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Why Thee Wed

A tourist's map for the institution of marriage.

Sep 14, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 48 • By EVE TUSHNET
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The Marriage-Go-Round

The State of Marriage and
the Family in America Today

by Andrew J. Cherlin

Knopf, 288 pp., $25.95

This new book on marriage and family begins with a bus ad the author spotted in Baltimore, featuring "a smiling couple proclaiming, 'Marriage works.'" He has written a book-length response: Not always, not here.

Andrew J. Cherlin argues that American family life is characterized by two conflicting ideals: an ideal of marriage, and an ideal of "expressive individualism," the belief that developing and expressing oneself should be a primary life goal. So we rush to the altar--a larger percentage of Americans marry than citizens in the other Western nations, and we marry earlier--but we have much greater difficulty sustaining our unions. We marry and divorce and remarry, or live with a series of cohabiting partners, subjecting our children to a revolving door of parents and quasi-parents.

Cherlin writes, "There are more partners in the personal lives of Americans than in the lives of people of any other Western country." The end result is a startling statistic: "[C]hildren born to married parents in the United States were more likely to experience their parents' breakup than were children born to cohabiting parents in Sweden."

Cherlin also notes that Americans have always divorced more--and yet we've also always been especially exhortatory about marriage. While Europeans worried about producing enough babies--a problem which, in 1783, led Frederick the Great to argue that divorce shouldn't be "made too difficult" because unhappily married couples wouldn't have sex whereas happily remarried ones would--Americans worried about divorce.

If these tensions have been part of American life since the colonial period, can we hope to address them? Structural changes--birth control, a volatile economy, a growing reliance on post-secondary education and the accompanying delay of adulthood, and much more--have strengthened preexisting American patterns: "The percentage of children experiencing three or more mother's partners today in the United States is probably higher than in any Western country at any time in the past several centuries," Cherlin reports.

He contends that maybe this isn't so bad. It's "not calamitous," since while experiencing parents' "partnership turnover" does significantly raise children's risks of delinquency, substance abuse, and other social ills, most children who experience lots of parental turnover turn out okay. This is a weird criterion for judging the severity of social problems. One wonders if Cherlin would argue that homophobia isn't such a big deal since most gay teens don't kill themselves.

The actual picture Cherlin paints of life in a "marriage-go-round" household isn't pretty:

[T]he lives of children living in the household can vary greatly: one child may have a devoted nonresident father who sees her regularly, another child who has no contact with her father jealously watches her half sister go away for weekends with her dad, and a third child--from the new partnership--has both of her parents in the household. One child may have health insurance coverage through her father's job and see a pediatrician regularly, while another child has no coverage and sees emergency room doctors only when she is seriously ill. The inequalities among children in the same household can be stark.

Instability, inequality, a sense that adults come and go regardless of the promises they make or the longings of their children: This isn't the apocalypse, but it's not acceptable.

Cherlin's solution is that, instead of just telling young adults to get married, we tell them instead to "slow down"--to focus on maintaining stable child-care arrangements, even if that means a single mom stays single rather than remarrying.

Along with a message change, we should address governmental structures that push mothers too quickly into cohabitation with men who can provide some financial support. Cherlin acknowledges the problems with an expansive welfare state; he suggests that increasing child-support payments might be a more palatable approach.

His focus on stability for children is admirable, but there are at least three problems he doesn't address.

First, what happens to the fathers? Marriage is still how our culture makes men into reliable dads. While it's true that just adding a man to a single-mother household doesn't necessarily help kids--studies vary wildly on whether step-parenting or single-parenting is better for kids; basically, the social science says "it depends"--one wonders where the men will go when they're no longer told that their presence is critical.

Second, cultural institutions win our loyalty by being beautiful. We aspire to them, and these longings help us make the sacrifices that society and our children need. Marriage, with its millennia of history and poetry, can be beautiful. Can "stable care arrangements for children" be inspiring enough to overcome deep-rooted American beliefs and lifestyles?

This question leads to the final one: What makes Cherlin think it's a better bet to try taming our marriage mania rather than our expressive individualism? Perhaps he's more embedded in the individualist mindset than he realizes. Throughout he suggests that "personal growth" and self-discovery are opposed to marriage and childrearing: "People pay attention to their experiences and make changes in their lives if they are not satisfied. They want to continue to grow and change throughout adulthood."

This formulation surrenders too much. If I leave an unfulfilling partnership, I've changed my situation; but have I changed myself? Have I experienced as much personal growth as I would if I reshaped myself in accordance with my role rather than ditching the role when it starts to chafe? Is the self we're expressing more static, less open to growth and change, than a self willing to make and keep lifelong promises?

Cherlin's work suggests cultural changes which would foster stable families. Reducing the stigma on living with one's parents as an adult would likely do a great deal of good, and help us with the broader cultural project of returning to a view of marriage as the foundation of a good life rather than a "capstone," a celebration of the good life already achieved.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Marriage-Go-Round is its discussion of religion. Cherlin suggests that the "relationship-based, self-oriented meaning" of marriage delineated in the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision instituting gay marriage can also be found in the megachurch--bedfellows make strange bedfellows! He argues that American Christianity (even Roman Catholicism) emphasizes self-development over social role: We're "not a secular society but rather a questing one in which individuals have searched, sometimes again and again, for the kind of spirituality and family ties that fit their needs."

To discourage all spiritual seeking would be to discourage the pursuit of truth; and yet it's worth considering whether American marriages would be stronger if American churches placed more emphasis on social role and sacrifice than on self-expression and personal development.

The family that prays together, stays together? That depends on what they're praying.

Eve Tushnet, a writer in Washington, blogs at eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.