions.

Catholics both share in and contribute to the multiple problems of marriage in America. But that subject requires another column, where there may also be an opportunity to suggest a modest solution or two. For now, it’s enough to face up to the fact that we’ve got a marriage crisis on our hands.

I was chatting with a priest who is a judge with the marriage tribunal of his large Eastern diocese when he shared an interesting tidbit of information. In his diocese and the other dioceses of his state, the number of requests for marriage annulments has lately fallen by 10%.

Good news? Fewer marriages on the rocks? Not really, he explained. “People are getting married later, some don’t bother to marry at all, others marry outside the Church, and others don’t come to the tribunal when their marriages break down.”

“Then,” I hazarded, “this 10% drop is just a new phase in the same old set of problems?” The tribunal judge nodded—that was the size of it.

All of which is confirmation that the Catholic sector of the crisis of American marriage is going strong. The most telling statistic may be the sharp drop-off in the sheer number of Catholic marriages. Back in 1990, with the Catholic population at 55 million, there were 334,000 of them; in 2010, when Catholics numbered 68.5 million, marriages had fallen by nearly half to around 179,000.

If it’s any consolation, what has been happening to Catholic marriage reflects developments in American marriage. Marriages in this country dropped from 2.44 million in 1990 to 2.08 million in 2009, even as the population of the United States was rising 60 million. A Pew Research Center study says that just 51% of American adults are married now. (The figure in 2000 was 57%.)

Many factors combine to account for the decline of marriage—from economic pressures to the campaign to recognize homosexual relationships as marriages, which undermines the unique status of traditional marriage understood to be a relationship between a man and a woman—and only that.

Among Catholics, poor religious formation—or nonevery often has a central role. Undoubtedly, too, divorce plays a key part, especially no-fault divorce, which Michael McManus says should be called “unilateral divorce.” There have been more than a million divorces yearly in the United States since 1975, and very many of these were of the no-fault variety.

Significant in this context is the huge increase in cohabitation—523,000 cohabiting couples in the U.S. in 1970 and 7.5 million in 2010. McManus, a non-Catholic journalist who is founder of a group called Marriage Savers, says the rise is driven partly by “understandable fear of divorce” among couples who anticipate fewer hassles ahead if they don’t bother marrying at all.

The social costs of divorce are well established, and to a great extent it’s the children of divorced couples who are paying them. Kids from non-intact families are three times as likely as other kids to be expelled from school or become teenage out-of-wedlock parents, six times as likely to live in poverty, twelve times as likely to land in jail.

Various solutions have been proposed to the no-fault plague, among them legislation called the Second Chances Act. It provides a one-year waiting period before divorce along with education in reconciliation as an option. Sponsors William J. Doherty, a University of Minnesota scholar, and Leah Ward Sears, former Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court, cite studies showing that among 40% of divorcing couples, at least one spouse is open to reconciliation.

McManus scoffs at the cliché “you can’t legislate morality.” He writes: “Nonsense. For forty years public policy has been legi1slating immorality by favoring divorce and cohabitation over marriage, and the consequences have been devastating….The timeless institution of marriage can be revived.”

It’s sure worth a try.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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