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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.

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