If we leave aside the policy issues, we can at least admit that the private departure from marriage has been going on for some time. Consider the number of children being born to married parents: a remarkable decline from the 1950s, with a decided slope developing in the 1960s.
The accompanying effects of this change are manifold, but we can quickly review the many facts at hand to see why this is problematic: single-parent families face higher rates of child poverty, more welfare dependence, less material prosperity for the parents, higher rates of domestic abuse (in case of cohabitation), and other hurdles to living happy and fulfilling lives.
The especially crushing effects are dealt to children, who enter adolescence “more likely to engage in substance abuse, exhibit behavioral problems, have poor academic performance, and engage in risky behavior, including becoming sexually active at an early age.”
Really, when it comes to marriage, little need be said to defend it in fact; rather, the challenge seems to be its defense as an idea.
And it is certainly a challenge – especially among certain minority groups. Consider this piece from BlackPressUSA, which explains that some 70% of Black women between the ages of 25 and 29 have never married at all, compared to only 23% of white women.
The reasons are many, but some are more compelling than others. One of the men interviewed, 23-year-old Valdez Steed, said that “I want a son more than I want marriage. Your offspring is a representation of you. Marriage,” however, “is different.”
Polling agrees. Pew Research finds that 52% of us millennials see being a “good parent” as one of the most important things in their lives, while only 30% say that about having a successful marriage.
So Mr. Steed was on to something serious: marriage is, in fact, “different.” But how so?
It is something of a bracing question because we are not used to it being asked; but, we might again return for Mr. Steed for guidance. A child, as he says, is a “representation of you” – one can see themselves in a child and feel it as their own. Much like the father trying to use his son to make up for a football career that “could have been”; we see in our children a way to live again.
Yet this physical attachment of ours, physical because the child is there in front of us, is something seriously different from a marriage. You are not your marriage, your wife is not your marriage, even the child is not your marriage; the entire family together is not the marriage either. It is a larger thing, a promise and a devotion and an exclusivity. It is, in the words of one commentator, a holistic union, “emotionally and bodily, in acts of conjugal love and in the children such love brings forth — for the whole of life.”
In other words, it is an abstract thing. A marriage is like a child of the soul: it is born out of strength of character and the ability to see love as something beyond short-term pleasure.
We cannot “touch” a marriage, and yet we are a part of it. Marriage matures us and leaves us better than we were at the start. It’s like a good Judd Apatow movie. Knocked Up, for example, is a conservative classic: an example of parents seeing a child as only part of a larger obligation to improve their lives and be together.
Millennials are not used to talking like this. We see marriage as some old institution – some even as a tool of oppression. We get offended when politicians bring it up as anyone other than "loving a partner," and marriage has been more and more separated from the act of bringing children into this world.
Yet the facts speak for themselves, even if the ideas are currently lacking in style.
So let it be said simply: marriage is an act of empowerment. It makes us stronger, healthier, wealthier, more independent, more mature, and it leaves our children in a better position to take on the world and succeed.
It is, in other words, an irreplaceable staple of a free society.