June 10, 2009

Strings With No Marriage Attached

Old-school marriage is going out of style.

Last month, I was browsing through Time magazine at the grocery store when I noticed an article called "Everything but the Ring," which described the growing phenomenon of committed unmarrieds (CUs). From what I could gather, this is the politically correct term for co-habiting couples who are serious about staying together and having kids, but equally intentional about not tying the knot. According to the article, a record-breaking 40% of U.S. babies born in 2007 had unmarried parents (up 25% from 2002) and "nonmarital births have increased the most among women ages 25 to 39, doubling since 1980," debunking the myth that accidental teen pregnancy has caused this trend.

Once viewed as a moral indiscretion or a failure to properly plan, childbirth among unmarried parents has now gone mainstream. In contrast with stereotypes, minorities in poverty are not the only ones having children out of wedlock. From the middle class and affluent all the way up to gazillionaire media magnets like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, many couples are making the deliberate choice to have kids while remaining unmarried. And thanks to the tireless efforts of those in the grocery aisle gossip industry, everyone knows that Hollywood celebrities are the standard bearers of marital fidelity and lifetime commitment.

In a certain sense, it's not hard to understand why my generation of self-directed postmoderns in their twenties and thirties, burned by divorce and cynical about weddings, are choosing cohabitation over marriage. After all, if you could experience the joy of parenting, the pleasure of sex, the cost savings of shared living expenses and the comfort of knowing that your child's parents are still "together" without having to darken the door of a church (for a wedding) or courthouse (for a divorce), what's there to lose? In theory, you've got (almost) all the benefits of marriage without the religious, cultural and political baggage. Last semester, one of my classmates told me she doesn’t ever want to get married because her relationship with her boyfriend "shouldn't be anyone else's business" and marriage is a "sexist institution" anyway.

But is marriage really just a private religious ceremony that has little or no sociological impact? Is it just a profitable fabrication of the wedding industry that wants to sell more cakes, rings and pricey dresses? Is the decision to move in together just a modern equivalent of walking down the aisle or does that cumbersome and old fashioned marriage license thingy actually make a difference in people's lives? Should declining marriage rates be any cause for concern or should we just accept that we’ve "progressed" from the dark ages when unmarried people weren’t supposed to bear children even by accident, much less on purpose?

Contrary to the popular myth that getting married ruins perfectly good relationships, sociological research tells a different story. Even if you remove religious and homophobic arguments from the discussion, there is still a compelling “secular” case for why marriage is good for society, particularly the well-being of children. A nonpartisan study from Rutgers University observed, "Virtually all research on the topic has determined that the chances of divorce ending a marriage preceded by cohabitation are significantly greater than for a marriage not preceded by cohabitation." The study also found that "three quarters of children born to cohabiting parents will see their parents split up before they reach age sixteen, whereas only about a third of children born to married parents face a similar fate." Not only do cohabiting parents break up at a much higher rate than married parents, children living with stepfathers or mother's boyfriends are at higher risk of sexual abuse and physical violence than are children living with married biological parents.

Even my "liberal" social work textbooks acknowledge the irony that married people tend to live longer, earn more money and lead healthier lives than those who don't marry. Children born to unwed parents also face increased high school dropout rates and a greater likelihood of poverty and behavioral problems. Imagine you were a kid (as we all once were). Would you rather have parents who were officially married or would a really, really strong verbal agreement be good enough to do the trick? If your parents were going through a rough patch and were considering a split, would you want it to be easier or harder for them to do so? Is it too archaic to suggest that society is better off when biological parents stay together?

Don’t get me wrong. None of the cohabiting parents I know are villains or reprobates. They are kind and good-natured people who plan their kids' birthday parties and read them bedtime stories just like us married folks do. My goal is not to demonize these individuals or see their relationships fail. It's certainly possible to be happily committed parents without getting married, just as it's possible to avoid serious traffic injuries without wearing a seat belt. But the prevalence of divorce doesn't mean we should do away with marriage any more than the prevalence of car accidents means we should all switch to the even riskier habit of riding motorcycles without helmets. Walking down the aisle won’t magically turn bad relationships into good ones, but there’s something about a marriage that preserves and enhances lifelong commitment better than any other arrangement.

Instead of affirming sacred matrimony, it seems like the only socially acceptable way to talk about marriage nowadays is to poke fun at it. If I were to stand up in my office lunchroom and say, "Marriage is like an appendix. You don't really need it, but it can cause a lot of pain," I would probably get some laughs and scattered applause. Conversely, if I were to put forward the notion that getting married and staying that way is one of the best things we can do for the next generation, this would likely sound presumptuous and narrow-minded. Maybe I’m just a Neanderthal cave man disguised as a 21st century amateur blogger, but I’d like to humbly suggest that once the possibility of conceiving children is even on the horizon (much less the delivery room), the trial period for “test driving” your mate should be long gone.

If you are serious enough to move in with someone, co-sign a lease, work out the finances, share a bathroom, divide up the chores, battle for the remote, have procreative sex and raise a child together, how on earth could your relationship not be "serious" enough for marriage? If someone isn’t good enough for you to marry, what makes them good enough to be the father or mother of your child? The way I see it, the only thing riskier than bringing a helpless baby into the world is doing so without the legal, financial, social and spiritual protection of marriage. And if marriage is such a miserable, outdated, superfluous idea, why are gays and lesbians so eager to get married?

Remember that old saying, "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage?" That’s so yesterday.

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