Sunday, March 18, 2012

On marriage and mortgages (Part II)

I ended Part I by saying that the “warm, fuzzy feeling” most people associate with love is a good and necessary component for marriage but that it isn’t sufficient cause for marriage.  I suspect in saying that many people will feel that I’ve committed at least an impiety on the order of suggesting that St. John the Baptist was a cross-dresser.

First, we need to draw a distinction between the conscious motives people have for getting married and the underlying anthropological rationale for the institution’s existence.  Certainly people marry who have never had a desire to raise children, just as others have married for status or to cement political alliances or to make a public statement; nor do all such marriages end in divorce decrees or murder investigations. 

But just because somebody has used that butter knife to remove a screw from the wall doesn’t mean that it’s become a screwdriver or that it can no longer spread cream cheese on your morning bagel.  Why you got married and why you stay married doesn’t affect one way or another the reason marriage exists as an institution, just as the reason why you choose to have sex on a particular day with a particular person has no influence over whether you get pregnant or not.

But the “warm, fuzzy” feeling isn’t a sufficient cause for marriage in the sense that you don’t need to be married to maintain that feeling.  Indeed, if for some strange reason you believe love should require no effort to maintain, then — all moral and spiritual considerations aside — cohabitation is less expensive and has fewer complications.  They used to call cohabitation “playing house”, and in a large part it still has that essence of childhood games: we’ll pretend we’re a married couple, but only until it stops being fun. 

At least, that’s how it appears up front.  All along, we’ve been looking at relationships as though their sexual component had no implications beyond emotions.  It’s true that sex does have a pair-bonding effect, and that frequent sex can ameliorate many negative stresses.[1]

But even the most effective contraceptives can’t hold off forever the biological component of sex —  reproduction.  Despite the best efforts of the progressivists to turn us into an anti-baby society, many women still choose to bring accidental pregnancies to term and even to raise such children as best they can.  Despite the best efforts of apologists for blended families, single parents and the LGTBQ segment, the evidence still shows children tend to do better with their natural parents in a traditional marriage.[2] And despite the best efforts of feminists to convince us otherwise, most people still believe it’s easier for married couples than single people to raise children.[3]

However, we live in the context of what has been called the “throw-away society”, in which it’s often considered easier or more cost-effective to dispose of a problem rather than fix it.  Moreover, we unthinkingly adhere to what Prof. Barry Schwartz has called “the Official Syllogism”[4] — the more freedom you have, the better off you are; more choices = more freedom; therefore, more choices = better off — despite the fact that more choices more often lead to paralyzing indecisiveness, greater probability of making wrong choices and a greater likelihood of being dissatisfied with that which is chosen.[5]

Wrong choices such as moving in together before marriage:

It seems that the 21st century marriage, with its emphasis on a match of equals, has brought about a surge in inequality.  It’s easier for the college-educated, with their dominance of the knowledge economy, to get married and stay married. The less well off delay marriage because their circumstances feel so tenuous, then often have kids, which makes marrying even harder. “A marriage gap and a socioeconomic gap have been growing side by side for the past half-century,” the Pew study’s authors note, “and each may be feeding off the other.” But because it’s unclear whether the burdens of poverty are making people’s relationships less permanent or people’s impermanent relationships are worsening their poverty, the solution is not obvious.[6]

So long as the primary focus of the marriage is on the relationship of the couple and their individual agendas, the children are the primary losers.  But the rest of our society also suffers:

We are becoming a nation of separate and unequal families that threatens to last into the foreseeable future.  On the one hand, well-educated women make more money.  They get married, only then have their children, and raise them with their husbands. Those children are more likely to grow up to be well-adjust­ed, to do well in school, to go to college, to marry and only then have children.  On the other hand, we have low-income women raising children alone who are more likely to be low-income, to drop out of school or, if they do make it to college, go to a less elite col­lege, and to become single parents themselves.
… Children from step families don’t look a whole lot better than those from single-mother households.  Those kids are not as likely to be poor, but they have more problems in school, with drugs, with early sexual activity, with going to an elite college, etc.  Those kids have suffered through a divorce, but then how do we explain the inconve­nient fact that children living with cohabiting par­ents also enjoy few of the benefits of intact parents?[7]

 “Different though we are,” writes Erica Jong, “men and women were designed to be allies, to fill out each other’s limitations, to raise children together and give them different models of adulthood.”[8] 

Coming from the author of Fear of Flying, such a thought must appear to be a cliché, a bit of folk wisdom spoken doubtfully or even laced with irony.  The first thing to remember about a truism, though, is that it is true, that it is no less a fact for all its banality.  Not only were we designed to complement each other, as two halves of a picture of God (cf. Gen 1:27), we were designed to make the choices needed to come together and stay together.

*          *          *

For many people, the house is a projection of the image they want to hold before the world: responsible, stable, mature, materially successful.  Unfortunately, for many of these people it’s a false front: just as they’re prepared to move with the next job opportunity or to sell when a nicer house becomes affordable, they’re prepared to move on to a new relationship, to abandon spouse and children for greener pastures.  And for a significant percentage of these people it’s the house itself, the effort and expense it entails, that exposes the pretense for what it is.

Like a house, a marriage isn’t something you can buy into successfully with the expectation that you can “trade up” or get out of it easily down the line.  Its full value is something realized only after years of payments, hard work and not a few tears of frustration.  And that full value is not in itself but in what it made possible, for marriage and family life calls forth the best of our humanity — something neither fame nor fortune nor political power can do.

I leave the last word to someone else:

… This lack of clarity and cul­tural consensus about the decline of the American marriage program is a dangerous mistake.  Think of the past decades of rising divorce and illegitimacy as a kind of natural experiment testing what happens when you unravel the institution of marriage.
The results are now in.  Changing the institu­tion — specifically, erasing the bond between mar­riage and child rearing — leads to a weakening of our country’s ability to carry out its promise: its promise of fairness, equality, opportunity, and pros­perity.  Instead, we see separate and unequal families as far as the eye can see.[9]

[1] Greeley, Andrew M. (1991).  Faithful Attraction: Discovering Intimacy, Love and Fidelity in American Marriage.  New York: TOR Books, passim.
[2] Hymowitz, Kay S. (2007, March 23).  Marriage and Caste in America: Separate and Unequal Families in a Post-Marital Age.  Retrieved March 17, 2012 from The Heritage Foundation:
[3] TIME Magazine (2010, November 18). TIME/Pew Research Center Poll: Part I.  Retrieved March 17, 2012 from TIME Magazine:,31813,2031965,00.html.
[4] Schwartz, Barry (2006, April 27).  The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (video).  Retrieved March 18, 2012 from YouTube:
[5] Layne, Anthony S. (2011, June 23).  Freedom and the paradox of choice.  Retrieved March 18, 2012 from Outside the Asylum:
[6] Luscombe, Belinda (2010, November 18).  Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution.  Retrieved March 17, 2012 from TIME Magazine:,9171,2032116,00.html.
[7] Hymowitz, 2007.
[8] Jong, Erica (2011, July 9). Is Sex Passé?  Retrieved March 18, 2012 from New York Times Sunday Review:
[9] Hymowitz, 2007.