Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


ps-marriage

(Mincemeat/Shutterstock)

R.I.P. Traditional Marriage

• April 30, 2012 • 3:25 AM

(Mincemeat/Shutterstock)

What the fading of traditional marriage tells us about our growing class divide.

The idea of Government-managed marriage — the institution that dates from the 1600s and has long been considered one of the foundations of the social structure of civilization — is rumored to have passed away, quietly, in 2011.

It has been widely reported that the institution died of complications from a progressive disease. The causes include growing equality in the workforce, social acceptance of licenseless sex, and the dissolving of the stigma of being either single or gay. In its prime, marriage offered economic structure and support to women who didn’t work outside the home, and a broadly accepted framework for child rearing. Ideally, marriage also offered security and companionship. But as cultural norms changed — influenced by increasing numbers of women seeking higher education and equal rights, along with the mid-20th-century Kinsey reports and the Masters and Johnson report, which offered stunning new insights into human sexual behavior — so too did the practice of marriage. The results: today there are more single than married people in the nation. The shotgun marriage has entered the realm of folklore. And the number of single parents has skyrocketed. A widely quoted 2010 Pew Research Center study reports that four in 10 respondents said the institution is becoming obsolete.

Marriage’s fall has been chronicled by a vast array of articles in major media outlets, based on a vast array of studies. (Along with the Pew Center study, two others are: “Marriage and Divorce: Changes and Their Driving Forces,” by Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, and “The Deinstitutionalization of American Marriage,” by Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.)

But is it possible that the death of marriage is an exaggeration? Is the old institution simply going through some shape-shifting that is as much economic as cultural? Consider that the studies also show that marriage, while declining among the majority of Americans, remains the institution of choice for one particular subset: adults with a college education and a substantial income.

In a recent interview, Andrew Cherlin commented that “Marriage matters more now as the symbol of the good life than as a legal institution.” He added, “I don’t think the battle over same-sex marriage is about rights anymore. It’s about being allowed to have a first-class social status.”

Perhaps what we are witnessing is not so much the death of a tradition but a further widening of the class divide. The institution is dying — for the poor.

The obituary for marriage, then, really should be a conversation about social volatility, health, and children. In a study on the impact of marriage on kids, researchers from the Swedish Institute for Social Research found that, “even among children who live with both biological parents, cohabitation was associated with lower educational outcomes for children compared to marriage.” Research continues to show that a child’s education and emotional health are at risk when their world is more volatile. “It is not divorce in itself that can lead to problems in children. It is the divorce linked to inter-parental conflict, a lack of co-parenting, an unsuitable family climate, etc.,” says Priscila Comino, a researcher at the University of the Basque Country’s Faculty of Psychology.

The evolving structure of marriage is rocking ever-growing numbers of childhoods out of traditional patterns. Espousing the return to a “traditional” structure of marriage is not a viable option — and does not guarantee a healthy upbringing for children — but there’s no way around the fact that struggling single parents have a greater challenge creating a stable home.

The more people who come from volatile homes, the more the cycle continues. The more the gap widens.

This article appeared in the May-June issue of Pacific Standard under the title “Traditional Marriage: 1600-2011?”

Maria Streshinsky
Maria Streshinsky is the editor of Pacific Standard, and was formerly the managing editor of The Atlantic in Washington, D.C. She spent two years working at the U.S. Department of the Interior.

More From Maria Streshinsky

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


October 21 • 4:00 AM

She’s Cheating on Him, You Can Tell Just by Watching Them

New research suggests telltale signs of infidelity emerge even in a three- to five-minute video.


October 21 • 2:00 AM

Cheating Demographic Doom: Pittsburgh Exceptionalism and Japan’s Surprising Economic Resilience

Don’t judge a metro or a nation-state by its population numbers.


October 20 • 4:00 PM

The Bird Hat Craze That Sparked a Preservation Movement

How a fashion statement at the turn of the 19th century led to the creation of the first Audubon societies.


October 20 • 2:00 PM

The Risk of Getting Killed by the Police If You Are White, and If You Are Black

An analysis of killings by police shows outsize risk for young black males.


October 20 • 12:00 PM

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they’re motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.


October 20 • 11:00 AM

My Dog Comes First: The Importance of Pets to Homeless Youth

Dogs and cats have both advantages and disadvantages for street-involved youth.


October 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


Follow us


My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.