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

July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

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