In The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, author Maggie Gallagher wrote: "Optimism is America's birthright. ... There is no social problem Americans dare not attack. No problem, that is, except one: about marriage, and marriage alone, we despair."
If we resist attacking marriage as a social problem, it may be because of another American birthright -- independence. Americans view marriage not as a social concern, but as a personal affair. Even our eternal optimism makes us the world's most hopeless romantics, assuming an individual right to love in pursuit of "happily ever after."
But when President Bush announced his plan to spend $1.5 billion to bolster traditional marriages, primarily among the poor, he nodded not only to a conservative base making same-sex marriage a 2004 wedge issue, but also to a far-reaching industry. A diverse set of new revolutionaries -- conservative think tanks, "family values" religious groups, businesses, fathers'-rights advocates, university scholars, policy wonks, pundits and politicos -- comprise a "marriage movement" that is pushing the personal into the political.
Call to arms
The United States leads the free world in divorce, teen pregnancy, domestic violence and child poverty. Cohabitation of unwed couples rose more than tenfold since 1960. And though divorce rates leveled off in the '80s and out-of-wedlock births have been declining since the early '90s, marriage movement proponents believe the American family is in a state of emergency and in need of government resuscitation.
Convinced that social ills are a symptom of marital breakdown, the marriage movement employs public and private strategies to prop up marriage as the bedrock of society. Tactics include a slew of books arguing the merits of marriage and harm of divorce; policy position papers and media talking points; local proposals to make divorce more difficult to obtain; and statewide efforts ranging from ad campaigns to wedding bonuses to marriage education.
Backed by Bush's pledge to protect marriage as a sacred union between a man and a woman, a vocal contingent has made the Federal Marriage Amendment their movement's call to arms, championing a constitutional ban on homosexual marriage.
Leaders of marriage education -- the most promising and least controversial of the movement strategies -- are the University of Denver's Scott Stanley and Howard Markman. Their oft-cited research has reaped millions in federal grants and supports the tenet that marriage as a social stabilizer is in America's best interest.
Good for men
According to Stanley, co-author with Markman of 12 Hours to a Great Marriage: A Step-by-Step Guide for Making Love Last, the movement's central aim is to "re-create a culture that values marriage and has accurate expectations regarding it."
"If culture moves further and further away from valuing marriage, women will experience, by far, the worst of that, having kids without fathers," says Stanley, co-director of DU's Center for Marital and Family Studies, a research arm of the university's psychology department. Some of his and Markman's current research centers on cohabitation, commitment and sacrifice. Their conclusion: Marriage makes men better men, which benefits everyone.
"Marriage changes men substantially on how they behave and think about women and children," Stanley says. "Cohabitation does not change that. Young men earn more and achieve more, and are more willing to sacrifice, when they marry."
While the marriage movement has strong roots in religion and political conservatism, Stanley says liberal fear of a fundamentalist agenda is misguided. "The government side of things has risen now largely independent of that."
Likewise, he says, libertarian fears of bureaucratic costs are unfounded. "Government's already massively involved in marriage," he says. "If you don't form one or it comes apart, there are government expenditures related to marriage. "
In the marriage movement, Stanley continues, conservatives and liberals have found ways to meet in the middle. "Conservatives got there more ideologically and liberals have been more data driven, finding that changes in family structure present advantages and disadvantages for children.
More researchers, Stanley explains, are willing to say structure does matter. "Not everything's equal. A core belief of the marriage movement is in the importance of a stable marriage as the best platform to raise children, even while recognizing that many single parents are doing a terrific job."
More than 25 years ago, Markman and Stanley were among the first to conduct long-term studies of couples to determine predictors of marital distress and divorce. From that, they developed the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP), which offers an empirical basis for teaching couples the skills and principles in having a healthy marriage. The U.S. Navy, U.S. Army and even Norway have adapted the approach, which also is instrumental in the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative.
Backed by a growing body of research, Stanley says the marriage movement contends that "healthy marriages are beneficial to adults, children and society at large, and believes it's worth expending efforts and resources to broadly reverse the trend to marital decay."
Sexist and simplistic
Declaring "healthy marriages" the centerpiece of welfare reform, the Bush administration proposed $1.5 billion over five years to promote marriage.
Funding the social experiment is hotly debated, especially with an estimated 430,000 children projected to lose child-care subsidies during that same period.
Also controversial is a budget increase -- to $140 million annually -- for abstinence-until-marriage education. Both abstinence-only and marriage-promotion initiatives fall under a primary goal of the 1996 Welfare Reform Act: to increase the number of children born to and raised by married parents.
Although marriage education can be substituted for some of the increased job-requirement hours women must fulfill to collect their welfare benefits, many supporters of marriage and family remain skeptical.
"Marriage is not a central intervention if the father is unemployed or involved with the criminal justice system, drug addiction, depression or is suicidal," says renowned marriage expert John Gottman, who was Markman's doctoral adviser at Indiana University. "Couples need sensitive technicians with proper screening, detection, referral and follow-up."
Lynn Parker, an associate professor of social work at Denver University, says using marriage promotion for poverty intervention is sexist and simplistic.
"Most marriage programs are designed for white, middle-class families, including PREP," says Parker, who takes her graduate students to Mexico to study the connection between global relations and poverty. "Would we go down there [Cuernavaca] and offer a marriage workshop? These women are living in tents.
"Putting public monies into marriage promotion instead of access to education, jobs, healthcare, elder care -- access to what it takes to make it in U.S. society -- is problematic.
"I do believe all people need skills and tools for maintaining healthy relationships, including anger management and violence prevention," continues Parker, whose research focuses on power, privilege and oppression in therapeutic work with couples and families.
However, most relationship workshops and counseling programs tend to reinforce the status quo, or inequity between partners, vs. calling into question how power and privilege operate in relationships and society, Parker says.
"Marriage and family life, as a whole has not been very just, or equitable, for women," Parker emphasizes. "Any implication that people are on the welfare rolls because they lack relationship skills misses important social realities.
"Many women leave relationships to escape domestic abuse, and many are on welfare because too many fathers do not pay their court-ordered child support."
Making smart choices
Although Stanley says a generation of women has been taught marriage doesn't matter, Parker notes, "Most young women still expect they'll be married for life and have a husband to support them and their children. This expectation is still alive in the face of a 50-percent divorce rate for first marriages and a 60-percent rate for second."
Both liberals and conservatives agree that most people want to get married, says Stanley, a primary force behind marriage education offered statewide in Oklahoma, including in high schools, churches, youth services, prisons and welfare workshops.
Because welfare penalties discourage marriage, Stanley says some on the liberal side think of poor people and marriage in classical equal-access terms.
According to Stanley, marriage education for welfare recipients and female prisoners shifts to relationship skills to "help women think through better choices in the future."
"No one stands up in front of these groups and says, 'Go find a husband,'" he says. "Rather, the approach is more 'If, like most people you might want this in your future, let's look at how you can make better decisions through reasonable expectations.'
"It's not okay to be beaten up. It's not smart to get pregnant with some guy who doesn't want a future or is a bad risk."
"Who's against helping people who want to get married to get married?" asks Stephanie Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families. "We should remove all built-in disincentives. The earned-income tax credit goes down significantly when you add a second income. Always, the devil's in the details. Some states are giving $100 bonuses to marry. That's scary. Those who are so desperate where $100 makes a difference, marriage could be very counterproductive."
Maureen Farrell, executive director of Colorado Center for Law and Policy, maintains that while marriage is important, it's a matter of choice.
"The Bush administration throws around 'healthy marriages' but doesn't put resources into healthy," Farrell says. "The Minnesota welfare program inadvertently increased marriages by working to meet people's needs: job training, education, child care, healthcare. That created less stress and actually helped marriages and families."
Some believe the marriage movement is about elevating yesterday's marriage in today's world. Whereas marriage began as an economic, political and social arrangement, Americans now marry for a romantic ideal of true love and happiness.
Fran Dickson, associate professor and chair of the human communications department at Denver University, researched 50 couples married for a minimum of 50 years to get their relationship stories. She says themes emerged among those still fond of each other at the end of their lives, including having developed a common vision, such as his career or education for their kids.
"Strategies may follow through to today, but they did not have dual careers or changing gender roles," Dickson says. "Technology and transportation alone impact the way we do relationships.
"They can teach us how they did marriage with dignity, but kids today have it harder," she continues. "We have higher expectations about life. These couples survived World War II, the Depression. We're more willing now to move on, to try something new."
During that era, economic constraints and severe social implications made divorce a near-impossible option. Now, says Dickson, who is divorced from Markman, "I'm not sure divorce is bad. We live longer -- in a different society. The institution of marriage is different. We change more. Different life stages reconstitute each other's needs. How we get our relational needs met may change as well. We're serially monogamous today. When I was researching them I thought, 'This is literally a dying phenomena.' We're not going to see couples celebrating their 50th anniversary."
Coontz, the author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, and a professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Washington state, underscores the reality factor.
"Marriage has changed more in the past 50 years than in the last 5,000," she says. "Whether you want it to be or think it ought to be, marriage is no longer the main institution that organizes people's transitions through life. At least a third, probably half, of America's kids is raised at some time outside of marriage. People spend half their lives outside of marriage as adults. "
Marriage now is a voluntary institution. "We can tell people about its benefits 'till we're blue in the face, but we're not going to change that marriage occupies a much smaller space in social life than before," she says.
The problem, Coontz adds, is there has been a historic change in the nature of marriage. "The U.S. has much worse consequences, such as child poverty, than any other industrial country. One could say the more moralistic you are about family life, the worse you seem to do. The only place it's gone backward is in Afghanistan under the Taliban. We're not going to turn the trend around here without some wrenching fundamentalist reaction.
"It's not a question of what values can we come up with to prevent family diversity, but what can we come up with to minimize the consequences of family change."
Parker also notes that promoting marriage leaves out too many people -- i.e., heterosexual privilege is underscored and alternative family forms are marginalized. "I agree healthy, nonviolent families do serve as a cornerstone of society," she says. "I worry about the political implications of the current focus on promoting heterosexual marriage to the exclusion of other family forms, such as homosexual relationships and extended family kinships."
"It's interesting that this issue of marriage promotion is being addressed through welfare," Farrell says. "If we're going to be honest, we need a whole separate bill that addresses this as a societal issue.
"It's not just low-income people who are impacted, but it's easy to get into the public light that way without causing a stir. It allows groups with a moral and religious agenda to push traditional marriage. I think if most people thought they were targeted, they would tell government to stay out of our lives."
As bad as racism
Gottman, who with his wife founded the Gottman Institute for couples therapy and research, says he has trouble with the religious-right overtone of the marriage movement that opposes unions outside of traditional marriage.
"I think opposing gay and lesbian relationships is immoral," he says. "Homophobic is as bad as racism and sexism. Longitudinal research shows we have lots to learn from them in relationships. We should honor love wherever we find it."
Parker also encourages the move toward inclusiveness. "What they [Markman and Stanley] have is good and helpful and can offer solid strategies for conflict management," she says. "But we need to be practicing those skills in all our relational interactions, not just in marriage."
According to Theodora Ooms, senior policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, research shows children do better when raised within a healthy marriage, but realistically there will always be single parents. A proponent of a marriage-plus policy approach, she says programs like PREP cannot only help people who plan to marry, but also help those unmarried, separated and divorced to cooperate as parents.
Ooms says PREP is one of the best such programs in the nation, "but it [marriage education] is not a silver bullet. The research basis is strong and the evaluations are promising. But when you talk about adapting it for government programs -- and for larger numbers of people, particularly low-income and people of color -- the jury's still out.
"Still we need to find out by trying it out," she says. "This is really promising intervention in an area we have too long neglected -- that is strengthening relationships between parents whether they are married or not married."
Author Lara Riscol is currently writing Ten Sex Myths That Screw America. This article originally appeared in Denver University Magazine.
"There never was a golden age of family life. It's time to stop arguing about the relative merits of ideal family types and have a serious discussion about how to build the support systems that modern families need."
In 1960, 1 child in 3 lived in poverty.
Fewer than half the students who entered high school in the late 1940s ever finished.
From 1950 to 1959 there were 257,455 cases of polio, mostly in children; 11,957 died.
In 1940, 1 child in 10 did not live with either birth parent. Today, the figure is 1 in 25.
A higher proportion of people today report their marriage is happy than they did in 1957.
A woman over 35 has a better chance of marrying today than she did in the 1950s.
In the mid-1950s, 25 percent of the total population -- and 50 percent of black families -- lived below the poverty line.
In 1952, there were 2 million more wives working outside the home than at the peak of WWII.
One-half of the marriages that began in the 1950s ended in divorce.
During the 1950s, more than 2 million married couples lived separately.
In 1957, there were more than twice as many births to girls and young women aged 15-19 than in 1983.
The number of illegitimate babies put up for adoption rose 80 percent from 1944 to 1955.
In 1959, one-third of American children -- and one-quarter of all Americans -- was poor.
Stereotypes vs. statistics Data on America's changing families
Family life in America at the beginning of the 21st century is immensely more complex than it was 50 years ago. Yet despite dramatic changes in the social landscape, the nation's laws and regulations are written with the 1950s model of the family in mind.
39 percent of all American women and
30 percent of all children are likely to
spend time as part of a stepfamily.
Single Parent Families
9 million families with children under 18
are headed by a single parent, a 200 percent increase since 1970.
18 million adult children live with their
parents, 43 percent more than in 1970.
1.8 million households consist of
gay or lesbian couples.
1.4 million children have neither a mother nor a father present in their home.
Households caring for an elderly parent
1 in 4 in 1998 vs. 1 in 12 in 1988.
Percentage of women 40 or older who can expect to get retirement benefits on the job
9 percent Source: Council on Contemporary Families