As the decorative plaque that reads “Family is Forever” and the framed photos in their living room suggest, Julia and Rob, a couple for 12 years with hopes of marriage in the future, want desperately to make a home together. Julia takes business classes online and stays home with their two sons while Rob roofs in summer and busses tables in winter. But with the stress of raising children, an unsteady income, and a history of cheating, within the month after we met them Rob’s Facebook status changed from “in a relationship” to “single” to “in a relationship” —and finally settled on “it’s complicated.” Julia and the boys have moved out and back in, and may be on their way out again. Like many young adults, Julia and Rob want a thriving family life and stable home for their children. Yet they struggle to find that security. And marriage, an institution which might offer some stability, is increasingly elusive.
The new State of Our Unions report, “When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America,” recently released by the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, affirms what we saw in Ohio where we completed 100 interviews with young people about relationships, children, and marriage – today’s new family forms too often devastate young parents and their children in Middle America. The findings suggest that stories like Julia and Rob’s are becoming more common among Middle Americans—defined in the report as the 58 percent of the population who have just a high school degree. W. Bradford Wilcox, Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, finds that among Middle Americans, in the past thirty years the proportion of children born outside of marriage skyrocketed from 13 percent to 44 percent, the chance of divorce remained high at 37 percent, and the proportion of women 25-44 who have ever cohabited rose from 39 percent to 68 percent.
Meanwhile, in upscale America—that is, the 30 percent of the adult population that is college-educated—the chance of divorce actually decreased from 15 percent to 11 percent, while other trends like cohabitation and having children out of wedlock grew at more modest rates than they did for Middle Americans. The proportion of college-educated young people having children outside of marriage rose from just 2 percent to 6 percent, while those living together increased from 35 percent to 50 percent. The bottom line: If you grow up in upscale America, you may actually be more likely today than in the recent past to grow up with your mother and father; if you grow up in Middle America, you’re far less likely to do so.
As we saw this past summer in Ohio, these statistics bode poorly for children and parents, many of whom carry the legacy of their own fragmented families. For example there is Emma, a nineteen year old whose parents never married and who spent most of her formative years dealing with her mom’s long-term boyfriend whom she calls her “on and off stepdad.” She remembers waking up in the morning to find broken glass littering the floor—debris from an argument the night before—and once even seeing a topless stripper that her “stepdad” had hired. Emma, who hopes to marry her live-in boyfriend, suggests that “it’s just easier when you have kids and you’re married … because I think people who are married would tend to try to work things out better than people who aren’t.” This nineteen year old has put her finger on an emerging trend: Cohabiting unions are far more likely to break up than married ones.
Or take Lindsay, 22, who does not believe in divorce because of what she went through when her parents divorced. But Lindsay has already experienced a painful breakup, one that might affect her daughter’s life in the same way her parent’s divorce affected her own. Fighting back tears, Lindsay told us about the ex-boyfriend that she met at a club and got pregnant with a few months later. Though they lived together for several years and planned to marry, it didn’t last. Now Lindsay is engaged to another man who also has a child from a previous partner, but she’s still reeling from the pain of her previous break-up and the knowledge that her daughter won’t know her father. Most of Lindsay’s cousins also have children outside of marriage, and most are now with partners other than the parents of their children.
Some, like Slate journalist Hanna Rosin, believe that we as a culture should adopt a laissez faire approach to the retreat from marriage in Middle America. In a recent Slate post, she asked “If it was wrong to impose the values of the sexual revolution on the pious underclass is it not wrong now to impose our love of marriage?”
In seeing the contrast between the script Middle Americans inherited from the sexual revolution and Middle American’s own priorities for children and a family, we could not disagree more. A renewed society-wide resolve to strengthen marriage is not a matter of patricians “imposing” their love of marriage on others who are resistant to marriage—it’s about helping those Americans who arguably value family the most realize their dreams of raising a flourishing, intact family. As Wilcox reports, 1993 data shows little variation by class in Americans agreeing that marriage is “very important” or “one of the most important things to them”: 76 percent of Middle Americans agree, and 79 percent of upscale Americans agree.
Middle Americans like Julia, Rob, Emma, and Lindsay often stay in their hometowns and are actively looking for lifelong love after high school. It makes sense to settle down after they’ve finished school and entered the job market—what else would they wait for? And if relatively committed relationships begin earlier in life for them, so does the desire to have children. Many Middle Americans feel strongly that having children is “what you’re put on this earth to do”—why would you deliberately postpone something so important until your late 20’s or 30’s they ask?
The other side of that question is the inherited script that has normalized sex and children outside of marriage, and for those unhappy in marriage, included assurances about the so-called good divorce. Because of that script, by the time Middle Americans are in their late 20s, they’re likely to have children outside of marriage and to have been in multiple cohabiting relationships—which hardly augurs marital success. If they do get married, whether in their early 20’s or later, their marriages are often plagued with the insecurity that comes with a marriage regime that professes “until death do us part,” but implicitly means “until our love shall last.”
It was wrong for patricians to impose the values of the sexual revolution on the “pious underclass” because the values of the sexual revolution—unrestrained sex and permissive divorce—left Middle Americans like Julia, Rob, Emma, and Lindsay staggering for stability, not because it’s somehow wrong to advocate values.
The answer is to propose the right values—namely, chastity, bearing children within marriage, and marital commitment. While those goals may seem banal to some, we should not underestimate the power of a cultural consensus among both liberals and conservatives—and the possibility of reaching such a consensus. Indeed, there is already an emerging consensus among liberals and conservatives that it would be better for society if there were fewer divorces and fewer children born outside of marriage—witness, for example, the work of former Georgia Chief Justice Leah Ward Sears (a Democrat on President Obama’s Supreme Court short list) to strengthen marriage and New York Times columnist Bob Herbert’s recent proposal that the black community begin talking about the good of marriage.
Chastity, though the most countercultural proposal of the three, finds support in new data from the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. They found that 87 percent of teenagers agree that “it is important for teens to be given a strong message that they should not have sex until they are at least out of high school.” While the data doesn’t necessarily indicate a ringing endorsement of chastity until marriage, it does suggest that teenagers await guidance from their elders on a topic that cultural elders formerly pronounced a taboo.
Whenever we call Julia and Rob’s cell phone, we’re treated to a ringtone of the country hit, “Love Like Crazy”: “Always treat your woman like a lady, Never get too old to call her baby, Never let your prayin' knees get lazy, And love like crazy.” The song tells the story of a couple who, despite those “who called them crazy when they started out,” married when they were only 17, and are now celebrating their 58th wedding anniversary. Juxtaposed to Julia and Rob’s “it’s complicated” status, the song is a jarring reminder of how the ideal of lifelong love remains prominent in Middle America’s songs and vocabulary—and increasingly rare in reality. But if marriage in important respects is getting better in upscale America, why should we aspire for anything less in Middle America?
Amber and David Lapp are co-investigators of the Love and Marriage in Middle America project based at the Institute for American Values.
State of Our Unions 2010
Leah Ward Sears, “ Let’s End Disposable Marriage”
Bob Herbert, “ This Raging Fire”
The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, With One Voice 2010