My boss often quips (quoting T. S. Eliot) that it’s useless to inquire what you can do with a thing until you know what that thing is meant for. In the long and embarassing history of people deciding what to do with things before they know what they’re for, Mandy Len Catron’s recent treatment of marriage in The Atlantic surely deserves its own page.
In her article, entitled “What You Lose When You Gain a Spouse,” Catron reveals that she’s in a long-term cohabiting relationship, but complains that her friends and family seem to expect her live-in boyfriend and her to tie the knot, or something. A wedding is nowhere on her radar, she explains, because marriage is overrated, and it takes away from other relationships we should value more highly—relationships which she suspects could handily take its place, anyway.
Citing a University of Massachusetts study that left me wondering who pays for these things, Catron points out that married people are busier than singles. They’re “less likely to visit or call parents and siblings,” she laments, or to “hang out with friends and neighbors.”
“Single people, by contrast, are far more connected to the social world around them,” she writes. Unmarried people have more friends, are more “politically engaged—attending rallies and fundraising for causes that are important to them,” spend more time caring for siblings and aging parents, and get more invitations for “after-work beers”
Catron confesses that even her cohabiting relationship has given her an unwelcome feel for the weight of the ball-and-chain. She recounts receiving invitations addressed to both her and her partner, as if sleeping in the same bed and having a mortgage together made them an item! Already, she writes, “it seemed everyone had tacitly agreed that our step toward each other necessitated a step away from friendship and community.”
Marriage does the same thing, she thinks, but on steroids. Which is why, echoing John Lennon, she urges us to “imagine a world without it.”
The first obvious problem in that world is children. But they don’t necessarily need or even do best with married parents, Catron argues. It’s not a biological mommy and a daddy who love each other and have promised to remain together for-better-or-worse that matter. No, it’s “stability,” and plenty of other social arrangements can offer the little tykes that in spades.
Her exhibit A? “[T]he extended-family structures that are common in African American communities.” Her exhibit B? “queer communities…especially during the AIDS crisis.” These are, in her telling, “a model for intimacy and care beyond the bounds of the institution of marriage”—one we can and should try to replicate in order to replace marriage.
To understate things so dramatically that my pants are at risk of combusting, the statistics don’t support Catran’s suggestion. Over sixty percent of black children in America are raised by a single parent. Black marriage rates are the lowest of any group, nationally. And black children and teens suffer a youth homicide rate 400% higher than the national average, the highest juvenile incarceration rate by far, the highest obesity rates, and among the highest school dropout rates. By virtually every measure, African American children are not doing well, and it’s hard to believe that rock-bottom marriage rates in their communities have nothing to do with it.
Actually, that was another trouser-torching understatement–one that bodes ill for white Americans, among whom marriage is also declining. The causal link between marriage and flourishing children is one of those sociological findings the experts describe as “settled science.” To quote a 2015 joint report from Princeton University and the Brookings Institute, “Reams of social science and medical research convincingly show that children who are raised by their married, biological parents enjoy better physical, cognitive and emotional outcomes, on average, than children raised in other circumstances…[R]esearchers have been able to make a strong case that marriage has causal impacts on outcomes such as children’s schooling, their social and emotional adjustment, and their employment, marriage and mental health as adults.”
(More information in this outstanding series of articles from Focus on the Family).
As for children raised in “queer communities” during the AIDS crisis, it’s difficult to find analogous statistics about their well-being. But the story is in the headline. The stomach-turning number of sexual partners gay men report having and the resultant higher rates of STD infection and death don’t exactly paint a picture of stable and nurturing homes. If you buy this as a workable replacement for marriage, I have a flourishing salt business in Sodom you may want to buy stock in.
Catron makes a fair point about people who marry with false expectations, noting that since at least the 1950s, marriage has been climbing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. What Americans once looked to as a means of building a home and providing mutual care has become a theater for self-expression, indulging our every commercial appetite (she cites the bloated bridal industry, for instance), and enthroning feelings of infatuation as the eternal barometer of love.
But what she misses is that it is marriage’s deconstruction as an institution, not its overemphasis, that has turned it into a glorified prom. All of our coddling of couples who expect their dreams to come true on their special day is meant to mask our amnesia about the historic and nearly universal purpose of marriage—to wit, as “cultural process…to attach fathers to the mother-child unit,” as Maggie Gallagher diagnoses it. Or, as G. K. Chesterton calls the first institution more evocatively, “the factory that manufactures mankind.”
It’s okay that marriage distracts from other relationships for the simple fact that marriage is not just one relationship among many. It is the relationship to which all others owe their being. It’s not just one way of ordering our dealings with one another which we could plausibly replace, if we so chose. It’s how we were designed to exist. It’s why we exist, in a causal sense.
To object, as Catron does, to the way marriage takes time away from friends, colleagues, political rallies, and even other family members is like objecting to the way my car’s engine guzzles so much fuel that could be better used by the air-conditioning, power windows, and that little screen in the back that keeps the kids quiet. I could object that air conditioning is more immediately enjoyable and that there are many other systems that could take the engine’s place.
But that leaves me with a pressing question: why in thunder am I sitting out here in the driveway with the air blasting, going nowhere? What is a car even for (besides getting me to after-work beers, I mean)?