It is important to consider the long-range effects of American family laws and policies, especially whether and how well those laws and policies protect future generations. It is easy for adults to neglect children, to put them aside and ignore their interests for what, to an adult, seems like just a little time, a few months or a few years. However, children cannot be “put on hold” for very long without profoundly negative effects upon their lives. Not only can the lack of parental care and attention endanger children by leaving them unprotected against exploitation and physical harms, but parental disengagement sends a message to children about their worth, or lack of worth, to those whose affection and opinions they value the most.
Marriage is the best measure by which good or bad prospects for the future of children can be determined. No institution has greater potential for protecting and promoting the long-term interests and welfare of children, future generations – and all of society – than the healthy institution of marriage. Yet marriages in American society are disintegrating as personal unions and as a social institution. Because of the disintegration of marriage, the prospects for children – and for the future or our society – are insecure and endangered.
There is a “marriage crisis” in America which is both the result of and the cause of family disintegration in the United States. The “marriage crisis” is the flight of American young adults from marriage, and from the commitments and responsibilities of marital families. And that “marriage crisis” seems to be growing. As cohabitation has become widespread and socially accepted, the appeal and value of marriage has plummeted.
The current “marriage crisis” in America has been in the making for several decades. The most immediate legal cause of the marriage crisis was the adoption of unilateral “no-fault” divorce laws or practices in nearly all states during a relatively short time (less than ten years) in the 1960s-1970s. Those no-fault divorce laws sent a powerful and clear message about the value of marriage and about social commitment to marriage. Those no-fault divorce laws changed marriage from a relationship that was perceived to be and expected to be permanent or almost-permanent to a relationship that was disposable at the will of either spouse. The message of unilateral no-fault divorce laws detrimentally changed how Americans viewed marriage and the commitments of marriage.
The most troubling effects of the current “marriage crisis” are experienced most severely by children who are raised by just one parent, and grow up without the positive parental influence of their absent mother or father. Children raised by only one parent are deprived of something valuable, and they know it.
Thus, it is very troubling that the marriage rate in America has been dropping steadily for each succeeding generation since the generation born before and during the Great Depression. Nearly two-thirds of that “Silent” Generation were married by the time they were 32 years old (in 1960). By contrast, only 26 percent of the current “Millenial” young adult generation have been married by age 32 (less than half as many as in the “Silent Generation”). Thus, today the rate of young adult Americans who are married by age 32 is sixty percent (60%) lower compared to their grandparents a half-century earlier. Current Millennials value marriage less.
Likewise, there has been a dramatic increase in cohabitation without marriage. In 1960, just one percent of all couples living together were unmarried. Today, ten percent of all couples are living together without marriage. By 2010, over 7.5 million opposite-sex American couples were cohabiting without marriage, according to a 2010 Census report, up from only 523,000 couples in 1970. That is a fourteen-fold increase in just forty years in the number of non-marital cohabitation couples.
Today, according to the U.S. National Center for Family and Marriage Research, two-thirds of all women 19-44 years-old cohabit prior to their first marriage. The Pew Research Center reports that over one-third of Americans do not view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, including one-quarter of those who are cohabiting or have cohabitated.
So the current generation of young adult Americans consider marriage to be less important for their personal happiness, well-being and maturation than did their parents and grandparents when they were of a similar age. They want companionship and sexual intimacy (thus cohabitation) without the long-term commitment and responsibilities of marriage.
While there undoubtedly are many reasons for the decline of the status and value of marriage for young adult Americans, one of the most powerful influences undoubtedly has been the devastating rise in the number and rate of divorces in the prior generations. Since the no-fault divorce revolution of the 1960s-1970s, marriage has been viewed and lived by many as an easily-discarded commitment.
The acceptance of the idea of easily-disposable marriage has made many people leery of marriage – fearful of the potential for great pain and sorrow that marital failure (dissolution of marriage) causes. So a growing number of young Americans avoid marriage.
Fear of being discarded, and fear of being in a failed intimate relationship that was expected to last for a lifetime, have made the rising generation wary of marriage. They want to avoid the risk of the kind of painful marital failure that so many of them experienced as children or saw devastate and hurt their own loved ones.
How do we revive a culture of marriage in America – a culture of commitment to marriage despite some struggles and disappointments? How can we foster the notion of marriage-through-thick-and-thin (with rare exceptions for serious abuse, and other serious, spouse-destructive behavior)?
One step might be to quit trying to foster the ideal of “perfect marriage.” Perhaps our expectations of marriage, and of our spouses, have been severely unrealistic. Perhaps the quest for perfection (at least in our spouses) has distorted perceptions of reality, and caused many to be blind to the values and good qualities of spouses who are generally good husbands and wives but who are as imperfect as spouses as we are.
As a family lawyer and family law scholar, I have heard many persons express sorrow about their impatience with a former spouse when problems arose. I have heard them say: “If I only knew then what I know now, I would not have divorced him/her. I would have tried harder to work it out.”
It would be well if more people went into marriage with less expectation of finding that their spouse is perfect, and more commitment to building (not finding) a perfect marriage. It might be well worth the time, for the sake of many couples, children and their families, if lawmakers considered how our family laws might be improved to help foster realistic expectations of marriage. Perhaps when expectations are lowered to realistic levels, the prospects for happiness and success in marriage and family life will be likely to increase.