The Idea of Marriage Is Rapidly Changing

A Time/Pew Research poll shows a shift in Americans' attitudes

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"Who Needs Marriage?" blares the cover of the latest issue of Time magazine. Inside, a Pew Research Center/Time poll documents Americans' changing attitudes toward the custom and pointedly asks: "if marriage is no longer obligatory or even—in certain cases—helpful, then what is it for?" The most cited findings in the poll were that four out of every ten Americans think that marriage is becoming "obsolete" and nearly forty-five percent think that it is eventually headed for "extinction." Despite the sharp language used, the article is not necessarily pessimistic about the about the enduring future of marriage. It may well just look slightly different from its 20th century incarnation.

Naturally, the assertion has garnered plenty of defensive reactions from pundits who feel the institution is once again under attack. Here's how the debate is unfolding:

  • The Institution Is Changing  "Marriage, whatever its social, spiritual or symbolic appeal, is in purely practical terms just not as necessary as it used to be," concluded Time's Belinda Luscombe, summarizing the Pew Research Center/Time Poll on marriage data. The truth is, more than ever, Americans are "less wedded" to the idea of marriage. "This doesn't mean, though, that we're pessimistic about the future of the American family; we have more faith in the family than we do in the nation's education system or its economy. We're just more flexible about how family gets defined," she writes. Even though Americans still venerate marriage, it's unclear who the age-old institution is really "made for" in the 21st century. Take, for instance, the view of child-rearing that's becoming the norm:
Very few people say children are the most important reason to get hitched. Indeed, 41% of babies were born to unmarried moms in 2008, an eightfold increase from 50 years ago, and 25% of kids lived in a single-parent home, almost triple the number from 1960. Contrary to the stereotype, it turns out that most of the infants born to unmarried mothers are not the product of casual sexual encounters.
  • Actually, the Poll Presents a Somewhat Optimistic View  "If you look very deeply into that poll, it does not come to the conclusion that marriage is obsolete," remarked Focus on the Family's Gary Schneeberger to Stephanie Samuel at The Christian Post. Here are the poll's statistics, reinterpreted: "More than half of singles expressed a desire to be married. Over a third of all respondents, married and unmarried, felt it would be easier to have a fulfilling love life inside of marriage, compared to seven percent who felt it would easier to have fulfilling love life outside of marriage. Twenty-nine percent believed, over the five percent who opposed, that it is easier to find happiness within marriage. Moreover, over two-thirds of people believed that it was best for society to have children inside of marriage. Another sixty-nine percent felt it was bad for society for single women to become mothers."
  • Marriage Is 'Hardly Obsolete'  "Marriage is certainly hurting as an institution, but its reported death, like Mark Twain's, is an exaggeration, and its revival is certainly an imperative," writes the Chuck Donovan at the conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation. Still, its demise is overblown: "Marriage can become obsolete only in a society where the needs of children have become passé. That is because marital status is strongly tied to educational achievement and financial success, and the alternatives to raising children in an intact, married household show elevated rates of adversity on so many outcome measurements." Donovan prescribes welfare reforms, restoration of the Healthy Marriage funding and the extension of the marriage penalty tax relief, to prod citizens toward marriage.
  • It's Far From Dead  Let it be known that Hot Air's Jazz Shaw isn't "a big fan of marriage," but the actual poll numbers tell a different story than obsolete. "While the negative numbers may be rising, the same poll shows that more than 60% of Americans do not feel marriage is obsolete." The writer is more concerned with government meddling into solving the problem of citizens declining to get married: "Importantly, the subjects of family and marriage are best handled at home by parents, mentors and faith leaders. This is one of those intractable situations where the real solutions are to be found in the family and the church, not in Washington."
  • There Is a Stubborn Myth About Single Parents Namely, that single-parent kids become demonstrably "worse off" after living in single-parent households, writes Bella DePaulo in The Huffington Post, parsing the Pew Research study and other data sets. Time's poll found that sixty-nine percent of respondents thought that it was a "bad thing" having a child out of wedlock, but after reviewing other studies DePaulo disagrees: "There are environments that are bad for kids, but they have less to do with how many parents are raising them and more to do with the emotional and interpersonal quality of life at home. Cold and neglectful parenting is bad for kids. High levels of conflict and hostility are painful. But a stable, secure, consistent, and caring relationship with an adult? That's a good thing. A very good thing. A single parent can provide that."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.