Marriage and the Gen-Xer

Wednesday, October 30, 2002

When the story of our era is written, it is the cultural battle that will count. Capitalism and democracy may be the wave of the future, but the struggle to shape democratic society is anything but settled. The family is at the heart of that struggle.

So what will the future of the family be? Will the decline of the married couple with children continue apace, or will the traditional arrangement prove to have staying power? The answer is “all of the above.” The most likely outcome of our battle over the family is no definitive outcome at all. The special status of marriage will persist, even as the institution is hollowed out and subjected to attack. That may sound contradictory, but it is exactly what’s happening now, as a remarkable study of America’s twenty-somethings by the eminent scholars Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe indicates.

To make sense of the contradictory results of the Whitehead-Popenoe study (sponsored by the National Marriage Project of Rutgers University), you’ve got to face a central contradiction in democracy itself. On the one hand, in a liberal democracy, society exists for the sake of the individual, not the other way around. And over time, democratic individualism drives us toward ever more radical declarations of independence. We once said goodbye to George III and to the remnants of an aristocratic way of life. Nowadays many of us are saying good-bye to our spouses, and to the subtle if flexible hierarchies of the traditional family.

But modern individualism cuts two ways. On the one hand, it drives us apart—toward a life where self-fulfillment trumps sacrifice and personal alliances shift with the wind. On the other hand, modern individualism dignifies and rests on a distinctive social bond: self-chosen marriage based on love. In societies where individuals are subordinate to the group (i.e., most of the world for much of human history), marriage tends to be arranged. The controlling considerations in such alliances are not the love of a man and a woman (the couple may never have met before marriage) but the political and economic well-being of the larger kinship groups on which the couple depends. Yet having been more or less freed from our dependence on groups of relatives and neighbors, we democratic individualists now look to love to bind us together. Instead of deriving our sense of personal fulfillment from membership in an honorable group, we seek fulfillment in the self-chosen blending of two unique individuals, each of whom will always recognize, remember, and reflect the uniqueness of the other.

So on the one hand, our individualism tends to separate us, making us resent even such sacrifices and accommodations as are inevitable in the permanent coupling of two. While on the other hand, our individualism uses one-to-one love to cement our unions and satisfy our yearning for a permanent home. The Whitehead-Popenoe study found this same contradiction within the hearts of Americans in their twenties.

America’s twenty-somethings are looking for a lifetime soul mate. An overwhelming majority (94 percent) of never-married singles agree that the search for an emotional and spiritual “soul mate” is the first consideration in marriage. There is no significant gender gap in the response. Eighty-eight percent of never-married singles in the 20–29 age range are optimistic that such a soul mate exists and that, when the time is right, they will find that special someone. Seventy-eight percent agree that a couple should not get married unless they are prepared to stay together for life.

But if the impulse to lifetime coupling remains strong, it is increasingly detached from any stable institutional setting—and from the restrictions that stable institutions inevitably place on individual choice. In the imaginings of these twenty-somethings, marriage is far more a matter of love than of religious, economic, or even parental partnership. Fewer than half (42 percent) of single young adults believe that it is important to find a spouse who shares your religion. A large majority of those surveyed (82 percent) believe that it is unwise for a woman to rely on marriage for financial security. And a clear majority (62 percent) agree that, although it may not be ideal, it’s okay for an adult woman to have a child on her own if she has not found the right man to marry.

Having left behind a world in which religious, economic, and parental considerations were all—and love was left to take care of itself—we are moving toward a world where love is all and little thought is given to the social and economic purposes that will always be at the center of marriage. The most disturbing finding of all may be the degree to which young people see marriage as a thing apart from parenting. Only 16 percent of young adults agree that the main purpose of marriage is to raise children. And, oblivious to the well-documented drawbacks of single parenting, more than four out of ten of those surveyed describe adults who intentionally raise a child out of wedlock as simply “doing their own thing.” Here is where a healthy individualism shades over into isolation and irresponsibility.

But the contradictions in the survey run deep. Although there is much to worry defenders of the traditional family, there is comfort as well. To begin with, it’s important to remember that these are twenty-somethings and that this is the first large-scale study to look at attitudes toward dating and marriage of people this age. It really isn’t surprising that young never-marrieds are focused on dating and romance, not parenting. The shift toward approval of intentional single mothering is real and disturbing, but asking a 20-year-old to affirm that having children is “the main purpose” of marriage—more so even than love—is a bit much. A 16 percent “yes” on that question may not mean much.

But the really interesting thing about the survey is how radically attitudes toward marriage appear to differ when the question shifts. Sometimes these young people sound like flaming radicals out to abolish marriage, yet just as quickly they turn around and voice concerns and demands that are clearly conservative.

Suggest to these twenty-somethings that a marriage is nobody’s business besides the two people involved, and eight out of ten will agree. An extraordinary 45 percent agree that the government should not even be involved in licensing marriage, while 43 percent agree that government should provide cohabiting couples with the same benefits as married couples. The last two proposals, supported by just under half of those surveyed, would effectively abolish marriage itself. Without state sanctioning or differential benefits, marriage would quickly be transformed from a honorable and influential public institution into an infinitely variable series of privately crafted contracts.

At the same time, however, almost nine out of ten (88 percent) of the young people surveyed agree that the divorce rate in America is too high and that we’d all be better off if it were lowered. In fact, a significant proportion of those surveyed (47 percent) agree that laws need to be changed so that divorces are more difficult to obtain. Women are more likely than men to hold this opinion.

The fact that slightly less than half of the respondents are willing to virtually abolish marriage, while half are looking for tougher divorce laws, at least partly reflects the cultural division we saw in the last election. But the fact that many of those who seem to be most anti-marriage both bemoan the rising divorce rate and want to get married themselves tells a more complicated story.

The fact is, these young people are torn. They don’t want to disapprove of anyone’s life choices, but they also know something from hard experience about the costs of divorce to children. Ask them to directly condemn or control someone else’s choice and they beg off. But put it to them that something needs to be done about divorce—even through government action—and they agree. And at the very moment when the refusal to condemn intentional single mothering has gained strength (especially among women), the desire for long-term marriage has increased (especially among men). These young people seem to understand that marriage is being subjected to contradictory pressures since the increased desire for a lifelong marriage is balanced, particularly among women, by a rising pessimism about the possibility of actually being able to sustain such a marriage.

What all of this means is that the future is up for grabs. It’s important to keep in mind that this survey is questioning twenty-somethings, vast numbers of whom have never married. Certainly, many of these young people will carry their very modern attitudes into the future. But, just as surely, middle age and parenthood will heighten the traditionalism of many others. Politically it’s clear that there is fertile soil for attempts to either radically reform marriage (virtually out of existence) or to strengthen its traditional forms. To frame this issue your way is to win, at least temporarily.

In the end, the National Marriage Project survey shows that we’re in for a long and inconclusive war over the family. With the desire for lifetime heterosexual coupling growing, the impulse to preserve and protect marriage—and to strengthen its connection to parenthood—will remain strong. Painful divorces and the experience of single parenthood sour many on marriage but serve to convince many others that something has to be done to support the traditional family. We will not be able to escape the contradiction, which is written into the soul of democracy itself. With the breakdown of the old social verities, there is nothing left but perpetual war between our yearning for personal freedom and the still powerful need of both children and adults for a lifelong love. The outlines of a permanent and irresolvable battle over the family have now appeared.