The Magazine

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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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.