Behind the Times

July 10, 1995|By MONA CHAREN

Gosh, are those folks at the New York Times on top of trends or what? On the front page of the Home section Thursday, over a photo of a smiling couple with their 7-year-old daughter, ran the headline ''No Marriage, No Apologies.''

The Times has made the utterly unremarkable, not to say hackneyed, discovery that lots of American couples are living together without benefit of marriage.

''What would have been considered scandalous 25 years ago has now become an acceptable living arrangement,'' writes reporter Jennifer Steinhauer. ''The number of couples choosing to live together rather than marry climbed 80 percent between 1980 and 1991, according to census data.''

The Times reports this with the cheery enthusiasm it has brought to family dissolution for 30 years. Prof. Larry Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin offered this assessment of the data: ''It is clear to me that the trends we have been observing are very likely to continue, with a declining emphasis on marriage.''

There are lots of benefits to living together, says the story. ''Cohabitation provides a chance for a shared life without a shared bank account . . . with what they [the couples] say is the same level of commitment.''

I plan to clip and save this New York Times story. It may prove to be of sociological interest one day -- a sample of the kind of backwardness that characterized some precincts of Manhattan in 1995.

Because, if anything, marriage is making a big comeback in the United States. More young people express a desire to get married and have a family now than in the past two decades. The romance of the sexual revolution has cooled.

A cartoon in the Wall Street Journal (on the same day as the Times tribute to shacking up) captures reality much better. A very well-dressed couple is entering an apartment, she in an elegant tailored suit and he in a Chesterfield coat. Inside sits a graying, bearded man wearing sandals, a beret, granny glasses and bell bottoms. The lady is saying, ''You'll have to excuse Daddy. He's awfully old-fashioned.''

The marriage-averse couples interviewed by the New York Times are actually casualties of the great divorce boom of the 1960s and beyond. Those who lived through the divorce of their own parents are much less likely to be able to form solid commitments of their own.

That is a great misfortune for those so crippled. Not even the Times accepts uncritically the assertion by these couples that their unions are as committed as marriages. The story quotes studies showing that 20 percent of cohabiting women are unfaithful to their mates, as opposed to only 4 percent of married women. And fully 50 percent of marriages that began with cohabitation end in divorce (which is far more than conventional marriages).

The story did not say, but should have, that children of such unions are the most cheated. Non-married fathers are much, much less likely to stick around throughout the growing-up years of their children than married fathers. They are also less likely to pay child support if they do leave.

The sub-head of the Times story read ''Managing Love in the '90s.'' But these couples are not managing love, they are managing their fears. And until the culture gets its signals straight about what is expected from marriage, they will be justified, to some extent, in those fears.

There is simply too much emphasis on love and not enough on commitment these days at wedding ceremonies.

I'm not against love per se. I do think marrying for love is, on the whole, a system preferable to arranged marriages. But couples should be advised, by clergy or others, before taking their vows, that they are committing to more than love.

Love is easy. Compromise is hard. Affection comes naturally; fidelity does not. Making a commitment to stay married makes those necessary compromises easier -- particularly if the society encourages commitment rather than unfettered individuality.

Clearly, some marriages cannot and should not be saved. But if more couples approached the altar with realistic expectations, the sum total of human happiness would be increased.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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