Marriage and family experts argued against media coverage of a recent study that claims a large numbers of Americans view marriage as obsolete. Rather than endorse a negative interpretation of the figures, the experts argued that the same study shows the majority of young people today still want to get married.
The interpretations come after the Pew Research Center and Time Magazine issued a report on Nov. 18 in time for the Thanksgiving holiday, saying that 39 percent of U.S. citizens view marriage as “obsolete.” This figure is an increase from the 28 percent of Americans who stated the same belief in 1978.
A media firestorm erupted after the release of the study, with major news outlets questioning whether or not the figures heralded the end of traditional notions on marriage and family life in America.
Opposing this idea, were Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse, president of the National Organization for Marriage's Ruth Institute, and Chuck Donovan, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. They argued that a closer look at the study reveals more promising news.
Donovan said in a Nov. 19 e-mail that because the “forces against marriage” such as casual sex and abortion have been “powerfully corrosive” in American society, “it's quite amazing that pro-marriage attitudes are so tenacious.”
Sixty-one percent “of adults think it's by no means obsolete,” he said.
Citing additional figures from the Pew study, Donovan said that in fact, most single young people who were evaluated expressed a desire to get married. “The vast majority of the rising generation expects to marry someday – 85 percent or more will do so.”
“Young people want to get married and stay married,” Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse remarked in a phone interview with CNA on Nov. 19, adding that the problem in our current divorce-ridden society is that many are unsure how to effectively go about this.
“The responsible thing is to help people figure out what to do,” she said. Morse argued that “the real story is the enthusiasm of the mainstream media” in attempting to signal the demise of marriage.
Backing this idea, Donovan noted that the Pew numbers would serve as a “wake-up call” on the need for more of what he called marriage-supportive policies in the U.S.
A New Definition of Family?
Reports covering the Pew study also claimed that Americans' definition of what constitutes a family has drastically changed.
Eighty-six percent of those who participated in the study said they viewed a single parent and child as a family; 80 percent said an unmarried couple living together with a child is a family; and 63 percent say a gay or lesbian couple raising a child is a family.
“I would be exceptionally cautious about concluding that Americans have really changed their definition of family,” Donovan said in reaction to the numbers. “We have never denied 'family' status to other arrangements, but we have also been clear to use such terms as 'broken family,' or 'fragile families' in the case of unmarried, cohabiting parents.”
Morse agreed that recognition doesn't necessarily signify approval. “Everybody knows someone who's living in a non-traditional lifestyle,” she said. “But do they approve of it? Do they think it's a good thing?”
Donovan thought that the frequency of non-traditional arrangements caused people to agree they could be called a family more out of civility than anything else.
“People are expressing compassion in these matters, but the Pew study shows they also retain ideals,” he said. “This suggests to me that not appearing judgmental – but holding on to the traditional value – is important to many Americans.”
The Increase of Cohabitation
Both Donovan and Morse conceded, however, that the Pew's statistics on the drastic rise of cohabiting couples proved troubling.
In the Pew Research survey, 44 percent of all adults – and more than half of all adults ages 30 to 49 – say they have cohabited at some point in their lives. Additionally, two-thirds of those who lived with someone said they believed that doing so with their partner was a step toward marriage.
“Cohabitation has been described not as a marriage preparation class but as a school for divorce,” Donovan said. “These relationships are more common today, but, in the American context at least, not more stable.”
“In all the research that's been done on cohabitation,” Morse added, “no positive contribution of cohabitation to marriage has ever been found.”
“When people are living together because they think it's going to give them a better marriage, that's completely false,” she said. Young people choosing to move in with their boyfriends of girlfriends because they want a good marriage is “completely counter productive.”
Morse went on to say that a primary reason young couples are cohabiting “is because they're afraid.”
“Young people want to get married, stay married, they're afraid of divorce and so they think that cohabiting is a good alternative,” she said, noting that “running your life on the basis of fear is usually not a good idea.”
Donovan added that the “figures on the outcomes for children born to and raised by unmarried couples do not match up with those for children raised by their married, biological parents.”
“This is true for everything from juvenile delinquency rates, to educational outcomes, to relationship stability and marital happiness when these children become adults,” he said. “The best gift that parents can give their children is still the witness of lifelong married love, or at minimum a lifetime working at it.”