In the wake of a report that showed that the proportion of American adults who are married is at an all-time low, I hosted a live discussion on the state of marriage on Wednesday. You submitted far more wonderful questions and comments than I could possibly respond to in an hour, and that itself tells me that we really are wrestling with the future of marriage in this country.
By way of summary, here’s one more question and my reply — and I encourage you to keep the conversation going below.
Do you feel that the decline in marriage is a good thing, a bad thing, or entirely neutral?
My quick response is that nothing that significant is ever entirely neutral, and in this case, I think the trend indicates both some good things and some bad things.
On the positive side, most Americans don’t need to marry for the kinds of economic reasons which brought people together in past centuries. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that love and romance were not factors also, but simply that even when they were not, the pressures/incentives to marry were quite significant. Absent those pressures, we marry less. The fact that we can more freely choose to enter into marriages is a good thing.
On the negative side, we seem increasingly unable to create and sustain long-term relationships in this country, romantic and otherwise. That is a serious negative. I don’t think it’s a permanent state of affairs, but it does need to be addressed. How, in the absence of much of the previous generations’ social glue, do we manage to still stick together?
I suspect the future will still see us marrying, and in fact I hope it sees more of us doing so, but that will almost certainly entail some redefinition of marriage and of our expectations about it. The proverbial scales have fallen from our eyes and we are now free to admit that marriage is not perfect. Additionally, we now appreciate that staying in a marriage no matter what, as many marital partners once did, is rarely a good idea.
The challenge now is to see what marriage, or any other commitments for that matter, can look like when the partners truly have entered into it freely — and have the ability to leave at almost any time. When we do that, marriages will be better and I suspect, more of us will choose to marry.