My youngest daughter has not yet married; she is twenty-eight.
Of course, not everyone wants to be married. And not marrying certainly doesn’t make someone a second class citizen.
But . . . she wants to marry. She wants to share her life with a man she admires and adores, and she wants to have children. But times have changed, haven’t they?
Maybe like me, you haven’t noticed that marriage rates have been falling for several years now.
One source says that 75% of all women and 50% of all men in the 1950s were married by the time they reached their mid-twenties. In the United States (in 2011) the median marrying age for women was 26.5, and 28.7 for men. Just 51% of adults 18 and older are married (as opposed to 72% in 1960).
Marriage rates fell a full 5% from 2009 to 2010 here in the states. A mere 20% of adults 18-29 are currently married (as opposed to 59% in 1960).
A 2010 survey found 40% of Americans expressing the notion that marriage was becoming obsolete (only 28% said that in 1970); still, 61% of those who had never married said they would like to marry someday. Of course, of the 40% mentioned above most are unmarried, single parents, or cohabiting couples. And a high percentage of these are young and have less formal education.
Divorce rates soared in the 1960s and 70s, leading some to think that fear of divorce has created the current slowdown in marriages. The rate of divorce has dropped, but clearly that is due in part to the slowdown in marriage rates, as well as the increase in cohabitation, and the changing views on sexual behavior and the birth of children.
I am no sociologist (that should be clear from what you’ve read so far).
So, let me cut to the chase (so to speak). Because my interest in writing today is primarily fueled by the disappointment of a daughter that I love more than the moral arguments for and against the institution of marriage, sexual mores, and the life of an unborn child.
Here is the skinny on the matter. My daughter is sandwiched in an evolving era in our history where traditional values and practices are opposed by modern “enlightened” values and practices at every turn. She works with, and is friends with, a number of lovely, intelligent young women who would love to be married; that is, she is not the “odd one” who can’t seem to find a man. Many share her dilemma.
Many of my daughter’s girlfriends are able to secure “dates” but not able to secure the marriages they seek. Men and women are now accustomed to sexual privileges that once were held sacred in marriage (we tried to destroy this notion in the 1960s and we were quite successful); career goals are now shared equally by men and women, and so the “goal” of marriage for women has been put on the back burner for many. So . . . why marry?
What is the point of marriage?
If marriage is obsolete, destined for eventual divorce; if sexual privileges are available (and considered completely respectable) apart from the establishment of a doomed institution; if career and individual financial stability are a higher priority than any permanent relationship; and if the birth and raising of children can be taken care of adequately by single parents and/or gay and lesbian couples willing to adopt – why marry?
No doubt, marriage is being obsoleted. It is being made into something out-of-step with our current world. Each year it appears to be more and more out-dated, outmoded. But make no mistake: obsolescence is in the eye of the beholder. And it matters not how many people nod in agreement with the error of their ways; if it is error, it will still be error.
I think what might be missing in our society today is – commitment. You know, it’s funny. Right off the bat that word is offensive to some, isn’t it?
Years ago there existed a good bit more loyalty in general. People tended to purchase food from the same grocer, buy books from local book sellers, look for cars at the local car lot. Now we are more cosmopolitan, more world-aware, more willing to buy from a dot com that gives us a cut rate price. We are wal-martish amazon-lovers and we will defend to the death our right to pay the lowest price we can find.
We have identified ourselves for decades now as “throw away” consumers; now we sing songs about the times before everything was “automatic,” before everything we ate was “instant.” We no longer expect products to last a long time; it is cheaper to replace them than repair them. When the latest new electronic marvel hits the market we stand in long lines anxiously waiting to replace the old marvel in our hands (and it isn’t even broken yet).
But I wonder . . . have we embraced the same social/economic point of view when it comes to relationships, marriage in particular (although friendships are probably affected in the same way). Are we essentially persons who keep “our options open”? Or are we essentially persons who don’t look back once we’ve put our hand to the plow?
When close relationships become challenging (and they always do), do you walk away from them, or does the dissolving of a close relationship even cross your mind? Do your intimate, personal relationships “appreciate” with time, or “depreciate” with time?
We stand knee deep in a culture whose base of operation is founded on the notion that we don’t have to continue in anything that displeases us; that our inalienable rights (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) endorse flimsy and conditional commitments; that there is no measurable value in staying with a sinking ship (“sorry for that,” ship captains of the past), and we worship the idea of “free” freedom.
Let me tell you about the neighborhood where I have lived for almost 20 years now. There are 21 houses in our small subdivision. Two houses are currently vacant, under renovation. Of the 19 inhabited houses, 8 (that’s 42%) have been inhabited by the same families for 20 or more years; 7 (that’s 37%) have been inhabited by the same families for 5 or more years [and 2 of those families are made up of children who actually grew up in that neighborhood]; 4 (that’s 21%) are relatively recent additions, having been in the neighborhood less than 5 years.
Neighborhoods are not marriages, but they can be very close associations. I have neighbors whose children and/or grandchildren would feel safe and comfortable coming to our house in a crisis. We depend upon, support, and look out for one another; we are a self-appointed “neighborhood watch” group.
We never stood at an altar and recited neighborhood vows to one another while surrounded by witnesses. But we are committed to one another. Had we actually engaged in a ceremony like that, we might be even more committed. And that is in spite of the fact that sometimes our neighbors (never us, of course) do some really crazy and annoying things: where they park their cars, how they deal with their pets, when they like to make loud noises, how they keep their lawns, etc. We are, indeed, a social melting pot.
In schools we used to pledge allegiance to a flag. In small towns we used to stop traffic voluntarily when there was a funeral procession. We used to be lifelong members of one or more organizations, and we used to enjoy lifelong friendships. And there was a time when we used to stay married to the same person for 50 years or more.
Is that because relationships were just easier to maintain in the past?
I think not.
I think it is because we do not understand, nor do we even want to understand what is involved in total commitment. Until we do . . . our culture will continue its erosion, and our march toward self-destruction will one day be realized.
The history books will contain the following line: “Like the ancient Roman civilization, the United States of America had a good beginning, but crumbled under the weight of its own quest to grant individual freedom.”
Our neighborhood would crumble, too, if there was no commitment, no sense of the sanctity of community; if we decided to move away every time the neighbor’s dog pooped in our yard. Or if we found a less expensive house in another neighborhood and left this one without considering the value of the relationships in our current situation as a part of the equation.
A Commitment of Permanency. Giving our word (and keeping it). Making promises before a crowd of witnesses. Staying the course. Putting our hand to the plow (and not looking back).
The country group Diamond Rio released a song in 1997 called “Imagine That.” Some of the lyrics describe our marriage culture quite accurately:
- “They say they will, when they won’t”
- “They say I do, then they don’t”
And then the chorus: “A love that lasts forever . . . Imagine that!”
So, my daughter is waiting, “committed to commitment” (as a friend put it), hopeful she will find someone like-minded in the not-too-distant future.
Social changes are always the result of a plethora of factors. And the history books will attempt to evaluate and tell the tale at some distant future date. But I wonder . . .
Will a lack of commitment of epidemic proportions be identified as our culprit?