I almost hesitate to write about this topic anymore, it unleashes such a storm of vitriol.
Only 64 percent [of children today] live with married parents, as compared to 87 percent in 1960.
Some 41 percent of babies are born out of wedlock (an eight-fold increase since 1960).
Today 72 percent of black babies are born out of wedlock.
These statistics chronicle the breakdown of the institution of marriage as a vehicle for child-rearing, especially in the black population but among Americans as a whole. And once broken, can the family—like Humpty Dumpty—ever be put back together again?
In practical terms, many of the motivations that used to foster marriages have almost entirely disappeared, or at least weakened. They were sexual, societal, and economic. When it was far more difficult for a man to have sex with a woman who wasn’t a prostitute, marriage provided sex. When it was far more difficult to be part of polite society when your “wife” was your mistress and your children that quaint old term known as “bastards,” marriage provided respectability and a community of like-minded acquaintances. And when women didn’t have many other economic options because the doors to most professions were closed to them, marriage provided financial support for them and whatever children they bore.
Notice I don’t say “then let’s go back to the good old days.” That’s because (a) in many ways they weren’t so good; and (b) even if we wanted to, it doesn’t work that way. You go through certain doors and they close behind you.
On that recent thread on this topic, a few commenters jumped in to say that divorce should be made more difficult, including the elimination of no-fault divorce and a return to a fault basis (at present, all states—including New York, the last straggler—have no-fault divorce as an option).
I don’t see fault divorce as a solution for a host of reasons, among them the following:
(a) Fault divorce often encouraged perjury, because the majority of divorces even then did not involve marital “offenses” such as an affair, and such events had to be staged and lied about. This will occur if no-fault divorce is eliminated. Most people will get out of marriages if they need to and want to, and fault divorce will not stop them.
(b) Fault divorce did not exist in a vacuum. It occurred in the context of the other incentives for marriage mentioned above. These are now largely gone. Therefore, if divorce becomes slightly more complicated to obtain and fault-based, one of the possible results is that the marriage rate will go down even further. Why marry at all?
Why, indeed? If you watch TLC’s TV show “Say Yes to the Dress” (as I must confess I sometimes do), the answer would appear to be, at least for some women: “so I can wear a sexy wedding gown that costs big bucks.”
That’s the cynical answer. The real answer is because it addresses human needs in one of the deepest ways possible, one that has stood the test of time and is probably the best way to further the stability and happiness of children. And the well-being of children is necessary for the continuation of any productive society.