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Is Marriage on the way out?
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The media, policy makers, many politicians, find it incredibly hard, and in many cases politically dangerous, to be overtly in favour of marriage, and that ambivalence is partly responsible for the impression that marriage is declining in importance and possibly even on the way out. I just want to look briefly at where this ambivalence comes from.
Whence the ambivalence?
Laura Tennant, writing in the New Statesman describes the liberal-left orthodoxy on marriage. She says: “Ever since Marx and Engels postulated marriage as a patriarchal structure to secure the legitimacy of children and the safe transfer of property between generations, the left has viewed marriage, along with church and state, as an instrument for social control and prefers to think of it as historically contingent and socially constructed. But as Bob Simpson, an anthropologist at Durham University, states: ‘Heterosexual monogamy is an enduring basis for constructing social orders the world over. On a social and biological level, that pattern is a stable one which has cropped up in different times and places.’ This speaks for marriage not as artificial template or recent invention, but as a primal relationship meeting a profound human need.”
She goes on: “The sexual revolution opened up the possibility of a lifetime of free-flowing erotic liaisons and the undesirability, if not impossibility, of confining one's activities to a single partner. Later, radical feminism argued that marriage was merely an arena for the economic and sexual exploitation of women. More recently, the emphasis on individual fulfillment has worked against the compromises that marriage entails, and our longer life-span makes ‘till death us do part’ a promise ever harder to keep.”
Let me just deal with those last two developments which have questioned the ongoing validity of marriage.
Firstly, the notion that marriage exploits women. I would agree with Anastasia de Waal, head of family and education at the London-based think-tank Civitas. She says:
“The worry now for campaigners for women's rights should be the close connection between cohabiting partnerships and lone parenthood. In the past 30 years, the number of both cohabiting and lone-parent families has rocketed. It is no coincidence that the two have risen simultaneously. While 70% of children born within marriage can still expect to live with both natural parents until 16, that is the case for just 36% of those born into a cohabiting relationship. The instability of cohabitation is sold as freedom, but essentially this fragility has become a new form of women's ‘enslavement’. That women can today parent alone, and unstigmatized, is a triumph, but this is blighted by the reality of lone motherhood. While some middle-class single mothers are having a ball, they are the minority. There is nothing empowering about being left, penniless, holding the baby. Around half of lone mothers have no earned income and scrape by on welfare benefits. Of those who are not officially poor, many have to do the jobs of two people.”
That is the reality of many lone parents in the UK. One in two lone parent families are on income support, compared to one in thirty couple parent families. 69% of lone mothers are in the bottom 40% of household income, versus 29% of couples with children. Lone parents have twice as much risk of experiencing persistent low income as couples with children – 50% versus 22%.
Understandably lone parents are eight times as likely (45%) to live in a workless household as couples with children (5.4%), and our level of lone parenthood greatly contributes to the fact that the UK has the highest rate of children living in workless households in Europe.
Serious academics say that it is possible to have high rates of lone parenthood without all these disadvantages and look to Scandinavia but the UK’s lone parent profile is very different to countries like Norway and Sweden. Their lone parents tend to be older than in the UK. Therefore they tend to have careers, higher income, wider life experience than the UK and they are less likely to lack physical and emotional resources. Single parents in the UK with all these attributes do manage far better, so it is not just about increasing benefits. Money matters but it is not the whole story.
But nearly half of our lone parent households were formed after divorce, so we cannot treat marriage as a magic bullet. In the UK three quarters of all family splits involving children under 5 results from cohabitation breakdown, our divorce rates are high but have stabilized. However there are other countries which are still on the upward curve.
From institution to companionship
That takes me onto the second development, the emphasis on individual fulfillment. Let me wind the clock back a little to the beginning of the 20th century because childbearing outside of marriage, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage are the result of long-term cultural and material trends which included two great changes in the meaning of marriage over the last 100 years.
To see these trends in the grand sweep of history I must go back even earlier and remind you that for thousands of years, marriage organized people’s places in the economic and political hierarchy of society and served so many political, social, and economic functions that the individual needs and desires of its members (especially women and children, its subordinate members) were secondary considerations. Love was considered a very poor reason to get married.
However, in the 18th century, the revolutionary new ideal of the love match triumphed in most of Western Europe and North America representing a break with literally thousands of years of history. The private, relational side of marriage became increasingly important and the public side less so.
However both are necessary. Commitment has been described as the glue of relationship. Certain kinds of glue come in two separate tubes (adhesive and hardener) that must be mixed together to form a strong bond. Forces that are internal (the relationship) and external (public ceremony and status) work together.
Getting back to more recent history, this emphasis on emotional satisfaction and romantic love intensified early in the 20th century. The change in the meaning of marriage was famously labeled as a transition “from marriage as an institution to marriage as a
During this first change in meaning, marriage remained the only socially acceptable way to have a sexual relationship and to raise children in much of the industrialized world (with the possible exception of the Nordic countries). Gillis labeled the period from 1850 to 1960 the “era of mandatory marriage.”
Then, during the last few decades of the century, an ethic of expressive individualism: the belief that “each person has a unique core of feeling and intuition that should unfold or be expressed if individuality is to be realized” became more important and more than has ever been the case, the emotional satisfaction of the spouses became an important criterion for marital success.
Beginning in the 1960s, marriage’s dominance began to diminish, and the second great change in the meaning of marriage occurred.
An even more individualistic perspective on the rewards of marriage took root. When people evaluated how satisfied they were with their marriages, they began to think more in terms of the development of their own sense of self and the expression of their feelings, as opposed to the satisfaction they gained through building a family and playing the roles of spouse and parent.
Free to be me
The result was a transition from the companionate marriage to what we might call the individualized marriage. This transition has been characterized as a shift in emphasis “from role to self”.
Sociological theorists of late modernity (or post-modernity) such as Anthony Giddens have also written about the growing individualization of personal life. They note the declining power of social norms and laws as regulating mechanisms for family life, and they stress the expanding role of personal choice. They argue that as traditional sources of identity such as class, religion, and community lose influence, one’s intimate relationships become central to self-identity.
Giddens writes of the emergence of the “pure relationship”: an intimate partnership entered into for its own sake, which lasts only as long as both partners are satisfied with the rewards (mostly intimacy and love) that they get from it. The pure relationship is not tied to an institution such as marriage or to the desire to raise children. Rather, it is “free-floating,” independent of social institutions or economic life. Unlike marriage, it is not regulated by law, and its members do not enjoy special legal rights. It exists primarily in the realms of emotion and self-identity.
Mike Mason, a Christian who wrote The Mystery of Marriage, puts these concepts in less complimentary terms. The modern idea of marriage sees love as a vehicle for self-fulfillment and talks of the importance of “preserving one’s individual identity”, “respecting differences” and “the freedom to be me”.
These are important concepts but they are also easily twisted into propaganda for selfishness, the cramming of personhood into the narrow box of ego, as if a person were nothing more than his own conscious urges and desires.
But that is exactly what marriage works against, attacking self-centredness in all its disguises, simultaneously and tirelessly throwing the ego off balance. Our identity is not something we take into a relationship but what we draw out of it. It is something we do not have at all, unless we discover it through reciprocity with others .
A good way to look at the implications of this is to see it in terms of its impact on commitment. The pure relationship is an ideal type, something we are arguably heading towards as a society, and partly evidenced by increasing cohabitation and living apart together.
Research on cohabiting couples which asks them how they view their relationship tends to produce the response that they are just as committed as marrieds, although subsequent break-up rates question this. They don’t tend to admit that they are less committed but it is important to unravel the complexities of commitment if we are to appreciate how it underscores supportive relationships in modern societies.
Michael Johnson (1991) broke the concept of commitment into three dimensions: (a) Structural Commitment – feeling one has to continue a relationship because of constraint from external pressure (such as marriage vows) and censure from others; (b) Moral Commitment – feeling one ought to continue a relationship in terms of one’s own value system (this can come from religion or a culturally rooted sense that marriage is for life or that a partnership involving children should not be severed simply for personal gratification); (c) Personal Commitment – feeling one wants to continue a relationship because it is satisfying and pleasurable.
So the pure relationship, independent of social institutions or economic life, entered into for its own sake and existing primarily in the realms of emotion and self-identity, is held together by personal commitment only, whereas relationships based on the notion that marriage is for life and everything reasonably possible should be done to preserve the union, are strengthened by the marshalling of structural and moral commitment.