Time for straight talk about the reasons for marriage's decline

July 19, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - It wasn't even close. The U.S. Senate easily shut down debate last week over a proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

With that ugly business behind us, perhaps it will be possible now to have a legitimate discussion about the dire state of heterosexual marriage. People of goodwill - those of all faiths and those with none - ought to be able to dispense with the lies and illogic that have poisoned the debate so that we can concentrate on the changed cultural expectations that bedevil modern marriage.

The two-career couple; the wife who earns more than her husband; disagreements over religion, money and child-rearing; old-fashioned adultery and betrayal - those are the challenges that confront contemporary couples. Not to mention a destabilizing factor embedded in 21st century romance - the idealized Hollywood marriage, which gives young couples a false premise on which to base a lifetime pledge. (As a divorcee, I know something about the dilemmas that doom so many heterosexual marriages.)

Narrow-minded preachers and pandering politicians have propagated a lot of foolish notions; among the most foolish is the idea of a connection between the faltering state of traditional marriage and the growing movement for gay rights.

Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears and The Bachelorette's Trista Rehn and Ryan Sutter - who married in a televised ceremony after she spent a few weeks culling him from a herd of unattached males on a so-called reality show - have contributed to the decline of heterosexual marriage. Gays and lesbians have had nothing to do with it.

Conservative activists have also fostered the false premise that marriage has always been defined as a union between one man and one woman. Nonsense. During 100,000 years of history of Homo sapiens, marriage has been a union between one man and as many women as he could afford. The Bible tells us that King Solomon had a thousand wives and concubines. If you've read the record of any ancient civilization - whether the history of the ancient Israelites or the history of the ancient Greeks - you know that women were considered property, first the property of their fathers, later of their husbands, to be treated as the men saw fit.

In other words, there is a good reason that traditional marriage is in trouble. Many of those traditions were deeply flawed. If you don't understand the laws and traditions that have governed the treatment of women for thousands of years, you cannot appreciate the ways in which cultural change has shaken the foundations of marriage.

Nor does the more traditional philosophy still preached by many conservative Christian churches - that the man should be the unquestioned head of his household - seem to make those unions stronger than others in which the man and woman share power. According to a study released three years ago by the Barna Research Group, "born-again Christians are just as likely to get divorced as non-born-again adults." And 90 percent of those divorces occurred "after they accepted Christ, not before."

(Gay and lesbian unions, by the way, encounter the same difficulties and evidence the same variety that heterosexual unions have shown. Some are loving and stable unions that last a lifetime. Many are not. How could it be otherwise, since gays are subject to the same cultural forces that affect the rest of us?)

It may be that, in the broad sweep of human history, traditional marriage is doomed. As human beings live longer and longer lives, the idea that one partner can satisfy our desire for love, stability and happiness forever may come to seem quaint.

But I still believe in the institution of marriage, still believe it is worth saving. Whatever else it has been, it has functioned as a building block of civilization. And a loving and stable marriage remains, I believe, the best institution for bringing well-adjusted children into adulthood.

The institution deserves at least an honest debate. It hasn't gotten that. We cannot begin to work on restoring heterosexual marriage unless we are candid about the cultural changes - starting with the Enlightenment and its emphasis on the individual - that have contributed to its decline. This vicious business of blaming gays gets us nowhere.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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