Why Society Fails to Support Marriage
by David Gibson
Society today shies away from strong expressions of support for marriage as an institution, a British government official said in a Feb. 8 speech. Duncan Smith, undersecretary of state for work and pensions, indicated that for a variety of reasons people have adopted the viewpoint that speaking well of marriage is not the right thing to do.
“I believe it’s important that we do more to recognize and value the commitment people make to one another,” Smith told British government leaders in London. In a speech launching the annual Marriage Week in Britain, Smith said that too often marriage — the “basic institution [that] nurtures each generation and from which so many of us draw our strength and purpose” – remains “unnoticed and unrewarded.”
In a “celebrity focused” culture, awards are given “to so many groups: film stars, soap stars, pop stars and football stars,” he observed. The virtues of “public institutions and private business” are extolled, and “we even give awards to politicians.” However, said Smith:
“Fashionably dismissed or taken for granted, the commitment of two people to put selfish interest to one side for the sake of each other and the children they raise is simply the very best of us as human beings.”
The political establishment came over time to frown upon the mention of marriage, according to Smith. One reason for this was the “prevailing view” that extolling the virtues of marriage “somehow meant that you were going to stigmatize those who were not married.” But Smith labeled this view an “absurd and damaging assumption.”
Expressing support for marriage “does not mean that you cannot be sympathetic to and supportive of families where one parent is left with the difficult responsibility of bringing up the children,” Smith insisted.
Society also shies away from according marriage its due recognition out of a belief that marriage no longer works and that “young people no longer value it,” according to Smith. He said, “Some commentators have concluded that marriage is an institution which is no longer wanted or needed.”
However, Smith cited recent research indicating that “some 90 percent of young people aspire to marriage” and that three-fourths “of those under 35 who are currently in cohabiting relationships want to get married.”
One British Catholic bishop called it “heartening to hear a senior politician this week urge politicians of all parties to speak up for marriage at a time when we’re being told almost half of children in our country are not being born in homes founded on the stability of marriage.” Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said it “tells us something of the state we are in” that “leaders in public life might be reluctant to speak up for marriage.”
In remarks during a Shrewsbury diocesan celebration of marriage, Bishop Davies expressed concern that “the good news of marriage has not always been heard or received even among” Catholics. He said, “Awkward as it might be, I want to speak of the importance of standing up as witnesses to marriage.” Bishop Davies urged the church’s people to “stand up” courageously and defend the institution of marriage.
Smith expressed concern in his speech to political leaders about the “almost fairytale expectation of life after the marriage ceremony” among many young people. This, he said, “puts huge pressure on newly married couples, as too few have time to develop an understanding of the sacrifices needed to make their relationship work before they break up.”
He welcomed the efforts of organizations that help couples grasp “what is needed to sustain and build a strong relationship.” The undersecretary said, “We could do so much more to reduce the level of family breakup if we had more guidance available to couples when they need it.” Smith believes that “getting to couples in difficulty early can have a huge effect on their future.”
Government ought to support couples, not by lecturing them or pushing them, but through favorable tax policy and in other “quite legitimate” ways that help to ensure them “the opportunity to achieve their aspirations,” Smith proposed. The great costs of family breakdown to society and to the well-being of children and other family members are reasons enough for government to heighten its interest in marriage, he indicated.
And Smith thinks “the tide is beginning to turn.” It appears to him “that the role of marriage in family life and the importance of stable families has become an important topic.”
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.