We are facing a global crisis in marriage.
The factors contributing to the crisis are complex. They span generations and virtually every human institution: families, peer groups, schools, churches, work environments, law, and culture. As scholars and marriage advocates from around the world consider new initiatives to strengthen marriages and families, it may be helpful to remind ourselves of the sources of this crisis—why it has emerged and how it has been sustained.
The Nature and Causes of the Marriage Crisis
The US marriage rate is currently the lowest ever recorded, cohabitation is rapidly becoming both a precursor and alternative to marriage among young adults, and more than half of births to women under thirty years of age now occur outside of marriage. Among those over age thirty-five, divorce rates continue to rise, even as an increasing number of divorcees choose cohabitation over remarriage. No longer are abuse and infidelity the main reasons given for divorce (although some research suggests infidelity occurs around the time of most divorces). Rather, divorcing spouses routinely claim they have simply “grown apart.”
Explaining how an institution like marriage—as old as civilization itself and revered by virtually all societies and religions—reached such a state of decay in the West is not a simple task, but certain sociological trends are undeniably significant. For example, studies show that religious faith—an important component of happy, permanent marriages for women in particular—is in rapid decline. A 2012 Pew survey found that “One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.” This finding is of particular concern in light of recent data showing narcissism on the rise and empathy in decline among younger generations.
Many adult children of divorce come into marriage with few, if any, of the skills necessary to sustain it over time, such as conflict resolution and communication. This same group struggles with spousal commitment—a significant factor in both first and subsequent divorces. Whether marriage therapy helps or hurts the marriages of these individuals (and others) is unclear, but at least some evidence suggests the latter. Given the increasing demand for marital counseling, this is a research question that merits immediate attention. Of particular concern is the fact that more married couples are coming to therapists to treat pornography addiction, an epidemic that many therapists report they are unprepared to treat.
The cumulative impact of negative trends in individual marriages over time has had a ripple effect, affecting marriages and families in surrounding social and geographic circles. Once, a spouse’s family of origin (parents and siblings) might have stepped in to give solid marital advice, help prevent a divorce, or insist on marriage prior to cohabitation. Sadly, these forms of “positive peer pressure” have dissipated, as more and more middle-aged parents and siblings have divorced and cohabited themselves.
Perhaps one of the most formidable sources of the marriage crisis is the media. Producers of TV, movies, and music long ago discerned that portraying sexual fidelity and self-control as necessary or even valuable doesn’t pay. The more they mock and pervert these ideals, the higher their ratings and their cash flow. The widespread availability and acceptance of internet pornography have bolstered and intensified the broader media strategy to erode the key underpinnings of faithful, lifelong marriage. These developments in media continue to influence the marriage views and sexual behaviors of younger generations for the worse.
“No fault” divorce, now the law of the land, is sustained by a family court system that lacks transparency and accountability, and by legislators (themselves influenced by all the forces at work to devalue permanent, monogamous marriage) who either refuse, or are unable, to pass even the most benign reforms. Precisely because the system charged with enforcing “no fault” lacks transparency, a concise analysis of its impact on the marriage crisis is difficult to achieve.
What seems indisputable is that the entire family law system serves to undermine fidelity to the marriage vow. It does so directly by facilitating the destruction of marriages for any reason or no reason at all (and regardless of a spouse who remains committed). And it does so indirectly through the generational legacy of such injustices, multiplied over time, on the relationship decisions of adult children of divorce, and on broader cultural beliefs about whether it is really possible to follow through on one’s commitment to God, self, and others.
A Model of Explanation
Developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner created an explanatory model that may aid in our understanding of how these factors interact over time, and in the development of strategies to mitigate the marriage crisis. Bronfenbrenner, a father of five who was married for sixty-three years, argued that human beings develop within a nested set of relational systems that span psychological, cultural, economic, social, and political spheres. According to Bronfenbrenner, interaction within and between these systems over the lifespan matters most in producing competent, well-adjusted individuals, and thus healthy, moral societies.
His model identifies extrinsic factors and people of influence—and their interaction with one another—at four different levels of an individual’s environment. Double-headed arrows at the boundary of each concentric circle suggest the reciprocal nature of each set of influences.
The associations in the first two layers of the model—the microsystem and the mesosystem—illustrate potential near-term points of intervention in the marriage crisis. These relationships were of primary concern to Bronfenbrenner. He believed that rapid increases in single-parent families, a retreat of both parents from the home into the workplace, and an erosion of ties between families in communities were doing irrevocable harm to children.
At the center of the model is pictured a child, but it might also be a married couple. The microsystem includes people of direct influence within one’s immediate environment: parents, in-laws, siblings, teachers, ministers, church members, and friends. The second layer, the mesosystem, is where these relationships interact with each other to influence individuals, or couples. So a couple’s marriage might be independently influenced by their families of origin, peers unique to each spouse, and coworkers at their respective workplaces. But these systems may interact to impact the marriage for better or for worse over time, as when siblings, friends, parents, and in-laws encourage or discourage divorce after a significant marital struggle.
The third layer (the exosystem) shows the indirect influence of people or events outside an individual’s immediate environment. They include, among other factors, the number of divorced family friends or neighbors in one’s surroundings, the glamorization of sexual promiscuity, infidelity, divorce, homosexuality, and cohabitation in the media, and an ever-growing internet pornography industry.
Finally, widespread cultural attitudes, ideologies, and laws characterize the outermost layer of the model (the macrosystem). It is within this layer that the broadest, most entrenched factors fueling the marriage crisis reside: “no fault” divorce laws that encourage and facilitate spousal abandonment, a system of family law that no longer values marriage as an indispensable good, but which treats it as one of several equally acceptable relationship choices, and a rapid increase in the number of state laws upholding “same-sex marriage.”
As one might expect, even a limited survey of our current attitudes about traditional marriage reflects the trends already discussed: almost 40 percent of Americans believe marriage is becoming obsolete. Young adults seem to value parenthood (albeit weakly) over marriage. Moderately educated Americans are increasingly likely to view divorce and premarital sex as acceptable; they’re less likely to go to church, engage in civic activity, or demonstrate the virtues (like self-control, delayed gratification, and monogamy) associated with successful marriages. Almost 75 percent of Americans believe religion—historically a protective, strengthening influence on marriages—is a declining influence in our lives.
Clearly, the task ahead for those dedicated to promoting and strengthening faithful, lifelong marriages is an ambitious one. We might look to the pro-life movement as a successful paradigm of small steps taken within various spheres of influence over many years: from education and the development of support structures at the grassroots level (and with young people in particular), to model legislation and highly effective media campaigns.
Today, the pro-life movement is bursting at the seams with young people who have embraced a new model of commitment to life. What they desperately need now is a new model of commitment to love.
Dr. Hilary Towers is a developmental psychologist and mother of five children. Her scholarly background is in behavioral genetic research on individual adjustment behaviors and in the area of marriage and parenting relationships. She currently writes on the subjects of marriage and spousal abandonment.