It's a shocking claim, but is it true?
According to recent media reports, the institution of marriage is dying, especially among the poor and lower educated. At the same time, child-bearing and cohabitation are rising dramatically among the 20- and 30-something age groups. More children are living with unmarried parents than ever before.
All of these details are true and more can be found in a new survey from the Pew Research Center.
In response, Thursday's USA Today framed the front-page story with a disturbing headline:
We're Just Not That Into Marriage: Survey reveals declining interest
A good headline will often tell readers the whole story, but a misleading one can sometimes tell more about the person who is telling it—or the culture in which it is being told—than about the substance of the story itself.
To be fair, marriage and family trends have been headed in the wrong direction for some time. From a family- and marital-health perspective, almost every positive indicator that should be up is down and nearly every one that should be down is up. Only the divorce rate has stabilized, which isn't saying too much given that it's close to 40 percent.
Still, to suggest that marriage is on the verge of obsolescence doesn't quite square with the opinions of the very people who account for its future standing.
According to the Pew survey, 60 percent of American adults currently living with a significant other and not yet married desire to eventually wed. Conversely, only 16% of these individuals express no interest at all in tying the knot. In fact, Pew's data shows that more want to marry today than did in 2007.
Put bluntly and more colorfully, more Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth (18 percent) than say they have absolutely no desire to ever marry (13 percent). (A much larger number of us often think both the sun and the earth revolve around us!)
When it comes to overall attitudes about family, 76 percent of the respondents indicated that their own family was "the most important element" in life, while 22 percent said it was "one of the most import elements."
This is all very good news, but there remains a nagging question: why is there such a drastic disconnect or disparity between what people think and say they believe about the sacred institution - compared to how they act and behave?
It is not a modern development that people don't always act in accordance with their stated beliefs. Colonial America was rife with cohabitation. In his book, Sexual Revolution in Early America, Richard Godbeer quotes a clergyman who was appalled at the prevalence of sex outside marriage in the province of New York in 1695. Upon reflection on his visit there he wrote, "many couples live[d] together without ever being married in any manner of way" and in doing so, engaged in "ante-nuptial fornication" which was "not looked upon as any scandal or sin."
Even the most casual observer or critic of marriage would acknowledge that the institution is too often held in very low cultural esteem. From television to movies to music, the bonds of matrimony are often lampooned as chains that bind and confine as opposed to the great anchor of stability God intended them to be.
Since the church is only as healthy as its most unhealthy people, we, too, bear blame. Have we not often been more inclined to focus on the challenges of marriage than on the joy it brings? When the divorce rate within the church is nearly as bad as it is outside of it, we must take a hard and honest look at ourselves and our attitudes toward what we say we hold dear.
As Christians, when it comes to processing this variable, there is a demand for humility and the recognition that the apostle Paul gave perhaps the best explanation for why personal belief does not always reconcile with personal behavior.
Speaking to the Romans, Paul rightly observed that all men have fallen short of God's glory. In stating that he often didn't do what he wanted to do—but instead did what he hated most of all—Paul summed up the challenge of those both inside and outside the church.
In other words, when it comes to the matter of marriage, most people want to get married, but for any number of reasons—pessimism, fear, perceived convenience—many of them do not. Nevertheless, that they want to marry at all is a significant and positive sign.
God has built into every human being a desire for companionship and a craving to love and be loved. There are compelling reasons to marry and stay married. In study after study, married people are reported to live longer and enjoy greater overall health and sexual satisfaction. Married people are more likely to remain financially solvent. Those who marry and remain married also express a greater sense of contentment in nearly every aspect of life.
A committed marriage is also the best environment in which to raise and nurture children. When mom and dad share the responsibilities and challenges of parenthood, kids are happier, healthier, and more emotionally and spiritually stable. Conversely, children born outside of marriage are more likely to grow up in poverty and score lower on almost every measure of physical and mental health.
Buried within the Pew data was a finding that gives me great hope for marriage's future participants. In the study, researchers found that of all age groups, the youngest group (18-29) expressed the greatest desire to marry.
Marriage will never be obsolete, because God has wired into our hearts a desire to be for another. And isn't it telling and interesting that God's narrative begins with a marriage in the Garden and ends with the wedding feast of the Lamb?
We must continue to cultivate these natural leanings and tell the larger story, that marriage is a gift created and granted by God, designed to bring glory to the Creator and his creation.
In doing so, we will show that not only is it not obsolete, but that it is forevermore a timeless and miraculous treasure worthy of society's interest and respect.
Jim Daly is president of Focus on the Family and author of Stronger: Trading Brokenness for Unbreakable Strength. (David C. Cook, 2010)
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Previous Christianity Today articles on marriage include:
God Loves a Good Romance | Marriage is about more than feelings—but it is never less. (October 12, 2010)
The Good Christian Girl: A Fable | What heeding a decade and a half of dating advice can mean. (Speaking Out, July 19, 2010)
Same Sex, Different Marriage | Many of those who want marriage equality do not want fidelity. (May 5, 2010)
The Case for Early Marriage | Amid our purity pledges and attempts to make chastity hip, we forgot to teach young Christians how to tie the knot. (July 31, 2009)
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