"The Abolition of Marriage: How We Lost the Right to a Lasting Love," by Maggie Gallagher. Regnery Publishing, Inc. 300 pages; $24.95
For an electorate loudly denouncing an "underclass" of unmarried mothers, impoverished children and restless adolescents with little chance of finding law-abiding roles in society, Maggie Gallagher has a stark message: Look in the mirror.
If the instability of the underclass is spreading blight in the cities and making its influence felt beyond those boundaries, parallel forces cheered on by the elite are undermining the social fabric in the rest of society.
The culprit is divorce - specifically, no-fault divorce and all the legal reforms that allow one partner to cancel the marriage commitment unilaterally, with the blessing of the courts. Divorce has become too easy, she argues, and the frequency of divorce is producing troubling changes in American life.
Ms. Gallagher cites two statistics to bolster her case that our society is witnessing a virtual abolition of marriage: Almost one-third of American children are now born out of wedlock and up to 65 percent of new marriages will fail. Add to that the fact that children of divorce are themselves more likely to divorce and to bear children outside marriage and the reason for the ominous title of this book becomes clear.
Ms. Gallagher, a syndicated columnist, affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values and, until her marriage, herself an unwed mother, offers persuasive evidence that by undermining the bedrock institution of any community - families rooted in secure marriages - we not only "lose the right to a lasting love," we also put at risk the stability of society.
If her critique is bold, some of her solutions are less so. Not surprisingly, she supports tougher divorce laws, a movement under way in several states. But she also calls for wage levels sufficient for married men to reclaim the role of breadwinner, a more elusive goal. Equally elusive is her assertion that public policies supportive of marriage will take shape "if (and only if) married men and women begin to view themselves as a political class (as senior citizens or farmers do) and vote accordingly."
But give her credit: It's hard to get the answers right until there is agreement on the questions - and Ms. Gallagher provides ample evidence that many influential voices are unwilling to acknowledge there is anything wrong with divorce or its effects on the children marriage is designed to produce and protect.
Hers is a bleak and unsparing look, not just at the Murphy Browns who believe their affluence can compensate for the "father-hunger" inside every child, but at the "experts" who are quick to assure us that parents do their children a favor when they leave a less-than-happy marriage.
In contrast, Ms. Gallagher argues for the "good-enough marriage" which, while it may suffer its share of troubles, still harms children far less than the financial and emotional losses of divorce. She also argues for a realistic look at children - their
longing for absent fathers, their need for a coherent family story and their pain when step-family relationships also become tenuous and temporary. In a therapeutic culture that prizes insight at the expense of virtues like loyalty, commitment and endurance, divorce becomes an adventure, spouses become vehicles for self-realization and, alas, children become in effect excess baggage in an adult's journey to self-fulfillment.
If that's what we want, Ms. Gallagher suggests we get accustomed to the consequences. If not, she has offered a persuasive and provocative challenge to mend our ways.
Sara M. Engram is the deputy editorial page editor for The Sun and a columnist. Her book, "Mortal Matters: When a Loved One Dies" was published in 1990.
Pub date: 04/07/96