The End of Traditional Marriage?

Oct 29th, 2011 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

If one is intellectually honest about what is occurring in western civilization, especially in the United States, one would conclude anecdotally that traditional marriage?i.e., the nuclear family?with one man and one woman, married and having children?is non-existent in major parts of the culture.  Further, the effects of this social development are not positive.  What was once an anecdotal observation is now supported by detailed facts resulting from sociological studies.  For example, I just finished reading an article by the culture editor of Veranda magazine, Kate Bolick, in the November 2011 edition of the Atlantic magazine.  For me personally, it was an astonishing article to read.  In this Perspective, I will summarize the salient parts of this important article and conclude with some thoughts from God?s Word.

  • First, a summary of the article.  As the American economy deals with the Great Recession and also with the profoundly new social arrangements emerging, ?it is time to embrace new ideas about romance and family?and to acknowledge the end of ?traditional? marriage as society?s highest ideal.?  Part of this cluster of ?new ideas? impacting marriage includes the fact of a ?post-Boomer ideology that values emotional fulfillment above all else.  And the elevation of independence [i.e., personal autonomy] over coupling . . . [as] a second-wave feminist idea. . . .?  Bolick quotes social historian Stephanie Coontz on this revolution in social arrangements:  ?We are without a doubt in the midst of an extraordinary sea change.  The transformation is momentous?immensely liberating and immensely scary.  When it comes to what people actually want and expect from marriage and relationships, and how they organize their sexual and romantic lives, all the old ways have broken down.?  What is the evidence for this astonishing conclusion?  Bolick cites several threads of evidence:
  1.  In 1960, the median age of first marriage in the US was 23 from men and 20 for women; today it is 28 and 26.  Today, a smaller proportion of American women in their early 30s are married than at any other point since the 1950s, if not earlier.  There are also major attitudinal shifts about marriage:  According to the Pew Research Center, a full 44% of Millennials and 43% of Gen Xers think that marriage is becoming obsolete.
  2. Woman no longer need husbands to have children, nor do they have to have children if they do not want to.  Biological parenthood in a nuclear family is no longer the norm.  In fact, today 40% of children are born to single mothers!  Further, gays and lesbians (married and single) and older women are also having children, via adoption and in-vitro fertilization.  These developments have shrunk the stigma against single motherhood.  Finally, since 1976, the percentage of women in their early 40s who have not given birth has nearly doubled.
  3. The gains of the women?s movement have also had a significant effect on marriage.  Over the past half century,  women have steadily gained on?and are in some ways surpassing?men in education and employment.  Women are also more likely than men to go to college:  In 2010, 55% of all college graduates ages 25 to 29 were female.
  4. Coupled with #3 is the deterioration of the male condition.  Men have been rapidly declining?in income, in education attainment, and in future employment prospects?relative to women.  As of last year, women held 51.4% of all managerial and professional positions, up from 26% in 1980.  Women earned 60% of all bachelor?s and master?s degrees awarded in 2010 and men are more likely than women to hold only a high school diploma.  In addition, nearly 3/4ths of the 7.5 million jobs lost in the depths of the recession were lost by men.  Marriage based on men as the primary earners in the family is passing into extinction.
  5. One of the major results of all this data is that American women as a whole are confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be ?marriageable men??those better educated and those who earn more than they do.
  • Second, Bolick then argues that this ?crisis in gender? is more profoundly evident in the African-American community and in the ?hook-up culture? on the college campus.  An astonishing 70% of black women are unmarried and they are more than twice as likely as white women to remain that way.  Her argument is that what has already occurred in the black family is beginning to happen to the white family.  One example:  In 2011, more than 25% of all white children are now born out of wedlock.  Regarding the college campus, recent studies confirm that where women outnumber men (as they do on the typical American college campus), the social norms against casual sex weaken.  The hook-up culture on campuses has produced college students with many sexual partners and a casual atmosphere about sex that is unprecedented.  Contraceptives and abortion remove the stigma of pregnancy and encourage the ?free sex? culture.

The broader effect of this ?revolution? in sexual behavior is having its effect:  The Census Bureau has reported that in 2010, the proportion of married households in America dropped to a record low of 48%.  Fifty percent of the adult population is single (compared with 33% in 1950)?and that portion is very likely to keep growing.  The median age for getting married has been rising and for the affluent and educated it is even higher.  Last year, nearly twice as many single women bought homes as did single men.  All of these statistics and data indicate a culture upending social norms and institutional structures.

  • Finally, when one places God?s Creation Ordinance in Genesis 2:18-25 up against this summary by Kate Bolick, it is difficult to be positive about the state of our culture.  God?s Creation Ordinance stipulates that marriage is an institution created and ordained by God.  It is between a man and a woman?for life and for procreation.  What we are witnessing in America is a wholesale abandonment of God?s Ordinance.  As we are seeing (and will see in increasing degrees), it is the children who suffer the most from this aberrant re-definition of marriage.  Marriage is the bedrock institution of civilization?and it is in dismal shape.

See Bolick?s article, ?All the Single Ladies,? in The Atlantic (November 2011), pp. 116-136. PRINT PDF 

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