So, when you work -- as I do -- for an outfit called "Marriage and Family Matters", you come out-of-the-box with certain attitudes toward marriage and marriages. That's why I was fascinated by the TIME magazine (July 13th edition) with a cover story about how "infidelity is eroding our most sacred institution" and how we can "make marriage matter again". Naturally, I swiped the mag and snuck it home for a read.
I was surprised to find (after all, this is TIME magazine) that the author of the cover piece, Caitlin Flanagan, is not "iffy" about the need for our society to hold to and maintain an high standard of marriage. After scolding Senator John Ensign of Nevada and the king of adultery TMI, Governor Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Ms. Flanagan gets to her point post haste:
"No other single force is causing as much measureable hardship in this country as the collapse of marriage". She goes on to say that the families of these two men "discover a truth as old as marriage: a lasting covenant between a man and a woman can be a vehicle for the nurture and protection of each other, the one reliable shelter in an uncaring world -- or it can be a matchless tool for the infliction of suffering on the people you supposedly love above all others, most of all on your children".
Noting the uniquely American propensity for "frequent marriage, frequent divorce" and the "high numbers of short-term co-habitating relationships", the author deconstructs the contemporary notion of marriage as "an incresingly fragile construct depending less and less on notions of sacrifice and obligation than on the ephemera of romance and happiness as defined by and for its adult principals." She continues:
"The intact, two-parent family remains our cultural ideal, but it exists under constant assault. It is buffeted by affairs and ennui, subject to the eternal American hope for greater happiness, for changing the hand you dealt yourself."
It is important to pause here and observe as a pastor and counselor that marital breakdown is not always rooted in such abject selfishness. I feel privileged when I am invited to help struggling couples, conscientious and caring single parents, and young people who are doing their best to walk through the profound issues of their lives. I respect people who invest in their marriages, parenting challenges or their quest to grow up as whole as they can. Still, there is no avoiding the fact that, as a society, we are living in days when we are being forced to rethink what marriage is, how it works, how it breaks and what its effects are (for better and for worse) -- especially on children.
Along these lines, the article quotes self-identified feminist author, sociologist and researcher Maria Kefalas admitting that a single mother cannot be both mother and father to their children. "As a feminist, I didn't want to believe it," she says. "Women always tell me, 'I can be a mother and a father to a child', but it's not true". "Growing up without a father has a deep psychological effect upon a child." Another author, single mother and sociologist quoted in the article echoes these conclusions: "Children who grow up in a household with only one biological parent are worse off, on average, than children who grow up in a household with both of their biological parents, regardless of the parents' race or educational background". These sobering words ring in our ears when we come to realize that (according to the article) "births to unmarried women have reached an astonishing 39.7%".
In a day when a not-so-conservative magazine like TIME runs with an article that asserts that the contemporary collapse of marriage "hurts children, reduces mothers' financial security, and has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation's underclass", it makes a guy like me take notice.
Meanwhile, the parade of civic leaders, celebrities, religious figures and other notable trendsetters in society continues to produce astounding stories of marital breakdown and failure. Bottom line: if we want something different than what we have, we are going to have to fight a lot harder for it. As I tell couples who come to me for premarital counseling: "if you want to beat the odds of a 50% average failure rate of today's marriages, you two can't settle for an average commitment to your marriage. It must be way, way above average". In other words, even TIME magazine tells me that the founders of our counseling center got it quite right: marriage and family REALLY DOES matter.