Why Has Marriage Declined?

images-1This is Jessie again, with the sequel to the last post about marriage, money, and wellbeing.  As marriage declines, we inevitably consider why this should have happened.  As far as we know, marriage has been around as long as humans have been.  There are no societies on the planet that do not have marriage, although marriage takes a bunch of different forms.  There are, for example, more societies that permit marriage between one man and multiple women than there are societies that don’t.  Some societies permit marriages between one woman and several men, several men and several women, two women, two men, and between humans and nonhumans, mostly supernatural beings or institutions.  So I don’t expect that American marriage to wither away and disappear forever.  Instead, I think it will increasingly become like cloth napkins: a luxury item increasingly reserved for the well off, the well educated, and the white–a perk of privilege.

What has caused the decline in American marriage?  I’d say it comes from a decline in what some anthropologists have called “complementarity.”  If you look at marriage across time and space, one thing you notice is that marriage has primarily been a practical institution.  In order to get through life and take care of children, men do men’s chores, and women do women’s chores, and together people survive.  That’s complementarity.   Ideally, husbands and wives come to like and even love each other, but romantic love has certainly not been the basis or goal of most marriages on the planet now or ever.  That’s why parents and other family members have choose spouses for their children, and they base their decisions on practical concerns.  Some of these arranged marriages work out well, and some don’t—just as is true for contemporary American marriages, which are successful about 50% of the time.

But nowadays in the US, complementarity has broken down.  Men no longer need women for survival, and women no longer need men.  A hundred or a thousand or five thousand years ago men needed women to cook for them and make and maintain their clothing, both of which activities required specialized skills and a lot of time and energy.  And women needed men to provide a large part of the food the family ate, and later on, money.  But laundromats, fast food, and ready made clothing have replaced the need for a wife.   These same advances in technology have produced numerous forms of employment that don’t require male strength and tasks that women can perform just as well as men.  These largely service jobs have replaced the need for a husband.  Then there is the fact that so few people are now engaged in agriculture (around 3% today, compared to roughly 50% in the middle of the 19th century).  Thus, worries about having legitimate heirs to pass property on to are now way less important to all but the most affluent.  And arching over all of these technological and demographic issues (but related to them) is the reality that despite the emotional and political power of Christianity on the United States, the actual power of religion to shape personal behavior has dramatically declined.  Christian teachings on the immorality of extranuptial sex, for example, have not officially changed in the last century.  But the power of these teachings to control human behavior has definitely diminished.  So more babies are born to unmarried women than ever before, but the opprobrium attached to these mothers and their children has declined as definitely as their incidence has increased.

And there’s one more thing to consider.  As has been reported now for at least the last five years (and longer, if one reads the specialized literature), job opportunities for the least educated workers with the least education and the fewest contemporary job skills have shrunk dramatically.  Americans in this category disproportionately include African Americans and Hispanics, but also include a significant number of whites.  Barely able to support themselves with the little work they can find in today’s economy, these men cannot possibly enter into a traditional family structure in which they contribute significantly to the support of a household.  Many turn to illegal means of earning money.  Thus an increasing proportion of impoverished men abandon economic responsibility for their children and their children’s mothers.  As more and more young men do this, it becomes an increasingly expected and accepted pattern of behavior, fueled not only by economic constraints, but also by freedom from psychological obligation and from sexual restriction.  The mothers—women like Rochelle—have fewer choices than the fathers.  Unless they are severely impaired by psychological damage or drug use, they cannot ignore their responsibility to their children.  So–again like Rochelle– they cobble together a precarious existence for their extranuptial households from low paid employment, social services, and assistance from family members.

This is not a “lifestyle choice.”  It is a serious national problem, and a human tragedy for the adults and children involved.

Next time:  suggestions for solutions.

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