Leading marriage scholars have come up with an index for monitoring the health of marriage in society.
Spring has sprung in the southern hemisphere and the wedding season is under way. A billboard in my city advertises a wedding “expo”, a sign of the trend that has turned a simple but dignified community event into a commercial extravaganza of daunting proportions. A young couple from abroad told me that it would cost at least forty thousand pounds to get married back home. That was one reason, apparently, why they had been cohabiting for six years.
Weddings are big, yes, but there are fewer of them, they happen later and in circumstances that often lead to marital conflict, divorce, and misery for any children of the union. The bad statistics are aired from time to time, governments step in to limit the damage, and things go on much as they did before. It is true that many community groups and, increasingly, scholars and even a few politicians voice concern about the state of marriage, but there is no agreed way of monitoring its health -- nothing like, for instance, the economic indicators that keep the state of the economy constantly before our eyes, so that we know every little rise or fall in GDP and, therefore, in our collective fortunes.
It is precisely this lack that one of the leading marriage research and advocacy institutions in the United States proposes to rectify. This week the Institute for American Values, together with the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting, has launched The Marriage Index, a set of five key indicators that can be used to monitor the health of American -- and, of course, other -- marriages.
As IAV scholar David Blankenhorn and colleagues authors point out, “no social progress is possible without widely shared, trackable goals”, and, “for any society that cares about its future, leading marriage indicators are as important as leading economic indicators”.
What are these indicators? Taking the baseline year as 1970, they look, decade by decade until 2008, at the percentage of adults married; happiness in marriage; the percentage of first marriages intact; the percentage of births to married parents; and the percentage of children living with their own married parents. There are charts on the institute’s website setting these figures out clearly in grid form for both the general and African American populations. Overall they show that the health of marriage in the US sits at 60.3 per cent -- better than many countries, no doubt, but notably worse than four decades ago and no cause for complacency.
Percentage of adults married. The age range here is from 20 to 54 years, to take account of (a) the large number of non-marital unions amongst the youngest age group and (b) the distortions that would arise from including the population older than 54 and its increasing proportion of widows.
The marriage trend, as we know, is down. In 1970, 78.6 per cent of adults were married; in 2008 the figure had dropped to 57.2. Cohabitation, by contrast, has grown enormously: from 439,000 couples in 1960 to 6.4 million in 2007.
Married persons “very happy” with their marriage. Theoretically, the easy access to divorce that has existed for several decades should mean that those who are married are, on average, happier. But this is not the case; surveys show a moderate but significant decline in marital quality between 1970 and 2000. Ironically, this is partly to do with divorce -- the ideal of permanence has declined, and with it a sense of security in marriage.
Marriages intact. The decline here has also been marked -- from 77.4 per cent of first marriages intact in 1970 to just under 60 per cent in 2000. The good news is that there has been a slight increase in marital stability since then -- a sign that “we can renew marriage as lifelong commitment,” say the authors of the index.
Births to married parents. In 1970, 89.3 per cent of children were born to married parents, while today the figure is 60.3 -- a dramatic decline. More children are born into cohabiting or single-parent homes.
Children living with their own married parents. While the percentage of children living with their biological or adoptive mother and father has dropped since 1970 (from 68.7 to 61.0 in 2007) this trend has also levelled off over the past decade -- another encouraging sign.
There will be some who say, So what? Why does it matter to society how adults arrange their intimate relationships? Of the many answers to this question the most important concerns the wellbeing of children, and this is what the authors of the index focus on in explaining their choice of indicators.
Marriage, they point out, is not simply about the intimate relationships of adults but “fundamentally about creating a link between adults and children” -- the “helpless offspring that result from the sexual union of two people”.
It matters when such couples divorce or do not marry and it matters if they are unhappy or insecure -- because, mainly, of what this means for the children. And there is now ample research, for those who are not convinced by the evidence all around them, that children thrive best when brought up by their own two happily married parents. For those who do need to check the evidence, the authors of the Marriage Index have summarised and documented the most important research in this area.
But they are not just trying to beat us over the head with research. Perhaps the most important part of their index proposal is the list of 101 ideas from David Blankenhorn and Linda Malone-Colon (the latter from the National Center on African American Marriages and Parenting) for improving America’s marriage health score from its current 60.3 per cent.
To whet your appetite, here are the first six:
1. Make the issue of reuniting fathers and children a top priority through programs of advocacy, family reconciliation, and community mobilization.
2. Create a council in your community that seeks to strengthen marriage and family life.
3. Make raising children who succeed in marriage at least as important a goal as raising children who succeed in careers.
4. If your marriage has recovered from serious trouble, consider volunteering in (or starting!) a marriage mentoring program in your community.
5. Write to your local officials and ask them to create a vision statement for your community about how to strengthen marriage and increase the proportion of children who live with their own married parents.
6. Be intentional about talking to your teenagers about marriage.
If we started thinking and acting along these lines, the day might soon come when we could forget Bridezilla and the $40,000 (or $100,000) wedding, and be reasonably confident that when two young people got married the best would be yet to come.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.