State of the marriage union a state of confusion for many

November 27, 1998|By William R. Mattox Jr.

SINCE the week of Thanksgiving is also National Family Week, now is a good time to stop and assess the state of the union. No, I am not talking about the health of the U.S. economy or the size of the federal budget or the condition of U.S. relations abroad.

I'm talking about the state of the union -- the marital union -- in America today.

Now, if one is determined to do so, it is certainly possible to argue that the state of the marital union in the United States today is OK. Or at least improving greatly. After all, divorce rates have been inching down in recent years. More than 90 percent of all Americans still marry at some point in their lives. And recent surveys show that Americans continue to have a strong commitment to the marital ideal.

Wedding vows

For example, more than 80 percent of all Americans tell the Wirthlin Worldwide research firm that they do not believe marriage is "an old-fashioned, outmoded institution." Ninety percent say they believe "couples today ought to pay more attention to the traditional wedding vows." And when Americans are asked which of the following life goals -- a nice home, a fulfilling career, a comfortable retirement, a good marriage or happy children -- they believe a person should be most willing to give up if they cannot "have it all," only 5 percent say a "good marriage."

Just because most Americans express high hopes for marriage, however, does not mean that most believe that all is well on the home front. In fact, 79 percent tell Wirthlin they think the state of the marital union has been declining over the past three decades. And it is easy to understand why.

The proportion of Americans who have divorced at some point in their lives is higher today than at any other point in American history. So is the number of children whose parents have divorced. And the proportion of children born each year out of wedlock. And the percentage of Americans who say they have been in a cohabiting relationship outside of marriage.

Such findings make clear that the state of the union isn't exactly a bed of roses.

Now, considering the high ideals Americans express about marriage, it might be tempting to conclude that America's marriage problem is primarily a problem of hypocrisy -- that Americans say one thing and do another. But I seem to think our fundamental problem isn't so much a disconnection between what we say and what we do as it is a disconnect between what we say and what we say.

You see, when it comes to the state of the union, Americans are in a state of confusion. We say one thing. And then we say another.

Consider, for example, what happened when Wirthlin asked Americans whether young people should wait to have sex until they are married or should get sexual experience before they are married. By a margin of 71 percent to 22 percent, respondents said young people should save sex for marriage. But in the very same survey, more than half of the respondents -- 55 percent -- rejected the notion that "it is a bad idea for couples to live together before they are married."

Now, unless there is an emerging interest in celibate cohabitation, these two responses are at odds. They reflect the fact that however much Americans may know what we want (a "good marriage"), we do not know what sorts of attitudes, beliefs and behaviors are most apt to lead to marital success. This uncertainty -- combined with high levels of marital failure all around us -- serve to undermine Americans' confidence in marital success. And lest there be any doubt, marital confidence is as important to marital success as consumer confidence is to economic success.

Living together

For example, one of the reasons cohabitation has become so common today is because many young people are fearful of marital failure and want to believe that living together before marriage will boost their chances of success. But a number of recent research studies show that couples who cohabit are actually far more apt to divorce down the road than those who do not.

And divorce not only causes pain to the parties directly involved, but it also has far-reaching public implications. As reams of research now show, marital stability is strongly linked to all sorts of social concerns -- from crime rates and student achievement scores to poverty levels and health care expenses.

Thus, Americans everywhere have reason to be concerned about the state of the union. And reason to become better acquainted with the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors most apt to lead to marital success.

William R. Mattox Jr. writes frequently about new research findings. His e-mail address:

Pub Date: 11/27/98

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