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Marriage’s demise exaggerated

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Perhaps the most famous political photograph of the 20th century is that of a triumphant Harry Truman, just after his 1948 presidential election, holding up an early edition of the Chicago Tribune emblazoned with the headline "DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN." The Tribune missed the real story because it had drawn the wrong inferences from the polling data.

Several major news outlets have recently headlined the demise of marriage. In June, Newsweek ran a major article called "The Case Against Marriage," and Time magazine's cover story on Nov. 29, 2010, was "Who Needs Marriage?" We believe that they have missed the real story by drawing premature and incorrect inferences from the polling data. Although threatened, marriage is alive and well.

Admittedly, traditional marriage continues to be threatened from several fronts. These trends have been highlighted most recently in a Pew Research Center report titled "The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families."

The Pew report demonstrates how in America (which continues to have the highest marriage rate in the Western industrialized world) three trends that began in the 1960s are gradually reducing the total percentage of married adults in American society: postponement of marriage, cohabitation and divorce.

What many news outlets jumped on was the "finding" that marriage in America is becoming "obsolete." Really? Let's look at the data for that finding.

Pew reprised a question originally asked by Time magazine in 1978: "Some people say that the present institution of marriage is becoming obsolete. Do you agree or disagree?" In 2010, slightly less than 4 out of 10 respondents agreed, compared to about 3 out 10 respondents 22 years ago.

It is very hard to infer much from this one vague question. Consider that self-described "conservatives" were just as likely to agree with the statement as the broader general public. So, someone bemoaning social changes might agree that the statement accurately describes what is happening, but they are not necessarily endorsing the trend. Too many commentators equated laments and cheers.

More instructive is a close look at all of the data in this well-constructed report while considering the cultural attacks against marriage over the last half-century. In that context, what actually emerges is an account of the amazing resilience of the ideals of marriage.

Instead of abandoning marriage, Americans remain overwhelming optimistic about the institution of marriage and the family (67 percent). According to the Pew report, we still consider marriage as vitally important for love, lifelong commitment, companionship and raising children. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of Americans think it easier for married adults to raise children and consider the children of divorced parents as having more challenges to overcome.

What actually spills through the pages of the report is a yearning for marriage. For example, the majority of adults living together considered cohabitation a step toward marriage (64 percent) and an even larger percentage (69 percent) believe that they will eventually marry their partner.

And when respondents focus on the characteristics of a good husband or wife, commitment to parenting, family and compassion outweigh concerns about a potential partner's income, education and sexual compatibility.

The Pew report identifies an interesting breakdown in marriage rates and attitudes by class showing proportional correlations between education, income and marriage. Some reports have noted this finding to suggest that marriage may no longer be a viable institution for the poor. But, that would be true only if we wanted the poor to stay poor. The conclusion ignores other studies suggesting that committed marriage itself and the behaviors it fosters help individuals to avoid impoverishment.

And it is precisely because of the clear socio-economic cleavage in the data that we believe marriage's demise is grossly overstated. Americans want prosperity and friendship. When given the knowledge, skills and freedom to pursue their goals, they do amazing things to achieve them. When Americans genuinely rediscover that committed marriage is their best opportunity for lifelong companionship, successful childrearing and preservation of hard-earned wealth, we believe there will be a resurgence in efforts to benefit from, nurture and protect it.