Many Say Marriage Is Becoming Obsolete, But…
Large numbers of Americans suspect that marriage is becoming obsolete, the mid-November headlines shouted. Thirty-nine percent, or nearly four of every 10 respondents to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in cooperation with Time magazine, said that, indeed, marriage appears to be wending its way to obsolescence. In 1978, when Time brought this question to registered voters, just 28% agreed that marriage was becoming obsolete.
But people who didn’t get past the “marriage is becoming obsolete” headline may not have discovered that respondents to the survey also had great hope for the future of the family and looked to it as a fulfilling dimension of their lives, although their definitions of what a family is varied rather widely. (Significant percentages, for example, did not see a necessary link between marriage and family.)
Furthermore, despite their dim view of the future of marriage as an institution, it was clear from the study that most Americans hope to marry at some point.
The Pew Center reported that despite “growing uncertainties, Americans are more upbeat about the future of marriage and family (67% say they are optimistic) than about the future of the country’s educational system (50% optimistic), its economic system (46% optimistic) or its morals and ethics (41% optimistic).”
The survey found that “even as marriage shrinks, family – in all its emerging varieties – remains resilient.” It said, “Americans have an expansive definition of what constitutes a family. And the vast majority of adults consider their own family to be the most important, most satisfying element of their lives.”
Time magazine also said that, surprisingly, “Americans still venerate marriage enough to want to try it.” It called attention to a statistic in the survey indicating that “although 44% of Americans under 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction, only 5 percent of those in that age group do not want to get married.”
The survey found, moreover, that “amid the growing variety of family arrangements these days,” it is clear that “married people are more satisfied with their family lives than are unmarried people.”
Readers of the survey might be forgiven for wondering whether the news it reported about marriage meant that the glass was half empty or half full. Did the survey reveal that marriage, at least on the long term, is approaching its demise? Or did the survey serve much more to clarify the challenge and the real opportunity now encountered by marriage educators and others who strive to help couples thrive in marriage and family life?
Much of the survey report recapitulated topics reported in this website’s news about marriage section over the past couple of years such as the rising age of marriage and the much-lowered number of 20-somethings who marry; the marriage gap, indicating that marriage today is more favorable for the well-educated and the well-employed than for their less-educated counterparts; the changing roles of women in marriage; the increase of nonmarital cohabitation, etc.
The marriage gap, for example, made itself known in a survey finding showing that “college graduates are among the most likely to reject the notion that marriage is becoming obsolete: only 27% agree, while 71% disagree.” However, “among those who have not gone to college, opinion is much more evenly split: 44% agree marriage is becoming obsolete, and 52% disagree.”
The report did, however, bring a wide range of current marriage-related topics and concerns into the mainstream media in mid-November, in this way focusing public attention on the changed realities of marriage and family life for great numbers of people today.
I wondered after reading the survey if Americans are less clear about the future of marriage than they are perplexed about it and the possibilities for succeeding at it. Whatever the case, Catholic leaders in marriage ministry seemed to recognize a fresh opportunity in the renewed discussion that accompanied the Nov. 18 release of the Pew-Time survey.
Catholic News Service spoke about the report with Bill Boomer, executive director of the Department of Marriage and Family in the Diocese of Cleveland. He pointed out that if the survey shows that some 40% of respondents believe marriage is becoming obsolete, that means “that over 60% agree that marriage is not becoming obsolete.”
And Boomer noted that “the vast majority of first marriages still last. It is still possible to be married for a lifetime.” CNS said that professional ministers like Boomer believe it is important to come up with ways of impressing upon younger Americans the important role of marriage in society.
Chris Codden, director of the Office of Marriage and Family in the Diocese of St. Cloud, Minn., told CNS that efforts are under way across America to stress the positive aspects of marriage in everyday life. She said, “We have to make marriage look healthier and more appealing to young people.”
Codden said that parish-based programs in her diocese call attention to how marriage is portrayed to children. “We’re particularly looking at how we help parents teach their children not only about sexuality but about the beauty of marriage,” she explained.