Marriage is in trouble by Carolyn Moynihan

3 06 2015

marriage in trouble

Marriage is in trouble, and it’s not all down to the campaign to extend it to same-sex couples. It was floundering before anyone mentioned gay marriage, and continues, in the richer countries, on a path that many see as a decline. Divorce, cohabitation, single motherhood, all undermine the most basic institution of society, one still regarded by the majority of people as integral to their long-term happiness.

Not everyone takes a pessimistic view of these trends. Some scholars say marriage is not dying, just changing, although they admit that the process of change is hard on a lot of people – children who live in poverty, for example, and unemployed, unmarriageable men. They find it harder to agree, though, about what marriage is changing into. Two recent scholarly articles come to completely different conclusions about the new version of matrimony that is emerging.

A highly sensitive couple, but where are the kids?

Psychologist Eli J Finkel writes in the New York Times about the evolution of marriage from an institution focused on meeting basic physical needs (food, shelter, protection from violence), through a companionate phase in which couples increasingly sought to satisfy their sexual and emotional needs, to a self-expressive model in which today’s couples “view marriage less as an essential institution and more as an elective means of achieving personal fulfilment.”

This “historical ascent” of marriage fits well with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, says Finkel, a fact which seems to reassure him that the change has been for the better. Indeed, research indicates that such marriages can bring greater happiness than married people have ever enjoyed before. There is just one catch: the couple have to be able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership.

So much time and energy, in fact, that there seems little or none left for children. These central characters in the marriage drama are heard only off-stage in Finkel’s account of the ideal marriage: once, when he talks about people in the average marriage today not having enough time for themselves, and once when he mentions childcare. In his potted history of marriage, they are mentioned not at all.

Not one child peeps from behind the skirts of his institutionally married or companionable mother, let alone his self-actualised one. Extraordinary.

There is no doubt a lot of truth in Finkel’s scheme, but by leaving out the reason why most people throughout history actually got married – to achieve the stability in their relationship need to raise children – it omits the only thing that makes marriage a public issue at all. Let couples have whatever kind of relationship they like; if there are no kids, why should we care?

High-investment parenting is HIP, if you like juggling

But there are kids, according to Richard V Reeves, writing in The Atlantic about “How to Save Marriage in America”. Therefore we should care, because children need the committed parenting that marriage typically provides and yet so many of them today lack. The good news is that such parenting is flourishing today, he says, in the type of marriage which is being forged by college graduates, a version which is, above all, child-centred.

There are two surprising things here. First, that it’s upper middle class liberals who are getting married (while those lower down the social scale increasingly default) and second, that their marriages are so focused on children. One would have thought they were prime candidates for Finkel’s voyage-of-self-discovery model, but no, they are going gangbusters on raising their children.

Reeves, who is the policy director for the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution, has a sociological perspective on this issue, which perhaps partly explains why he looks at the same society as Finkel the psychologist and sees such a different model of marriage as the hope of the future. He calls it the high investment parenting – or HIP – marriage, and explains it as follows:

“The central rationale for these marriages is to raise children together, in a settled, nurturing environment. So, well-educated Americans are ensuring that they are financially stable before having children, by delaying childrearing. They are also putting their relationship on a sound footing too – they’re not in the business of love at first sight, rushing to the altar, or eloping to Vegas. College graduates take their time to select a partner; and then, once the marriage is a couple of years old, take the final step and become parents. Money, marriage, maternity: in that order.”

Like Finkel, he compares this model with two others: the traditional male breadwinner/dependent wife model (combining features of Finkel’s institutional and companionate phases) and the romantic model focused on spousal intimacy and self-actualisation, which sounds pretty much like Finkel’s new model. Reeves dismisses the traditional one as doomed and the romantic (“cohabitation with a cake”) as “not ideal” for raising children – although he points out that his newly married college grads can enjoy the benefits of a romantic marriage in the couple of years they wait before having children.

After the commitment to intensive parenting, says Reeves, the most important feature of modern marriage is the financial independence of the woman and the egalitarian character of the couple’s domestic arrangements. If the mother takes time out to do more parenting these marriages may appear traditional for a while, but they are not. In general, husband and wife will share the roles of both “child-raiser and money-maker.” They will become experts in juggling, as well as parenting.

What if most people prefer something else again?

Again, there’s a lot of truth in Reeve’s picture of society’s most basic institution. The big question that confronts both him and Finkel, however, is how their favoured model of marriage can be made accessible to the poor-to-middling folks who are increasingly missing out on the benefits of marriage for themselves and their children. Do these models even appeal to ordinary people?

Finkel’s soul-mate option seems unlikely to catch on. While it’s true that husbands and wives need (more) time with each other – weekly date nights do seem to increase marital happiness – most people want to have children and most also find personal fulfilment in parenting, despite the hard work it often is. The time and energy investment in the couple relationship Finkel talks about would be out of the question for hands-on parents, while the ideal itself may not even be very appealing.

Reeves HIP marriage, with its conservative approach to parenting and liberal approach to role sharing, seems a more serious contender as a popular model, but even that has features that are unlikely to travel much beyond the households of the upper middle class.

Reeves thinks marriage is not working for downscale Americans because the men, if not the women, are stuck in the old traditional male role of breadwinner, without the jobs to sustain it. But what if they simply don’t like the idea of a household where, to use Reeves’ description, “There will be lots of juggling, trading and negotiating: “‘I’ll do the morning if you can get home in time to take Zach to baseball,’” sort of thing? If that’s the only way to have a successful marriage today the average person might understandably give it a miss.

University of Virginia sociologist Brad Wilcox, another family scholar, points out that, in fact, real modern families tend towards a neo-traditional model that retains much of the old role differences between husband and wife, simply because they prefer it:

Though a large minority of couples are following an egalitarian model, for the majority of married families with children, family life is organized along neo-traditional lines, and has been since the 1990s, when the gender revolution stalled out in married families. It’s new in the sense that today’s married dads do a lot more child care and housework than dads of the 1950s, and that most married moms are working in the paid labor force. But it’s “traditional” in the sense that most husbands take the lead when it comes to breadwinning, and most wives take the lead when it comes to childrearing.

Because there is a diversity of preferences, says Wilcox, “public policies and cultural norms related to work and family should be geared to maximum flexibility … and toward renewing the employment opportunities of poor and working class men who have become less ‘marriageable’ in recent years.” Not everyone will fit the same mould.

To come back to the children…

There is one more important question about the new models of marriage proposed by Finkel and Reeves: are they capable of sustaining a healthy birth rate? It is difficult to see how self-actualising marriages could produce an average of two children given the heavy demand for couple time. But even the new HIP model may struggle to achieve replacement fertility, despite its focus on parenting.

According to the Pew Research Centre, by the end of their childbearing years, women with a bachelor’s degree have an average of 1.7 children, compared with an average of 2.5 children amongst women without even a high school diploma.

This is not an argument against the education of women, which is increasing all the time, but it does indicate something about a model of marriage which involves delaying the step until at least one’s late 20s, then a further delay before childbearing, a more or less equal division of home and market work, and a style of parenting which demands an exhausting (and expensive) round of school and extra-curricular activities.

How many children will a couple have under those conditions? Perhaps not much more than the self-absorbed couples at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy. If we want to save marriage for its basic function of generating and socialising new citizens, we will need other models than those.


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