The Shaky State of Families

Some Signs of Hope, but Many Problems Remain

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NEW YORK, FEB. 21, 2004 (Zenit.org).- Many defenders of traditional marriage fear that giving formal legal recognition to homosexual couples would only further weaken an institution already debilitated by several decades of anti-family tendencies.



The annual report on the state of marriage in the United States, released last June by the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, provided a mix of good and bad news. The central theme examined in the report was the state of marriage as a child-rearing institution.

The report had some positive news on the state of families. The percentage of children in households with married parents showed a marginal increase, to 69% from 68%. Importantly, this was the first reversal in such figures for decades. For black children, the percentage living with married parents increased to 39% from 34% in the period 1996-2002. The proportion of unwed births among black women declined, from 70.4% in 1994 to 68.5% in 2001.

The report, authored by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, commented on the importance of this change: "A robust body of social science evidence indicates that children do best when they grow up with both married biological parents who are in a low-conflict relationship." They said the improvement showed that the four-decade decline in marriage can change for the better. But they cautioned: "It is too early to say whether this turnaround is here to stay."

Parental ties

On the negative side, the report observed a weakening of the connection between marriage as a relationship between couples, and marriage as a parental union. These two elements were traditionally united. Yet now, "the couple relationship is increasingly independent of the procreative and parental partnership."

One consequence of seeing personal happiness as the principal function of marriage is, ironically, an increase in divorce. In the past, couples would often stay together for the sake of the children. Today, notes the report, only 15% of the population agree that "when there are children in the family, parents should stay together even if they don't get along." The data back up these observations:

-- About a third of all children and more than two-thirds of black children are born out of wedlock.

-- An estimated 40% of all children today are expected to spend some time in a cohabiting couple household during their growing-up years.

-- Roughly a million children each year experience parental divorce and its aftermath.

Turning this situation around will not be easy, notes the report. The authors cite evidence demonstrating that for many single young adults the connection between marriage and parenthood is fading. In fact, while marriage used to come before parenthood in the sequence of events, today, in many cases, the sequence is reversed.

Another cause for concern is that men are "increasingly disengaged from daily tasks of nurturing and providing for their children." In general, men are staying single for longer before marrying, having more children out of wedlock, cohabiting rather than marrying, and divorcing in large numbers. No fewer than 18% of men aged 35 to 44 today have never married, compared with 7% in 1970.

In the midst of these changes, children have suffered disproportionately, concludes the report. When no-fault divorce was introduced, little thought was given to the consequences on children. Moreover, social welfare measures are no substitute for a stable two-parent family, affirms the report.

Among the many studies cited by the authors to show how children have suffered is a review of social indicators between 1975 and 1998. This study found that the indices for social relationships and emotional/spiritual well-being "show long-term declines across the three decades studied." The study concludes that improvements in other areas of children's lives have been offset by declining levels of emotional well-being.

Aging brides

The United States is not alone in its problems with marriage. A press release Nov. 20 by Statistics Canada revealed that the number of couples who got married in Canada declined sharply in 2001.

A total of 146,618 couples tied the knot, down 6.8% from 157,395 in 2000. The number of marriages had risen in 1999 and 2000, but the figures for 2001 saw a return to the decline experienced in previous years.

The average age at marriage continued to rise. On average, brides were 31.9 years old in 2001, up 2.6 years from 1991 and 5.7 years from 1981. The average age of grooms was 34.4 in 2001, an increase of 2.6 years from 1991 and 5.6 years from 1981.

Three-quarters (76.4%) of the marriages performed in 2001 were presided over by clergy. This number rose to 81% when it was a first marriage for both the bride and groom.

Meanwhile, statistics for England and Wales showed an increase of 2%, to 291,800, in the number of marriages in 2002, the London daily Times reported Feb. 13. However, the number was boosted by the number of remarriages. In 2002, just under a fifth of the ceremonies (46,700) were remarriages for both parties.

In its report on the data, the Telegraph on Jan. 30 drew attention to the long-term decline in marriage. Numbers have steadily declined since the 1972 peak, at 480,000. Marriage has increasingly been supplanted by cohabitation. The proportion of women under 60 cohabiting has more than doubled, from 13% in 1986 to 28% in 2001.

Spain, where marriage is better off than in the United States or the United Kingdom, is also facing a deteriorating situation. Cohabitation now accounts for more than 10% of the couples under age 50, the daily El País reported Feb. 2. According to a study carried out by the Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, cohabitation is now considered by young people to be a normal steppingstone to marriage.

73% cohabiting

In fact, the number of couples cohabitating has more than doubled since 1995. This is reflected in the numbers of children born outside marriage -- 19.5% of children born in 2001, versus 9.6% in 1990 -- according to government statistics.

Divorce is also a growing problem in Spain. Since divorce was allowed in a 1981 law, some 4 million, about 10% of the total population, have been affected by divorce, the Madrid daily ABC reported Oct. 29. Of those affected, more than 1 million are children.

In Australia, the situation is also worrying. Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that the trend toward couples living together was continuing, with 73% cohabiting before marrying, compared with 30% in 1982, the Age newspaper reported Nov. 26.

Of the population aged 15 years and over, 8.4 million were married, 4.9 million never married, 940,000 widowed and 1.1 million divorced. The largest proportional increase over the past 20 years was in the divorced population, increasing by 172% between 1981 and 2001. There were also about 760,000 single parents in 2002, up from around 670,000 in 1996, the Australian data show.

Marriage is worthy of support, commented John Paul II in his Jan. 29 address to the Roman Rota, because "of the objective good that every conjugal union and every family represents." Right now it needs all the help it can get.