The Washington Post published two rather remarkable articles on marriage over the weekend, and this deranged duo of articles reminds us, once again, that we now live in world of upside-down morality. Consider this: The paper published an article by Stephanie Coontz, a well known feminist writer, who declares, “Marriage is no longer the main way in which societies regulate sexuality and parenting or organize the division of labor between men and women.” Alert the media. Her article, “For Better, For Worse,” argues that marriage must be updated in terms of expectation and structure. Oddly enough, she is on to something in her analysis. She correctly traces the rise of a romantic notion of marriage which promises “love, intimacy, fidelity and mutual fulfilment” as a modern development. Before this romantic vision gained hold, couples considered marriage a binding institution and covenant–regardless of whether they felt fulfilled or even deeply in love. Now, with individuals demanding personal fulfillment [by their own definition] as the basis for marriage, divorce naturally provides the way out of an unfulfilling relationship. Coontz warns that a return to “traditional values” just isn’t going to happen. “People may have revered the value of universal marriage in the abstract, but most have adjusted to a different reality.” Modern persons are just unwilling “to waive their personal rights.” As she concludes, “Marriage is no longer the institution where people are initiated into sex. It no longer determines the work men and women do on the job or at home, regulates who has children and who doesn’t, or coordinates care-giving for the ill or the aged. For better or worse, marriage has beeen displaced from its pivotal position in personal and social life, and will not regain it short of a Taliban-like counterrevolution.” Guess what that makes those of us who are pushing back against the tide? Head-scarves, anyone? In an even stranger piece, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas report on their research among young unmarried mothers. In “Unmarried Because They Value Marriage,” the authors argue that many of these unmarried mothers simply value marriage so highly that they do not marry. Are you following that argument? These women are trying to “balance their marital aspirations against their strong moral views about the conditions under which it is right to marry.” Those conditions? Most are economic, and these women believe that they cannot trust a man to provide that economic security. Furthermore, they hold “a strong aversion to divorce,” and do not want to marry only to divorce shortly thereafter. Note this: “For poor single mothers, marriage has not lost its value. Quite the opposite: They revere it too much to sully it with a foolish union. The standards they expressed echoed those of middle-class Americans. The women we met wanted to wed, but they insisted on marrying well. This, in their view, is the only way to avoid divorce. Until young women have access to the trusting relationships and secure financial futures their privileged counterparts demand, they’ll invest their dreams for the future in their children, but they won’t be walking down the aisle first.” Two big lessons from these strange articles. First, when marriage is defined in terms of personal fulfillment and romantic aspiration, distress, lack of fulfillment, and the waning of romantic attraction are enough to destroy the union. We must return to a far more biblical understanding of marriage as an objective good, regardless of emotional fulfillment. Second, when men are undependable and fail to fulfill their responsibilities to protect, provide, and lead in the marriage, women will not invest trust in the relationship. How much more evidence do we need?
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