For Better & for Worse

Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University, is one of America’s leading experts on the family. After closely tracking developments for the past three decades, he’s decided to pull American marriage over and subject it to a close inspection. His book delivers a stern warning to this fast-paced conjugal culture: “Slow down—watch out for the children.”

Cherlin recognizes that if you want to get Americans’ attention it’s best to begin by telling them how “exceptional” they are compared to the rest of the West. Republicans tell Americans they are exceptional because of their staunch conservative commitments to faith, family, and the free market. Democrats tell Americans that they are exceptional because of their dedication to change, renewal, and reform.

Cherlin attempts to speak to both sides of this conversation by arguing that what’s exceptional about American marriage is its paradoxical mix of both conservative and liberal commitments. One side of the paradox is America’s fervor for marriage. Americans are public and passionate about marriage. Compared to other Western societies, Americans marry more, they invest more public money in marriage promotion and education, and they engage in more politically charged debates over marriage-related issues in their legislatures and courts, and from their pulpits.

On the other hand, American marriage culture displays a fierce individualism that celebrates self-expression and personal growth. Americans may marry more, but their relationships are more fragile. Over the course of a lifespan they will divorce and remarry more than people in other Western countries. Americans have found a curious way of wedding their penchant for divorce to their love of marriage. Marriage is highly valued and prized, but it is no longer the only relationship option. Other relationship models such as cohabitation are increasingly accepted as respectable alternatives. Finally, American children are more at risk of seeing their families break up than children in any other Western society. Even children in Sweden, that bastion of European secularism, are more likely to remain in secure stable relationships with their kin-connected moms and dads than American children are.

America’s obsession with the conjugal bond has contributed to another American exceptionalism, the advent of the “marriage wars.” No other Western country has witnessed such fierce conflicts over the question of gay marriage. Gay and lesbian communities have become established and accepted features of European society; however, the marriage question has not been on the front burner of social and political debate. Belgium, Spain, and the Netherlands have all legalized same-sex marriage. The majority of European countries have worked out other types of arrangements with their gay and lesbian communities, arrangements that would be denounced as “second-class” by American proponents of gay marriage. Cherlin argues that the placid nature of European debates on these issues is due to the fact that gays and lesbians, along with most Europeans, don’t share America’s particular fixation with marriage.

In America, debates about redefining marriage have heated up to the point of sustained cultural conflict. Gays and lesbians are fired up for marriage, as are defenders of the historic heterosexual definition of marriage. Both defenders and reformers are motivated by a fervent sense of mission to this vital institution. When the Massachusetts Supreme Court declared it was extending marriage to gays and lesbians, it did so with high praise for marriage, declaring that it is “a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family.” Without marriage, the judges warned ominously, “one is excluded from the full range of human experience.” On this view, extending marriage to everyone is about acknowledging its universal significance.

The problem of children does surface in these debates, but it is not front and center. Americans are worked up about the meaning of marriage for adults, but they take a more laissez-faire attitude to the place of children in marriage. In America access to assisted reproduction is largely unregulated, and second-parent adoptions, including gay and lesbian adoptions, are relatively uncontroversial. In contrast, European countries are more anxious about the birth rights of children and have been much more cautious about extending parental rights to same-sex partners who have no kin-connection to children.

How did Americans arrive at this conflicted marriage culture? Cherlin takes us through an eighty-page survey of the “American way of marriage,” from its early Puritan foundations up to our current postmodern era. From the beginning, American political and religious discourse has been marked by a certain “moral belligerence” about the vital importance of marriage as the foundation of democratic society. The emphasis on the central significance of marriage was accompanied by nagging anxieties about the fate of this pivotal institution—Americans were lamenting the death of the traditional family in the pre-Civil War era. However, despite the fervor for marriage and family, America has always been a “divorce haven.” Liberal divorce laws went hand in hand with family values. And Americans were always keen to experiment with new family forms. The United States was also the only modern Western country to launch a major homegrown movement for polygamy.

This seems like a very different portrait of American marriage culture than the iconic “love/marriage/baby carriage” ideal of the 1950s. According to Cherlin, the intense inward turn toward family and faith during the 1950s was a deviation from the historical trajectory. During this period even faith communities adopted a “spirituality of dwelling.” Churches, congregations, and synagogues presented themselves as extensions of the home, reflecting the values of stability, shelter, and family. But Cherlin believes that any hope of a return to this 1950s ethos of family and faith is illusory. The 1950s were a “one-off” marriage moment in American culture. Only a generation exhausted and traumatized by the apocalypse of Depression and war could display such zeal for stable and secure forms of conjugal life.

By the 1960s Americans were back on track in the pursuit of their uniquely unstable blend of individualism and conjugality. This new 1960s style of marriage emphasized the centrality of individual self-development and the need for communication. Marriage was redesigned as an institution for intense intimacy, emotional openness, and personal growth. New no-fault divorce regimes facilitated the easy exits and remarriages required by the ongoing pursuit of ever more authentic relationships.

Cherlin’s account offers an intriguing discussion of the symbiotic relationship between America’s religious culture and its marriage culture. American exceptionalism is reflected not only in its enthusiasm for marriage, but also in its fervor for faith. Yet the two are not at odds. Contemporary American religion embraces a “spirituality of seeking” that dovetails with the new ethos of marriage. Both celebrate self-development, relationship, intimacy, and expressive lifestyles. A fluid and flexible culture of faith mirrors an equally fluid and flexible culture of marriage. Mainline religious leaders are still warm and fuzzy about marriage. But survey data indicates that over 80 percent of Roman Catholic clergy also support the current ethos of family diversity and are convinced that “God approves of many different kinds of families.” Furthermore, the zeal for faith and family is also wedded to a zeal for change and personal fulfilment. Not surprisingly, Americans change their religious affiliations at about the same high rate as they change marriage partners (40 to 44 percent).

According to Cherlin, American culture is currently undergoing another fundamental shift in its social understanding and experience of marriage. Historically, marriage served as the “foundation” for tackling the familial, social, and financial responsibilities of adulthood. Marriage was, so to speak, the first major investment; career, finances, and home would follow. Today, marriage is perceived to be the “capstone” for the achievement of adult responsibility, not the rite of entry. Marriage comes after the establishment of careers and financial stability, and often after the testing of relationships through cohabitation. The wedding ceremony is no longer a rite of passage that comes early in one’s development; rather, it is a declaration of adult worthiness and achievement that occurs only after one has proven oneself. Curiously, these declarations of adult achievement now require far more expensive and flamboyant ceremonies than the earlier rituals of entry.

Cherlin points out that blue-collar Americans, once the bedrock of family life, are struggling in the new marriage market. Both the economy and the family have become increasingly precarious for blue-collar Americans. The widening income and education gaps between blue-collar and white-collar Americans are also reflected in the widening marriage and divorce gaps. Job instability and declining incomes are wedded to higher levels of marriage instability, conflict, divorce, and family fragmentation.

These are not ideal conditions for children. Cherlin concedes that children do best in “stable, low-conflict families with two biological or adoptive parents.” The fragile multiple partnerships and relationship transitions of American culture pose innumerable difficulties for children. They destabilize and disrupt core family attachments. They add new complicated step-parent or step-sibling relationships and generate new forms of familial conflict.

In the face of these developments, Cherlin notes that a loose coalition of professionals, academics, and faith leaders in the “marriage movement” have concluded that law and public policy should encourage people to get married. Cherlin doesn’t agree. Marriage is not “designed” for the kind of “intense, intimate bonds” and “enormous emotional expectations” that we now place upon it. The current demotion of marriage to the status of an optional and fragile relational lifestyle underscores Cherlin’s contention that marriage is essentially a highly prized “social creation” but not a “natural” or “required” dimension of human culture. Cherlin’s view decisively breaks with the formal stance of most of the major world religious traditions—namely, that marriage and family are “natural” and “fundamental” dimensions of human society—a stance affirmed in the international human-rights tradition (article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). However, one suspects that Cherlin’s family-diversity perspective now shapes opinion in both the secular and religious parts of American culture.

Cherlin believes that there is no point in trying to remake contemporary American culture, with its appetite for a diversity of close relationships. He does believe, however, that we should try to monitor the speed and instability of these relationships. According to Cherlin, we should “spend less effort promoting marriage and more effort promoting stable family lives for children.”

Cherlin’s seasoned, scholarly report on the state of American marriage merits serious consideration. Still, one might wonder if his “slow down” exhortation offers any effective remedy to the problem of a relationship culture designed and engineered for speed-loving adults with little or no thought for child safety. I’m not sure that his advice meets the serious challenges he documents. Henry Ford transformed American culture by building a car that average American families could afford to buy and loved to drive. Perhaps Americans need to put their secular and religious creativity to work to build the kind of marriages that average American children could flourish in.

Published in the 2009-06-19 issue: 

Daniel Cere is professor of religion, ethics, and law at McGill University, and an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values.

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