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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

Marriage in the News November 2009

  • Index of leading marriage indicators released
  • Marriages in America: Number declines, age rises
  • Pope Benedict: Address uncertainty regarding foundation of family in marriage
  • Catholic communicator discusses marriage, divorce and annulments
  • Should engaged couples talk together about how rich they hope to become?
  • Synod for Africa: Concluding words on marriage and family


New Index of Leading Marriage Indicators

An index of leading economic indicators tells society where its financial well-being is headed. But society also needs an index of leading marriage indicators telling how marriage as an institution is faring, according to the sponsors of the U.S. Marriage Index released Oct. 2.

A report on the new index was released by the Institute for American Values, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute in New York founded in 1987, and the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting, founded this year at Hampton University in Hampton, Va.

The well-being of marriage in America has declined since 1970, yet certain signs of improvement are surfacing today, according to the report. Linda Malone-Colon, founding director of the center at Hampton University, said there is “nothing inevitable about” continued declines in the marriage index. “We absolutely can take positive steps to improve this number, and we have to,” she said.

The report the organizations issued proposed 101 steps for improving the marriage index. Policy-makers, churches, schools, local communities and neighborhoods, and even the workplace were among those invited to support the future of marriage through concrete actions.

“A large body of research suggests that the status of our marriages influences our well-being at least as much as the status of our finances,” according to the report. Policy-makers and opinion leaders fret when the leading economic indicators show a decline, but “rarely seem to care about marriage trends or even notice them,” it said.

“The absence of a clear, compelling and commonly agreed upon set of leading marriage indicators prevents us from focusing clearly on the health of marriage in America,” the report commented.

The sponsors of the index proposed the following list of five marriage indicators: the percentage of people between the ages of 20 and 54 who are married; the percentage of married adults who say they are “very happy” in marriage; the percentage of intact first marriages among people 20 to 59; the percentage of births to married adults; and the percentage of children living with their own married parents.

A “trend in the last four decades suggests that many adults are less likely to find marriage an attractive choice,” said the report. It noted that “in 1970, 78.6 percent of adults age 20 to 54 were married,” but by 2008 that statistic “dropped to 57.2 percent.” Moreover, while “77.4 percent of first marriages were intact” in 1970, “only 61.2 percent were intact in 2007.”

On a more positive note, however, while the percentage of intact first marriages dropped by 17.5 points from 1970 to 2000, the level of intact marriages “actually rose slightly in the last decade.” The report said that while the percentage remains low, “it’s far from inevitable that it will only decline further.”

The link between parents and children represented another key area of concern in the report. For example, it said, “if we agree that one of the fundamental purposes of marriage is to maintain the link between parents and children, and if we want to know how that’s working, we’ll want to know what children’s living arrangements are.”

Here again a long-term decline is found alongside a current development that bodes better for the future, the report indicated. “While the percentage of children living with their biological or adoptive mother and father dropped since 1970,” the report said it is not inevitable that the percentage will decline further,” as a leveling off in the last decade indicates.

Among its 101 ideas for improving the U.S. marriage index, the report encouraged people who have “recovered from serious trouble” in a marriage to “consider volunteering in (or starting) a marriage mentoring program” in their communities. The report asked parents to “be intentional about talking to [their] teenagers about marriage.”

Strategies that “will result in more and broader segments of the U.S. population seeking marriage education and marriage therapy-counseling” were encouraged by the report. It also encouraged efforts to “determine the active ingredients in effective marriage education programs in order to define the core information and skills that should be included in every program.”

Congress, the report said, “should pass a resolution stating that the first question of policy-makers regarding all proposed domestic legislation is whether it will strengthen or weaken the institution of marriage.” In the workplace, “personnel policies and work environments that respect and favor the marital commitment” should be created, the report said.


Marrying in America: Number Declines, Age Rises

The age at which people marry is rising in America, and the percentage of Americans who currently are married is declining, according to data issued by the U.S. Census Bureau Sept. 21, when the agency released the American Community Survey for 2008.

A number of commentators immediately said the survey showed that the recession was affecting people’s lives and the decisions they make in a number of vital areas, including the decision to get married.

The wide-ranging survey, which reaches some 3 million U.S. addresses annually and covers more than 40 aspects of American life — for example, income, education, housing and family structure — incorporated new questions in 2008 related to marital history. It took those questions to anyone 15 years old or older.

The Census Bureau said the survey indicated that three-fourths of Americans “who have ever been married have done so only once,” though nearly 20 percent have married twice and “about one in 20 have been married three or more times.” At the same time, the agency said the percentage of those who never have married continued to grow.

In an analysis of the survey findings on marriage and divorce issued Oct. 15 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, writer D’Vera Cohn said the Census Bureau data “showed that a shrinking share of Americans are married” – 52 percent of males 15 or older and 48 percent of females in the same age group. She commented:

“The proportion of Americans who are currently married has been diminishing for decades and is lower than it has been in at least half a century.”

Cohn noted the age at which people first marry and directed attention to survey findings related to marital longevity in America. “Nationally, the median age at first marriage has been climbing for decades: It now stands at 28 for men and 26 for women, meaning that half are younger and half are older when they wed,” she said. Among married Americans, Cohn added, the median duration of their married life in 2008 was 18 years.”

An Associated Press report on the survey Sept. 22 said it made the disruptive effects of the recession in personal life apparent. Writer Hope Yen cited several ways she felt the recession had influenced personal decisions, including the fact that “more people are delaying marriage and home-buying.”

The survey showed that 31.3 percent of Americans 15 or older have never married (34.6 percent of males, 28.1 percent of females). Yen said the percentage had “hovered for years around 27 percent, before beginning to climb during the housing downturn in 2006.”

Sociologists, Yen observed, often say that young people today take longer to become independent in economic terms and to consider marrying “because they are struggling to find work or focusing on an advanced education.”


Uncertainty Regarding Basis of Family in Marriage Concerns the Pope

Many today view marriage as a “frail and inconstant” institution, founded on a weak premise, Pope Benedict XVI said in a speech about “the family based on marriage” given at the Vatican Sept. 25 to a group of Brazilian bishops.

He said that “the number of marriages is dwindling,” while “de facto unions and divorces are increasing,” since people will not pledge their lives to marriage when its “only recognized foundation seems to be sentiment or individual subjectivity expressed in the desire to live together.”

The pope expressed concern for the many men and women who nowadays experience “the deepest uncertainty” regarding the foundation of marriage and the family. He expressed concern about children too – a concern that a false model of the family is being impressed upon children, one that “in a certain sense can be compared to cohabitation because of its precariousness.”

To restore “the fabric of society,” contemporary culture needs the witness of homes “that draw their energy from the sacrament of marriage,” Pope Benedict suggested. It is possible in such homes to overcome trials that are encountered, “to forgive an offense, to accept a suffering child” and, through love, “to illumine the life of the other, even if he or she is weak or disabled.”

The pope encouraged priests and pastoral centers “to accompany families” so that they are not “seduced by certain relativistic lifestyles that films and other forms of media promote.” The family, he said, “is ordered to the good of the spouses and the education of children.”

Speaking of the permanence of marriage, the pope also mentioned situations in which a man or woman has divorced and then married again outside the church without receiving an annulment of the first marriage. “It is necessary to resolve” these situations “in fidelity to Christ and with the help of a priest,” he said.

Pope Benedict accented the need of children for stability and the support of their parents, citing this as one reason the church cannot be indifferent about divorce and separation. “Social disorder spreads” when “so many children” become “victims of uneasiness and neglect,” he said.

The Pope spoke about a multiplication of father and mother figures in children’s lives, a possible reference to the results of divorce and high rates of cohabitation. He said: “Today the majority of those who feel ‘orphans’ are not children without parents, but children who have too many.”

In their upbringing, “children need extremely precise and concrete reference points, in other words determined and reliable parents,” the pope said.

The church’s conviction is “that the true solution to the current problems that husbands and wives encounter and that weaken their union lies in a return to the stable Christian family, an environment of mutual trust, reciprocal giving, respect for freedom and education in social life,” said Pope Benedict.


Catholic Communicator Discusses Marriage, Divorce and Annulments

The suffering that people who divorce so often experience was discussed in a biblical reflection on marriage by Basilian Father Thomas Rosica that appeared Oct. 2 on the Salt and Light Catholic Television Network’s blog. Father Rosica is executive director of the network, based in Toronto, Ontario, and serves as a consultant to the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

In his reflection, Father Rosica also turned attention to the church’s understanding of annulments, which he suggested are misunderstood by many. And he expressed confidence in the future of marriage and the family, writing:

“There are some voices in our society and church that don’t have much hope for the sacrament of marriage and family life. I beg to differ with such voices of doom and despair.”

Today, a Catholic annulment looks to many “like a simple Catholic divorce,” Father Rosica observed. However, he explained, “divorce says that the reality of marriage was there in the beginning and that now the reality is broken,” while an “annulment is a declaration that the reality was never there.” He said, “The church declares many marriages invalid because of some impediment present at the time of marriage.”

Father Rosica said that “a positive teaching on annulments should be offered in every parish community.” While an annulment “may be a tedious and painful process for some people, an annulment can be an instrument of grace, healing, closure, and peace of mind and heart.”

In comments on divorce, Father Rosica said he has met many divorced people during the years of his pastoral ministry “who feel very alienated from the church.” For many of these people, “divorce was the last thing they ever dreamed of or wanted. In many instances, it hit them unexpectedly, forcefully and tragically.”

The priest added that no one he met ever spoke of looking forward to a divorce; “they simply didn’t see any other alternative.”

Some divorced people have been told erroneously “by well-meaning people that they are excommunicated from the Catholic Church,” but that “is certainly not true,” Father Rosica said. He continued:

“Their pain is often enormous; their need for understanding and acceptance is great. They need unambiguous Catholic teaching to enlighten them and lead them to Christ. They need friends, people to pray for and with them, and they need God in their lives in the midst of rupture and brokenness. They deserve our understanding and our prayerful care.”

Father Rosica’s reflection was titled “The Future of Humanity Passes Through Marriage and the Family.” He urged his readers to “pray today for married people,” that they might grow in “awareness of the sacramentality of marriage and its capacity to reflect the love of God to our world.” Also, he wrote:

“Let us never forget those who have loved and lost, and those who have suffered the pain of separation, divorce and alienation. May they find healing in the community of the church and welcome from those whose marriages have borne much fruit.”

Father Rosica proposed several questions that his readers might reflect upon. He asked:

“In our pastoral strategies, programs and preaching, how do we welcome the sanctifying role of Jesus Christ in the marriage of a man and woman? Are we ready to offer Jesus’ teaching on marriage with the openness to children? What are some of the weaknesses and painful situations that afflict marriages today? Can these marriages be saved and the brokenness in the husband-wife relationships be healed? What is the role of faith in all of this?”


Should Engaged Couples Discuss How Rich They Hope to Become?

Should a couple talk before marrying about how rich they one day hope to be? Perhaps so, according to New York Times money writer Ron Lieber – but apparently for more reasons than first may meet the eye.

In a column Oct. 23, Lieber discussed four money-related concerns that couples might discuss before they wed. Three of the four probably appear in one form or another on most marriage educators’ lists of the money matters engaged couples ought to take up together:

  • Control: How will money be handled in a marriage? Who will handle it? What will be done to assure that each spouse participates in money decisions?
  • Ancestry: How was money handled – for better or worse — in the future spouses’ families of origin? What influence will these earlier-life patterns have on the couple’s future money decisions?
  • Credit: Here the future spouses examine their credit histories together, perhaps discussing what they have learned from past mistakes and bad habits related to debt.

Lieber’s fourth point, however, seemed particularly compelling, perhaps for his frank presentation of it. “Just how rich do we want to be one day?” is a question that “tends not to come up during courtship,” Lieber wrote.

The writer spoke with marriage experts on each of his four points. For his fourth point he consulted Gregory Kuhlman, a New York psychologist, and Jeff Kostis, a financial planner who has helped engaged and newly married couples.

Kuhlman referred to this area of concern as the “desired level of affluence.” At issue, in Kuhlman’s view, is whether the spouses “career paths” are going to pull them apart or bring them together. Couples may “really have to be proactive” here to make sure things are under control, it was suggested.

Kostis might put concerns in this area “a bit more bluntly,” Lieber commented. Kostis, he explained, might ask whether the spouse of someone who will be working something like “80 hours a week” in the future, say as a corporate lawyer or investment banker, is prepared to deal with the implications of this. What role will someone working that number of hours play in raising children, for example?

There might not be a right of wrong answer to such a question, Kostis indicated. But the point is to understand, “going into the marriage, what that would really mean,” he said.


SPECIAL REPORT: Synod for Africa: Concluding Words on Marriage and Family

The just-concluded Synod of Bishops for Africa urged that “the service of Christian spouses” be viewed throughout the continent as “a ministry” – one whose “dignity” ought to form “the foundation of the family.”

In one of the 57 concluding recommendations – called “propositions” — it submitted to Pope Benedict XVI, the synod called upon Africa’s local churches to help husbands and wives live their life together as “a ministry of prayer, evangelization, charity and life.”

The regional synod – the second such synod for Africa — met at the Vatican Oct. 4-25. Participants included Pope Benedict XVI, representatives of the church in Africa’s many nations, Vatican officials and a number of other church leaders and observers from throughout the world.

Discussions during the three-week assembly focused on the many dimensions of its theme, “The church in Africa in the service of reconciliation, justice and peace.” Participants discussed globalization, social justice, war, government corruption, Catholics in political life, interreligious relations, church ministries and other topics, among them marriage and the family.

The family, said the synod, is “the proper place for learning and practicing the culture of pardon, peace, reconciliation and harmony.” The synod encouraged local churches to offer support to couples “by well-identified model couples,” to make “provisions for marriage counseling,” and to offer “education and formation in marriage and family values through the media.”

In a “Message to the People of God” issued at its conclusion, the synod congratulated the Catholic families of Africa “for doggedly remaining true to the ideals of the Christian family and retaining the best values of our African family.”

At the same time, reflecting a concern expressed repeatedly by synod participants, the message alerted African families “to be on your guard against some virulent ideological poisons from abroad claiming to be ‘modern’ culture.” The message added:

“You should continue to welcome children as a gift from God, and train them in the knowledge and fear of God to be people of reconciliation, justice and peace.”

The message immediately went on to express concern that so many “families are under great stress.” Poverty, it explained, “often makes parents unable to take good care of their children, with disastrous consequence.”

Thus, the synod asked “governments and civil authorities to remember that a nation whose legislation destroys its own families does so at its own detriment. Most families are asking for just what is enough for survival. They have a right to live.”

Women in Africa frequently are victims of injustice, the synod said. One of its concluding recommendations noted that “women make a great contribution to the family, society and the church with their many talents and resources.” But, it said, women’s “dignity and contributions” are “not fully recognized and appreciated,” and women “are often deprived of their rights.”

Thus, the synod called for “the integral human formation of girls and women.” It also condemned “all acts of violence against women,” such as “the battering of wives, the disinheritance of daughters, the oppression of widows in the name of tradition, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, trafficking in women” and “other abuses such as sex slavery and sex tourism.”

Women’s contributions, “not only in the home as wife and mother, but also in the social sphere, should be more generally acknowledged and promoted,” the synod’s message said.

The message urged Catholic men to fulfill their “important roles as responsible fathers and good and faithful husbands.” It called upon men to organize “associations and Catholic Action Groups” to help them improve their “quality of Christian life and commitment to the church.”

During a Synod of Bishops, many participants present brief speeches that address specific concerns. Bishop Maurice Piat of Port Louis, Mauritius, spoke movingly Oct. 7 of the toll taken on couples and families by war. “When war tears their families apart, parents may ask themselves what meaning there is to their lives and which values they still can transmit to their children,” he observed.

These parents need support, Bishop Piat said; they “need a word that denounces the deep causes of violence, allows the fight against fatalism and shows the meaning that a fight for more justice can give to life.” Parents in situations of violence “need to be accompanied on their healing path, which necessarily passes through the narrow door of nonviolence” — the only way for the parents to regain “a taste for life” that will “enable them to transmit a reason for living to their children,” said the bishop.

Also in need of support are parents who encounter “the indifference or aggressiveness” of children “who are sucked into the vortex of a consumer and communications society,” Bishop Piat said. Parents in this situation need “places to talk” and “need to be supported,” he commented. He recommended that they participate in the small faith groups that meet in parishes and dioceses.

The challenge polygamy presents to the church in some parts of Africa was discussed in the synod by Bishop Matthew Kwasi Gyamfi of Sunyani. He explained the situation that can develop for a wife in a polygamous marriage who wants to join the church. His Oct. 7 presentation focused particularly on the first wives in these marriages, who often are mothers.

Women who leave a polygamous marriage in order “to receive the sacraments of initiation” often find that they are “denied support and compensation, resulting in serious economic hardships and insecurity,” Bishop Gyamfi said. Aware of this potential outcome, many women do not divorce “their polygamous husbands” in order to enter the church, Bishop Gyamfi said.

Nonetheless, he noted, many of these women regularly attend church in some parts of Africa and participate actively “in all church activities.” However, these women “are denied the sacraments of initiation, reconciliation and marriage,” not to mention “a fitting Christian burial for not being baptized,” the bishop said. He urged the church “to address this painful and unpleasant situation.”

About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.