If you are going out to dinner to celebrate St. Valentine's Day, be sure to set your VCR to record Marriage: Just a Piece of Paper? on PBS.

Before you react to that unfortunate title, realize that one of the documentary's experts, John Witte of Emory University, compares marriage to other important pieces of paper: a winning lottery ticket and a 30-year mortgage. In the minds of this program's creators, to say marriage is a piece of paper invests it with hope and long-term responsibility.

Oh, about setting that VCR: This is one of the few programs that PBS has mandated for all 300 of its stations to broadcast in the same time slot (10 p.m. Eastern, 9 p.m. Central, 8 p.m. Mountain, 7 p.m. Western). Obviously, someone at headquarters thought the issues this program discusses were important enough to dictate programming to the nation's loose alliance of public television stations.

When you play the videotape, you will hear many important things. Marriage is undergoing a "historic crisis":

  • Currently, one-third of ever-married couples have been divorced or are going through a divorce. Experts project that eventually one-half of all marriages will end in divorce.

  • In the 1960s, only one-twentieth of American children were born to unmarried women. Today, the fraction is one-third. Among African Americans, the figure is closer to two-thirds.

  • More than one-half of first marriages are preceded by cohabitation. But the typical cohabiting couple (if it doesn't upgrade the relationship to marriage) breaks up after about one year. Three-quarters of the children of cohabiting couples will see their parents split before they turn 16. (Compare this with one-third of children born to married parents.)

  • One half of unwed mothers receive no child support at all. Among those in the other half, only one-quarter get the full amount they are due.

These are incredibly disturbing facts. Veteran journalist Cokie Roberts hosts this program with the same smiling demeanor and professional poise with which she greets guests on ABC's This Week. This is too bad, because the marriage crisis calls for outrage. Nevertheless, the facts and the experts speak for themselves.

Long-term Christianity Today readers will recognize many of the experts who make regrettably brief cameos: for example, divorce expert Judith Wallerstein, the National Fatherhood Initiative founder Wade Horn, and Community Marriage Policy advocates Mike and Harriet McManus.

The expert behind the experts is the documentary's scriptwriter Barbara DaFoe Whitehead. Whitehead was the author of the 1997 book The Divorce Culture and the controversial 1993 Atlantic article, "Dan Quayle Was Right," which defended the message behind the vice president's much maligned Murphy Brown remark. Whitehead has long been a take-no-prisoners defender of the institution of marriage and has participated in the University of Chicago Divinity School's Religion, Cutlure, and Family Project. She is well-versed in the social-science data on marriage, divorce, family, and child-rearing. The project could have hired no better scriptwriter.

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Social and theological conservatives have long loved Whitehead's work. So they will be bit puzzled by the awkward insertion of a pro-gay marriage expert near the end of the video. "There's enough marriage for everyone to share," he says in an obligatory PC nod that misses the point. "It's not like gay people are going to come in and use up all the marriage licenses." But this is PBS, and the Religion, Culture, and Family Project has been careful over its history to incorporate Left, Right, and Middle. In the context of Whitehead's otherwise sober script, the comment delivers an almost comic moment.

The people whose stories, the calm and collected Roberts introduces, are full of pathos. The most moving moment is when the recently separated Jeff Brown says of his pending divorce, "Believe me, you don't want to go through it. … I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy." The camera doesn't blink as he struggles to hold back his tears, but we feel a catch in our throat and have to blink back our own tears.

All is not sadness. We feel outrage as single mother Sadie Zeld talks about the way her boyfriend berated her and abandoned her when she became pregnant with Isaiah. We sense hope as young African American men gather to discuss their fathers' influence on their lives and resolve to do better. We feel compassion as we hear 18-year-old single mom Erin Best describe how she got pregnant at 15.

And we smile when we hear twice-divorced Nissa Fuzzy talk about her moral struggle with premarital sex. She tells us that in the "Big White Book" God says, "Don't have premarital sex." "I think sex is for married people," she says with a goofy smile, "I'm really working on that right now." The off-screen interviewer presses her: "What does that mean?" "Gosh … it's so … complex." She giggles, obviously embarrassed. "Basically, I'm breaking my morals … so … I'm working on that. I've been talking to God a lot lately. … I'm quitting premarital sex. … That would make me—like—frustrated," she says. "Check back with me in two weeks."

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Despite the dire picture presented by the experts, the documentary invites us to hope. Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education, tells us that the couples that go the distance have, on average, ten irreconcilable differences. Indeed, studies show that couples that stay married over the long haul have the same number of disagreements about the same things (money, sex, time, in-laws, etc.) as couples who divorce. What makes the difference is the willingness to talk about their differences and the skills to handle those discussions constructively. These skills can be learned. Marriages can be built.

Cokie Roberts tells us that there are millions of happy marriages and that for 35 years she has been "privileged to be in one of them." Viewers who watch her documentary on Valentine's Day are likely to be inspired to make their own relationship one of those marriages that go the distance.

David Neff is editor of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

The program's official Web site offers more information on the show, the book of the same name, a list of resource organizations, and other items. CityTalk, produced in part by WTTW (the PBS station behind the program), also has an article on the project.

Cokie Roberts and her husband, Steven, wrote about marriage in their book From This Day Forward (available at Amazon.com and other book retailers).

See also our sister publication, Marriage Partnership, for more articles on building marriages that last.

The Associated Press and Chicago Sun-Times also have articles on the program.

Other recent Christianity Today articles on marriage include:

The Social Experiment that Failed | Two books disclose the unforeseen hazards of divorce, and the unexpected fruits of marriage. (2/7/01)
When a Spouse Converts | Recent headlines imply that being born again leads to divorce. Not quite. A Christianity Today Editorial (7/5/01)
Solitary Refinement | The church is doing better than ever at ministering to single people. But some evangelical assumptions still need rethinking. (6/4/01)
Untying the Knot | NCC withdraws endorsement of 'one-man, one-woman' marriage statement. (1/23/01)
The Christian Divorce Culture | We're not sending a strong enough signal that divorce is a sin. A Christianity Today Editorial (8/31/00)
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Just Married? | God makes marriage a sacred invasion of privacy. A Christianity Today Editorial (4/26/00)

In 1992, Christianity Today examined divorce and remarriage in the church. Articles in that special section include:

CT Institute: Divorce and Remarriage | An introduction to our 1992 series on what divorce means for families, churches, and our country.
A Marriage Counterculture | An update on the state of unions in America.
Sex, Marriage, and Divorce | Results from a 1992 Christianity Today reader's survey.
Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli | How Christian understanding about marriage has changed-and stayed the same-through history
Can One Become Two? | What Scripture says about Christians and divorce.
Remarriage: Two Views | Two New Testament professors debate whether remarriage is acceptable for Christians.
How Not to Fail Hurting Couples | We need a kind of shock therapy to become alert to missed opportunities.
Becoming a Healing Community | How the church can develop a climate of help to the hurting.