the story of our era is written, it is the cultural battle that
will count. Capitalism and democracy may be the wave of the future,
but the struggle to shape democratic society is anything but settled.
The family is at the heart of that struggle.
So what will
the future of the family be? Will the decline of the married couple
with children continue apace, or will the traditional arrangement
prove to have staying power? The answer is “all of the above.” The
most likely outcome of our battle over the family is no definitive
outcome at all. The special status of marriage will persist, even
as the institution is hollowed out and subjected to attack. That
may sound contradictory, but it is exactly what’s happening now,
as the remarkable new study of America’s twentysomethings released
on Wednesday by the eminent scholars, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and
David Popenoe, indicates.
To make sense
of the contradictory results of the Whitehead-Popenoe study (sponsored
by the National Marriage
Project of Rutgers University), you’ve got to face a central
contradiction in democracy itself. On the one hand, in a liberal
democracy, society exists for the sake of the individual, not the
other way around. And over time, democratic individualism drives
us toward ever more radical declarations of independence. We once
said goodbye to George III, and to the remnants of an aristocratic
way of life. Nowadays many of us are saying goodbye to our spouses,
and to the subtle if flexible hierarchies of the traditional family.
individualism cuts two ways. On the one hand, it drives us apart
toward a life where self-fulfillment trumps sacrifice, and
personal alliances shift with the wind. On the other hand, modern
individualism dignifies and rests upon a distinctive social bond:
self-chosen marriage based on love. In societies where individuals
are subordinate to the group (i.e. most of the world for much of
human history) marriage tends to be arranged. The controlling considerations
in such alliances are not the love of a man and a woman (the couple
may never have met before marriage), but the political and economic
well being of the larger kinship groups upon which the couple depends.
Yet having been more or less freed from our dependence upon groups
of relatives and neighbors, we democratic individualists now look
to love to bind us together. Instead of deriving our sense of personal
fulfillment from membership in an honorable group, we seek fulfillment
in the self-chosen blending of two unique individuals, each of whom
will always recognize, remember, and reflect the uniqueness of the
So on the
one hand, our individualism tends to separate us, making us resent
even such sacrifices and accommodations as are inevitable in the
permanent coupling of two. While on the other hand, our individualism
uses one-to-one love to cement our unions and satisfy our yearning
for a permanent home. The Whitehead-Popenoe study found this same
contradiction within the hearts of Americans in their twenties.
twentysomethings are looking for a lifetime soul mate. An overwhelming
majority of never-married singles (94%) agree that the search for
an emotional and spiritual “soul mate” is the first consideration
in marriage. There is no significant gender gap in the response.
Eighty-eight percent of never-married singles in the 20-29 age range
are optimistic that such a soul mate exists, and that when the time
is right, they will find that special someone. Seventy-eight percent
agree that a couple should not get married unless they are prepared
to stay together for life.
But if the
impulse to lifetime coupling remains strong, it is increasingly
detached from any stable institutional setting and from the
restrictions that stable institutions inevitably place upon individual
choice. In the imaginings of these twentysomethings, marriage is
far more a matter of love than of religious, economic, or even parental
partnership. Fewer than half (42%) of single young adults believe
that it is important to find a spouse who shares your religion.
A large majority of those surveyed (82%) believe that it is unwise
for a woman to rely on marriage for financial security. And a clear
majority (62%) agree that while it may not be ideal, it’s okay for
an adult woman to have a child on her own if she has not found the
right man to marry.
behind a world in which religious, economic, and parental considerations
were all and love was left to take care of itself
we are moving toward in a world where love is all and little thought
is given to the social and economic purposes that will always be
at the center of marriage. The most disturbing finding of all may
be the degree to which young people see marriage as a thing apart
from parenting. Only sixteen percent of young adults agree that
the main purpose of marriage is to raise children. And oblivious
to the well-documented drawbacks of single parenting, more than
four out of ten of those surveyed describe adults who intentionally
raise a child out of wedlock as simply “doing their own thing.”
Here is where a healthy individualism shades over into isolation
But the contradictions
in the survey run deep. Although there is much to worry defenders
of the traditional family, there is comfort as well. To begin with,
it’s important to remember that these are twentysomethings, and
that this is the first large-scale study to look at attitudes toward
dating and marriage of people this age. It really isn’t surprising
that young never-marrieds are focused on dating and romance, not
parenting. The shift toward approval of intentional single mothering
is real and disturbing, but asking a twenty-year-old to affirm that
having children is “the main purpose” of marriage more so
even than love is a bit much. A sixteen percent “yes” on
that question may not mean much.
But the really
interesting thing about the survey is how radically attitudes toward
marriage appear to differ when the question shifts. Sometimes these
young people sound like flaming radicals out to abolish marriage,
yet just as quickly they turn around and voice concerns and demands
that are clearly conservative.
these twentysomethings that a marriage is nobody’s business besides
the two people involved, and eight out of ten will agree. An extraordinary
45 percent agree that the government should not even be involved
in licensing marriage, while 43 percent agree that government should
provide cohabiting couples with the same benefits as married couples.
The last two proposals, supported by just under half of those surveyed,
would effectively abolish marriage itself. Without state sanctioning
or differential benefits, marriage would quickly be transformed
from a honorable and influential public institution into an infinitely
variable series of privately crafted contracts.
At the same
time, however, almost nine out of ten (88%) of the young people
surveyed agree that the divorce rate in America is too high and
that we’d all be better off if it were lowered. In fact, a significant
proportion of those surveyed (47%) agree that laws need to be changed
so that divorces are more difficult to obtain. Women are more likely
than men to hold this opinion.
The fact that
slightly less than half of the respondents are willing to virtually
abolish marriage, while half are looking for tougher divorce laws,
at least partly reflects the cultural division we saw in the last
election. But the fact that many of those who seem to be most anti-marriage
both bemoan the rising divorce rate and want to get married themselves
tells a more complicated story.
The fact is,
these young people are torn. They don’t want to disapprove of anyone’s
life choices, but they also know something from hard experience
about the costs of divorce to children. Ask them to directly condemn
or control someone else’s choice and they beg off. But put it to
them that something needs to be done about divorce even through
government action and they agree. And at the very moment
when the refusal to condemn intentional single mothering has gained
strength (especially among women), the desire for long-term marriage
has increased (especially among boys). These young people seem to
understand that marriage is being subjected to contradictory pressures,
since the increased desire for a lifelong marriage is balanced,
particularly among girls, by a rising pessimism about the possibility
of actually being able to sustain such a marriage.
What all of
this means is that the future is up for grabs. It’s important to
keep in mind that this survey is questioning twentysomethings, vast
numbers of whom have never married. Certainly, many of these young
people will carry their very modern attitudes into the future. But
just as surely, middle age and parenthood will heighten the traditionalism
of many others. Politically it’s clear that there is fertile soil
for attempts to either radically reform marriage (virtually out
of existence) or to strengthen its traditional forms. To frame this
issue your way is to win, at least temporarily.
In the end,
the National Marriage Project survey shows that we’re in for a long
and inconclusive war over the family. With the desire for lifetime
heterosexual coupling growing, the impulse to preserve and protect
marriage and to strengthen its connection to parenthood
will remain strong. Painful divorces and the experience of single
parenthood sour many on marriage, but serve to convince many others
that something has to be done to support the traditional family.
We will not be able to escape the contradiction, which is written
into the soul of democracy itself. With the breakdown of the old
social verities, there is nothing left but perpetual war between
our yearning for personal freedom, and the still powerful need of
both children and adults for a lifelong love. The outlines of a
permanent and irresolvable battle over the family have now appeared.