Notebook > Lifestyle
Evan Hughes for WORLD

Loosening knot

Lifestyle | Outside the ranks of the highly educated, the institution of marriage is weakening

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

In middle America, marriage is in trouble." That's how the National Marriage Project (NMP) began its new report on the state of marriage in the country. Based on extensive polling, the NMP found that marriage among the best-educated Americans (those with a college degree or better) is "stable and appears to be getting stronger." The NMP argued that among the educational middle (a high school diploma and maybe some college or trade school but no four-year degree) marriage is "foundering," and among the least-educated (no high school diploma) marriage is "fragile and weak."

The NMP reported some good news: Americans of every level still largely aspire to marriage, as 75 percent believe "being married is an important ideal." Evidence indicates a small uptick in marriage among the most well-educated. Although they marry later than previous generations, they are less likely to divorce or bear children out of wedlock. They are also more likely to pass on marriage-minded attitudes to their children.

But the report contains mostly bad news. Those with middling levels of education-58 percent of the adult population from age 25 to 60-used to be more similar to the highly-educated in behavior and attitudes about marriage. Over the past 20 years, they have come to resemble more the least-educated, leaving a marriage gap between the highly-educated and the rest of the population. Americans whether liberal or conservative, religious or not, should care about this because, as the NMP notes, marriage "helps to ensure the economic, social, and emotional welfare of countless children, women, and men in this nation."

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The well-educated understand this in practice if not always in politics. They embrace what the report calls the "success sequence," where education leads to work, which leads to marriage, which leads to childbearing-in that order. Other Americans, though, are increasingly less likely to embrace the "bourgeois values and virtues" that are crucial to marital success, things like delaying gratification and having temperance. People in the middle have also become more accepting of divorce and premarital sex. They are engaging in more marital infidelity and having more sexual partners, making it less likely that their marriages will last and more likely that they will conceive children outside of marriage.

The NMP cites another factor affecting marriage among those in the middle: the rise in the "soulmate" model of marriage. A generation ago getting married was a step to adulthood. Marriage was the institution that made possible sexual intimacy, childbearing, companionship, and economic stability. Couples hoped for happiness, but they were often willing to endure unhappy marriages for the sake of its other benefits. In contrast, the "soulmate" model makes happiness and personal satisfaction the goal of marriage.

According to the report, the well-educated are more likely to have jobs and no out-of-wedlock children, so their marriages tend to be happier. Other Americans, though, increasingly experience a gap between the ideal of soulmate marriage and the reality of their own lives. They have been hard hit by the recent recession and the loss of many high-wage, lower-skilled jobs. Marriage may be an ideal, but more than half of the least educated Americans aged 25-44 say that "marriage has not worked out for most people [they] know." Forty-three percent of those in the middle agree, but only 17 percent who are highly educated hold that view.

What can Christians do to help? The NMP points out an area of concern: People across all education levels are less connected to churches or other houses of worship than they were a generation ago, but the decline is most marked in the middle. Folks who are struggling are less likely to belong to or attend church, and less likely to get the support, encouragement, and teaching that would help them marry and stay married.

What's at stake if marriage continues to falter among those in the middle? The NMP found that "if marriage becomes unachievable for all but the highly educated, then the American experiment itself will be at risk. The disappearance of marriage in Middle America would endanger the American Dream, the emotional and social welfare of children, and the stability of the social fabric in thousands of communities across the country." (The complete report and supporting statistics are at virginia.edu/marriageproject.)

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