From a purely empirical point of view, marriage matters tremendously. Children who are raised by two biological parents do dramatically better, on average, than children who get the advantage of only one biological parent. Yes, it’s possible that a high-conflict marriage or an abusive marriage is worse than divorce for children (though statistically I don’t think that’s proven), and yes, it’s possible that divorcing parents who act nicely to each other may greatly reduce the injuries their children suffer (though I don’t think you can demonstrate that statistically either). And yes, I know that some marriages are so hopeless that permanent separation or divorce is the only real possibility. All the same, let’s not kid ourselves. Marriages that last are far better, on average, than any other environment for children.
But then, who needs convincing? Certainly not the people who line up to get married in elaborate ceremonies every summer. They want their marriages to last. In fact, most of them have a hard time imagining how they wouldn’t.
Heck, even single parents—the 17-year-old mothers who dropped out of high school to have their baby, the 25-year-old father of three kids by three different women—they too think fondly of marriage that lasts. It didn’t happen to work out in their case, but they aren’t quite done hoping that it might yet.
Everybody wants good marriages, but these days nobody knows how to make them. This is the major reason the devastating statistics about the impact of marriage and divorce on kids aren’t widely known. What’s the point of disseminating bad news if you don’t know what to do about it?
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think nobody knows how to stop the wild acceleration of divorce, cohabitation and single parenting in America. Don’t look to Planned Parenthood for help. And don’t look to churches, either, since for all their emphasis on lasting marriages, their performance level is only marginally higher than the rest of society.
Too many factors work against marriage:
-the eroticization of everything
-the idolization of individual choice, individual pleasure and individual destiny
-the rise of co-ed everything, and the increased possibility of unfettered privacy for unmarried couples
-the normalization of premarital sex
-the normalization of cohabitation
-the normalization of divorce
American society places a premium on individual satisfaction, while broadcasting a view of life that puts sex at the apex. With easy opportunity for sex, and no societal barriers to either sex or cohabitation between willing adolescents or adults, normalcy has been redefined to mean a variety of sexual relationships with marriage as a possible addition—a capstone to the best of relationships.
If you don’t find the best of relationships, you can have plenty of sex anyway. And if the best of relationships at some point stops being the best of relationships, you can drop the marriage. It always was optional.
Some heroic individuals will resist that—today’s New York Times has an article about Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and his plan to wait until marriage to have sex—but they are quite unusual. And truthfully, marriage is difficult. Relationships are difficult. They always have been. Most things that matter are. Without much societal support, don’t expect a dramatic change in the failure rate.
So what do we do?
We keep fighting. The value of marriage is too great to give up.
The fight goes on at two levels. One is to help marriages through their difficulties. Beginning with premarital counseling, and going on through classes and literature and mentoring and personal counseling, we do everything we can to help couples make strong marriages, and keep them strong.
Another level is through teaching. Two things matter, and we have to keep telling people that they matter.
Young people, rather naturally, will not agree with their elders on all kinds of lifestyle questions. They will want to listen to and sing different music, they will dabble in different religious pathways and will experiment with drugs and alcohol. They will entertain new ideas that horrify their parents. They will tattoo their bodies and wear clothes intended to shock. They will use terrible language. They will gamble. They will smoke cigars. All of these matter, but they can be undone.
Marriage cannot be undone. It is too serious to “get over.” That is among the implications of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19: 1-12.
Sex cannot be undone, either. This is the point Paul tried to get across to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). When two people have sex there is an exchange that affects both persons’ core. There is simply no room for experimentation, in Paul’s view. Sex is never casual.
One might add that children cannot be undone. Marriage leads to children. Sex leads to children. The consequences for those children of marriages that do not last, or sex that is uncommitted, are absolutely immense.
It’s not just for children’s sake that we say these things, however. In fact, it’s notable that the Scriptures hardly mention children in these matters. The things themselves—marriage and sex—have overwhelming and irreversible impact on the people involved.
There is a better way, We live in a society that works powerfully against that way, and no group, no individual, is immune from society’s impact. But then, no group and no individual is immune from the next pandemic. We still do our best to fight the plague.