Caitlin Flanagan has written an absolutely outstanding cover story for Time Magazine entitled, Is There Hope for the American Marriage? I do not think I have ever seen a better treatment by a main stream media publication on the institution of marriage.
Flanagan writes in the context of the high-profile affairs of Governor Sanford and Senator Ensign, as well as the “Jon and Kate” fallout. After noting that the children of lower-income single-parent homes do worse on every metric (drug abuse, school performance and dropout rates, teen pregnancy, criminal behavior and incarceration, etc.), Flanagan writes:
But children of divorced middle-class parents do less well in school and at college compared with underprivileged kids from two-parent households. “There’s a ‘sleeper effect’ to divorce that we are just beginning to understand,” says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. It is an effect that pioneering scholars like McLanahan and Judith Wallerstein have devoted their careers to studying, revealing truths that many of us may find uncomfortable. It’s dismissive of the human experience, says Blankenhorn, to suggest that kids don’t suffer, extraordinarily, from divorce: “Children have a primal need to know who they are, to love and be loved by the two people whose physical union brought them here. To lose that connection, that sense of identity, is to experience a wound that no child-support check or fancy school can ever heal.”
The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it — given the game-changing realities of birth control, female equality and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized — simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake now: there probably aren’t many people whose idea of 24-hour-a-day good times consists of being yoked to the same romantic partner, through bouts of stomach flu and depression, financial setbacks and emotional upsets, until after many a long decade, one or the other eventually dies in harness.
Or is marriage an institution that still hews to its old intention and function — to raise the next generation, to protect and teach it, to instill in it the habits of conduct and character that will ensure the generation’s own safe passage into adulthood? Think of it this way: the current generation of children, the one watching commitments between adults snap like dry twigs and observing parents who simply can’t be bothered to marry each other and who hence drift in and out of their children’s lives — that’s the generation who will be taking care of us when we are old.
Lastly, a lesson from the Sanford and Ensign accounts that is easy to miss is in I Cor. 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Their affairs did not begin “innocently” (as Gov. Sanford regrettably suggested). Rather, private failures precede public failures. When others fall, we should consider that, apart from care, self-examination and waging war with sin at the heart level, we might likewise fall.