Menus Subscribe Search
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

September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


September 17 • 9:44 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: Portlandia Is Dying

Build an emerald city. Attract the best and brightest with glorious amenities. They will come and do nothing.



September 17 • 8:00 AM

Why Don’t We Have Pay Toilets in America?

Forty years ago, thanks to an organization founded by four high school friends, human rights beat out the free market—and now we can all pee for free.


September 17 • 6:32 AM

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists’ appetites.


September 17 • 6:00 AM

The Grateful Dig: An Archaeologist Excavates a Tie-Dyed Modern Stereotype

What California’s senior state archaeologist discovered in the ruins of a hippie commune.


September 17 • 4:00 AM

The Strong Symbolic Power of Emptying Pockets

Researchers find the symbolic act of emptying a receptacle can impact our behavior, and not for the better.


September 16 • 4:00 PM

Why Is LiveJournal Helping Russia Block a Prominent Critic of Vladimir Putin?

The U.S. blogging company is showing an error message to users inside Russia who try to read the blog of Alexei Navalny, a prominent politician and critic of the Russian government.


September 16 • 2:00 PM

Man Up, Ladies! … But Not Too Much

Too often, women are asked to display masculine traits in order to be successful in the workplace.



September 16 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Brilliant 12-Year-Old?

Charles Wang is going to rule the world.


September 16 • 10:09 AM

No Innovation Without Migration: The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance wasn’t a place, but an era of migration. It would have happened even without New York City.


September 16 • 10:00 AM

A Law Professor Walks Into a Creative Writing Workshop

One academic makes the case for learning how to write.



September 16 • 7:23 AM

Does Not Checking Your Buddy’s Facebook Updates Make You a Bad Friend?

An etiquette expert, a social scientist, and an old pal of mine ponder the ever-shifting rules of friendship.



September 16 • 6:12 AM

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn’t have any extra emotional impact.


September 16 • 6:00 AM

What Color Is Your Pygmy Goat?

The fierce battle over genetic purity, writ small. Very small.



September 15 • 4:00 PM

The Average Prisoner Is Visited Only Twice While Incarcerated

And black prisoners receive even fewer visitors.


September 15 • 2:00 PM

Gambling With America’s Health

The public health costs of legal gambling.


September 15 • 12:23 PM

The Scent of a Conservative

We are attracted to the body odor of others with similar political beliefs, according to new research.


Follow us


Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

3-D Movies Aren’t That Special

Psychologists find that 3-D doesn't have any extra emotional impact.

To Protect Against Meltdowns, Banks Must Map Financial Interconnections

A new model suggests looking beyond balance sheets, studying the network of investment as well.

Big Government, Happy Citizens?

You may like to talk about how much happier you'd be if the government didn't interfere with your life, but that's not what the research shows.

Give Yourself a Present for the Future

Psychologists discover that we underestimate the value of looking back.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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