Note: In this 10 part series, Richard and Linda explore various aspects of the most important institution and commitment in the history of society-Marriage. Some of the articles analyze what is happening to marriage today, while others suggest ways to strengthen marriage. Each article is headlined with a question. The series runs here in Meridian for 10 consecutive days.
Last month the National Center for Health Statistics of the U. S. Department of Health and Human services released a large-sample recent study in which 29% of American women, ages 15 to 44 years old, said they had not yet lived with a man. Of the remaining 71%, 23% moved in with a man when they married him, and 48% simply cohabitated, living with a man to whom they were not married.
In an earlier version of the same study, done less than 20 years ago, the figures were shockingly different, with 26% who had not lived with a man, 35% who cohabitated for their first union, and 40% who married before living with someone.
So in less than two decades, the number of cohabitated first soared by 40% while those who married first declined by 42%.
The poll found that after three years, roughly one-third of cohabitating couples will marry, one-third will break up, and one-third will continue to live together unmarried. And an increasing percentage (now about 21%) of cohabitating couples have a child within the first two years of living together
Other studies show that married couples that cohabitate prior to marriage are twice as likely to divorce than those that do not. So even among the third that gets married within three years of cohabitating, chances are good that the marriage will not last.
If we make the logical assumptions that 1. the dramatic growth in cohabitating and chosen singleness and the decline in marriage will continue at about the same pace, 2. that the divorce rate will stay about the same, and 3. that the longer a couple cohabitates the less are the chances that they will marry, then the future of traditional marriage looks very, very threatened indeed.
In fact, it would mean that, statistically, the average teenage female growing up today probably has a less than 25% chance of being married to a first husband by the time she is in her forties; and a child born to a cohabitating couple has even less a chance of having two married parents by his or her teen years.
And here’s the telling thing: of the four threats to traditional marriage (the “four strikes” discussed in a previous article) divorce and gay marriage are perhaps the least threatening.
The divorce rate, while certainly too high, has leveled off in recent decades; and gay couples living together, even by the most liberal estimates, involve only 2 to 3 percent of the adult population.
It is cohabitation without marriage and chosen singleness that are growing most dramatically and pushing marriage rates to their lowest levels in history.
And both create enormous problems, particularly for children. Obviously children born to moms who elect not to marry automatically fall prey to the sobering higher likelihoods of addiction, depression and drop out that surveys indicate apply to kids raised by single parents; and children born to cohabitating couples have more than twice the chance that their parents will break up, likely in the first few years of their lives.
For those who, like we, believe that the family is the basic unit of our society and our economy and who understand that marriage is the commitment that creates and holds families together, these trends against traditional marriage are nothing short of a recipe for disaster and the harbinger of the end of stable society as we know it.
Here is the bottom line: It is not enough to rail AGAINST divorce and cohabitation and chosen singleness. That is a completely defensive strategy. We need to start fighting harder and smarter FOR the beautiful commitments and shared responsibility of traditional marriage and to make it more attractive to kids who are not growing up in the kind of homes we would like them one day to have for themselves.
We need to celebrate commitment! We need to create a Marriage Movement!
We will be doing our part in this column and at www.Valuesparenting.com. We hope you will join us!