Modern Love, American Style

In January, the New York Times proudly announced that, for the first time ever, the majority of American woman are not married ($link).  As it turned out, the paper's conclusions were a wee bit premature.  Sam Roberts, the article's author, had included in his unmarried majority (1) 15 through 19 year olds, who haven't married in large numbers since about 1960; (2) military wives separated from their husbands by war, not divorce; and (3) elderly widows who had devoted the bulk of their adult lives to marriage and really shouldn't be included in a list of women rejecting the institution.  The truth is that 56% of American women are currently married.  It's not a large majority, but it's a majority.  Indeed, Michael Medved asserts that 94% of American women will eventually try marriage. 

The whole analysis about how many women are currently married still begs one very simple question: In our modern age, why are Americans even bothering to get married?  It's a question worth asking because, one after another, the reasons people might once have given for marriage - whether reproductive, economic, social or religious - seem to have fallen away. 

Take for example the foundational reason for marriage in Western culture: the biological imperative to "be fruitful and multiply."  Not only was this an overriding physical compulsion, it also, of necessity, became entangled with pre-modern economics affecting women. 

Although it may be hard for people who came of age after the Sexual Revolution to appreciate, sex and babies used to march hand in hand.  In the 19th Century, if she didn't die trying, the average women had seven children, and that's not even counting failed pregnancies.  These numbers were unrelated to wealth or class.  Queen Anne of England (1665-1714) had at least eighteen pregnancies, although she achieved only five living children (all of whom predeceased her).  Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (Marie Antoinette's mother) gave birth to sixteen living children.  While some may try to deny it, the fact remains that children are our natural biological destiny, and sexual relations the instrument for filling that destiny.

In the pre-birth control era, women unlucky enough to have children out of wedlock knew that they and their children would become social outcasts - a grim fact we all confronted during painful high school sessions analyzing Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.  In solidly middle class circles, this disgrace could even extend to a gentleman who preyed on women from his own social class, something Jane Austen demonstrated in Sense & Sensibility.  These social stigmas meant that men and women who did not wish social opprobrium for themselves or their children, but who nevertheless wished to engage in sexual relations, had a single option:  marriage.

Nowadays, of course, children seem entirely disconnected from marriage.  The risk of pregnancy is no longer a reason to refrain from premarital sexual conduct.  Even the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, which used to be another inevitable risk of promiscuous premarital intercourse is, in theory (if not in fact), resolved with healthy doses of condoms or antibiotics. 

And while childless couples of old were more to be pitied than censured, in certain circles today they're lauded for their socially-conscious choice to limit population growth.  Of course, the downside of this marital restraint (or selfishness, depending on your viewpoint) is the type of negative population growth that is decimating first world countries such as Japan, Russia, Italy and Germany, with all the resultant demographic problems wholesale population loss brings. 

The nexus between marriage and children has also become ridiculously politicized in our times because of the gay marriage debate.  One of the reasons traditionalists have advanced for opposing gay marriage is the procreative aspect of heterosexual marriage.  Now, however, thanks to socially accepted gay adoption and impersonal insemination, that's an increasingly shaky argument. 

To highlight the modern disconnect between heterosexual marriages and children, gay marriage proponents in Washington state are pushing for a ballot initiative that, while mandating heterosexual marriage, invalidates any such marriages if there are no children within three years.  It's viewed as a very clever political joke amongst those who care, but even gay political provocateurs can't be completely oblivious to the fact that, with the exception of marriages involving post-menopausal women, all heterosexual marriages have the potential for children within the relationship, even if that potential is never fulfilled.

In the old days, it was also impossible to separate children from economics.  Putting aside the rich folks' habit of arranging marriages to preserve vast fortunes or enhance dynastic delusions, your average mother needed a father to support her children.  Marriage was the father's public acknowledgment that a woman and her children were his financial responsibility. 

One could argue, of course, that it wasn't childbearing but, rather, the bias against working women that constituted the economic handicap.  That facile analysis, however, ignores the reality that, in the pre-industrial and early industrial eras, men's labor outside of the home demanded enormous brute strength, while women's labor inside the home (spinning, weaving, cooking, etc.) was time-consuming and highly specialized.  With the exception of affluent houses employing poor female servants (who, in turn, had to deny their own sexuality and need for children), women's household contributions were too valuable to run the risk that a paying job would distract them from these survival necessities.

The late industrial era, which brought with it a plethora of white collar jobs, as well as labor saving devices in the home, for the first time enabled women to work and have children, without bothering with a husband.  Nowadays, well over 55% of American women older than 15 work outside the home, with women outnumbering men in white collar jobs.  It's gotten to the point where women who opt not to work are denigrated as the feminist equivalent of slackers.

Religion also used to be a driving force in encouraging marriage.  In prior, highly religious eras, marriage's role as a sacrament (Catholicism), a Biblical requirement that also constitutes the highest form of happiness (Judaism) or a covenant before God (Protestant), meant that marriage was incumbent upon people of faith.  In other words, people got married because God said they should - a divine mandate that was in and of itself a sufficient reason for marriage. 

Today, however, while 92% of American people claim to believe in God, the fact that over 90% of Americans have participated in premarital sex at some time in their lives means that an awful lot of religious people have their hands in the nookie jar without benefit of marriage.  Apparently it's one thing to want a religious service when you finally decide to get married; it's another thing entirely to have religion itself drive you to the altar.

The last major reason people traditionally got married was that, no doubt due to the above forces, society insisted that they wed.  Social institutions were geared towards matching up young people, whether through the marriage mart at Almacks, a high society cotillion, a small town box social, or the shtetl's matchmaking yenta.  In post-WWII American, educational institutions were also prime societal institutions promoting marriage, a fact aptly demonstrated by the 1950s joke that young American women went to college to get an M.R.S. degree.  Today, the atmosphere on many college campuses is so ill-disposed towards men, and so supportive of women engaging in a loving relationship with their own external sexual organs, it's surprising female college students even want to be in the same room with men by the time they graduate.

In the larger world, too, outside of colleges and universities, major segments of American popular culture, rather than supporting the institution of marriage, are downright hostile to it, a topic that can be summed up in one word:  Brangelina.

The funny thing, though, even as the traditional reasons for marriage have been swept away, Americans still optimistically embrace marriage.  In 2005, the last year for which such numbers are available, at least 2,230,000 adult Americans got married.  And thinking about it, it seems as if a couple of the old-time reasons still see Americans stampeding to the altar:  children and economics. 

Even during the 1990s, the most accelerated growth time for single-parent families, only 7% of all American households were headed by a single mother, with traditional families outnumbering single-mom households by three to one.  Significantly, though, the last years of the 20th Century saw a decline in the hitherto rapid growth of single-parent families, and a slow increase in traditional, two-parent households.

This trend shouldn't be surprising.  More and more studies confirm that, unless the two parent household is nightmarishly dysfunctional, children do better in a home with both a father and a mother

Children from two-parent families are better off emotionally, socially and economically, according to a review of marriage research released today in The Future of Children, a journal published jointly by the non-partisan Brookings Institution and Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School.

Only in recent years has research shown the benefits of couples staying together; long-term studies on the children of divorce were not available earlier. But Census data show that single-parent families have increased while two-parent families have decreased.

The economics of children still matter, too, when it comes to marriage.  In the middle class circles in which I travel, women recognize that, even though they can theoretically ascend the same economic ladder as their male peers, they inevitably fall off that ladder once they have children.  Pregnancy is exhausting, and having children around is even more so.  If a woman wishes to raise her children in accord with middle class standards (safe neighborhood, good schools, cultural exposure), she's going to need a partner to help pay the way - or else work herself to death, all the while exposing her children to the above-mentioned downside risks of a single parent home. 

While women of a certain generation were assured that they could "bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never, ever let you forget you're a man," the sad fact is that this glowing 1970s adulation for the new feminist woman falls apart in the face of a working mother's fatigue and resentment.  It turns out that, in the real world, it doesn't work very well for most families if the husband continues to play Ward Cleaver, and brings home a paycheck, but the wife is expected to be both Ward and June, right down to the pearls and fresh-baked cookies.  So many modern couples, therefore, fall back on traditional roles, a tradition that starts with marriage.

There's one more reason Americans get married, a reason that connects us very directly to our saccharine Victorian ancestors.  It turns out that nothing in our vulgar, hard-driving, pragmatic culture has changed the fact that Americans are romantics at heart.  You can see this in the fact that, although they're often quite bad, Hollywood still cranks out huge numbers of romantic movies (including the incredibly bawdy The 40 Year Old Virgin).  Hollywood does this, not because of an altruistic desire to support American marriages (see the Brangelina thing, above), but because these movies sell well.

Hollywood isn't the only market proving that, for Americans, romance matters.  Although they're not great literature, romance books comprise more than 53% of the mass paperback market and sell better than any other single market genre.  Even more surprising, while women comprise the largest readership for these books, the market for male romance readers is expanding.  (Perhaps some men are seeking an antidote to the current raunch culture that cheapens all male-female relationships.)  Nor has the love song ever gone out of style, with a significant number of songs on your average song chart still lauding love.  And every Valentine's Day, Americans spend more and more money to appreciate, entice or honor the one they love. 

So this Valentine's Day, celebrate love, American style:  propose to your girlfriend, kiss your wife or your husband, spend a happy evening with your children.  Whatever you do, remember that, in America, love has never gone out of fashion.

Bookworm is proprietor of the blog Bookworm Room.