Columnists > Voices
Elizabeth Cole

A vanishing breed

What will happen to society if dismal marriage trends continue?

Issue: "Realities: 2011-2020," Jan. 15, 2011

I once enjoyed the privilege of visiting Greece, where antiquity is so thick even the Athens subway tunnels are museums. But it was at Mycenae that I felt history's weight. And no wonder: Mycenae, stranded on the rolling plains of the southern coast, is one of the first beachheads of Western civilization.

It was from here that the Greeks sailed to Troy to wage their legendary war. According to Homer, the expedition almost failed before it started: Thwarted by unfavorable winds, King Agamemnon was driven to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the gods, an act for which his wife Clytemnestra never forgave him. Ten years later, when the king returned, she and her lover murdered him-loosing a chain of events dramatized ca. 500 B.C. by the great Athenian playwright Aeschylus, in his Orestia trilogy.

Orestes is the prince of Mycenae, who feels duty-bound to kill Clytemnestra in revenge for his father. The Furies, ancient earth-­goddesses whose chief function is avenging blood, torment Orestes mercilessly until the sun god Apollo takes the young man's part. The story becomes a courtroom drama posing this question: Which has greater weight, a blood relationship or a civil contract? Or, is the murder of the husband, not a blood relative, less of a crime than matricide?

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The court decides for Orestes. This, according to Charles Hill in his book Grand Strategies, is literary notice of a huge milestone in human progress: the determination that marriage, not blood, is the foundation of civil society. God settled that question in Genesis 2:14, and every civilized culture has followed suit. It's only in primitive societies that kinship takes precedence, often accompanied by feuds and vendettas.

With California's Prop 8 under review, we're rightly concerned about the legal future of same-sex "marriage." But in the long run, that burning issue may be little more than a side show. The real problem is among heterosexuals.

A study by the National Marriage Project, disturbingly titled When Marriage Disappears, indicates that stable unions are vanishing in the very social strata where they once were strongest: the "moderately educated middle," or high-school graduates with some college. "In the last three decades," says project director W. Bradford Wilcox, "nonmarital childbearing, divorce, low-quality marriages and family instability all have been on the rise in middle-American homes. For instance, nonmarital childbearing among women with high school degrees more than tripled in the last three decades-from 13 percent in 1982 to 44 percent in 2006."

The results are reduced earning power, greater stress, and troubled adolescence leading to a continuation of the cycle: "So the health, wealth and happiness of middle America is taking a serious toll." The good news is that marriage rates among the more affluent and educated (about 30 percent of the population) have actually improved. But if trends continue, the gap between rich and poor will only widen, with an increasingly hopeless and tumultuous underclass creating havoc outside the gated communities of the happily married. (For more about the National Marriage Project findings, see page 61.)

Years ago, my daughter worked for entertainer Andy Williams in Branson. Part of her job was to be onstage, lip-synching choral background, while Andy sang a medley of his greatest hits. She told me that at every performance, when he segued into "The Hawaiian Wedding Song," she could look into the audience and see gray-haired couples cuddling up in the darkness. Chances are, they were not all soul mates, but they'd molded to each other for 40-plus years. They were the epitome of "middle America" whose grandchildren Wilcox surveyed. Are they also the last of their breed?

We walk around all day with no thought for the ground under our feet. But if the earth turned to Jell-o, we'd notice. While a return to the tribalism and blood feuds of antiquity isn't likely, social chaos looms. The reformation of our country begins at home.
Email Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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