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Friday, January 28, 2011
A while back there was a huge furor in the marriage blogging community over a survey done by Pew Research for Time Magazine  in which they found that 39% of the Americans surveyed said “marriage is becoming obsolete,” up from 28% in 1978.

More specifically, there was lots of uproar over the way the findings were (mis)reported in the mass media. For example, one CBS News story  made this opening statement.

Not only are more marriages on the rocks these days, so is marriage itself, according to a new study by the Pew Research Center.

Both statements are actually gross mis-statements of fact and reflective of the left-wing media agenda to distort and destroy traditional (biblical) definitions of marriage and family. The truth is that divorce rates are declining. The divorce rate was actually higher in 1978 when far fewer answered affirmatively to the question of marriage trending toward obsolescence.

Marriage researcher Tara Parker-Pope says in her book, For Better – The Science of a Good Marriage, that commonly misquoted and inflated divorce rate statistics are almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. “I think the 50 percent divorce rate myth has trained a generation to be ambivalent about marriage and divorce.” The Pew study bears this out.

The second statement from the CBS story above that claims marriage in general is “on the rocks” is also misleading, yet it does bear a grain of truth. Traditional marriage is and has been under an immense assault, and the Pew study, though it has many critics in terms of the sampling methodology, does give a sort of wake-up call that the pro-marriage community must not be too quick to dismiss.

Granted, the key question in the study that got most of the sensationalized “marriage is dead” types of headlines is blatantly misleading. Instead of asking whether marriage is obsolete, they asked if it is becoming obsolete – two very different questions. One speaks to a current state; the other to a trend. Most of the headlines took the answer to one question and applied it to the other one in order to make their stories seem more dramatic. Even the original Time magazine story, the sponsors of the Pew study, got it wrong with their own mis-statement, “nearly 40% of us think marriage is obsolete.” Well, not really. The data clearly show that many of the affirmative respondents were merely expressing concern over the growing lack of respect for the institution of marriage, not making a value statement on marriage in general.

Anyway, most of this ground has been covered by others. So why am I posting about this several month old study now? Partly, I wanted to just let the dust settle a bit. Partly, I hadn’t had time to read the actual 122 page study. And Partly, I wasn’t quite sure what I could add to the discussion.

What is Marriage?

For me, what’s been missing from almost all of the discussion that I’ve read since the study was first published is a careful examination of what we actually mean by “marriage.” I’m not a sociologist or professional researcher, so maybe I missed it amidst all the data and analysis, but to me this is the most critical question.

Here’s another quote from the original Time cover story on the study:
What we found is that marriage, whatever its social, spiritual or symbolic appeal, is in purely practical terms just not as necessary as it used to be. Neither men nor women need to be married to have sex or companionship or professional success or respect or even children — yet marriage remains revered and desired.

Not as necessary? Really? In what manner has marriage become unnecessary or irrelevant, as many assert? It seems we’ve mixed up what marriage really is. Marriage isn’t a certificate or a ceremony. The paper and the pomp are but impermanent symbols of what should be a much deeper and more lasting covenant. Marriage is to be a holy and genuine commitment to live as a husband and wife, growing evermore toward being inseparably one in body, soul and spirit.

We too often mistake the symbols for the substance. Perhaps this is why Americans are a leaders in both the rate of marriage and the rate of divorce, when compared to our European counterparts. When we fail to grasp the covenantal nature of marriage, it is easy to simply head for the exits when the wedding bell bliss begins to fade. (I’m not saying that divorce is never the right thing, so don’t blast me.)

Who Needs Marriage?

Of course you don’t “need” a marriage license to have sex, to find companionship or enjoy a successful career. Clearly, with an astounding 40% of children being born out of wedlock, many feel it is not even “necessary” to wed before giving birth. In this sense the statement is true: there is neither a legal nor in many cases a moral obligation to marry.

So why then, as both the study and the writer of the Time story assert, is marriage also “revered and desired?”

I believe it’s because God wired us that way. This is born out by the fact that 93% of married survey respondents say they married for love and 87% claimed to view their marriage as a lifelong commitment going in. (The numbers for unmarried respondents, when asked about potential marriage, were slightly lower, at 84% and 74% respectively. This data from the study is shown in the graphic at the top of this post.)

We are wired to desire intimacy. We long to be known fully and loved completely. This is what draws us to God. This is what draws us to lifelong marriage. It is only in the permanence and safety of a committed covenantal arrangement that genuine intimacy can take root, grow and truly thrive.

And that will never become obsolete.

Do you agree with my assessment? Or do you think marriage really is an obsolete and outdated institution? What have I missed?


andrea frazer said...

I think people crave intimacy even when they aren't aware of it. When they are left feeling hollow and empty, they run. How does one work on getting the intimacy back? That's the real question. I'm sure you've spoken about it in lengths and something I plan on writing about more, too. I struggle with it just like the next person, but I'm committed to getting there!

Myron said...

You have GREAT information, but your dark, somber picture at the top is so cheerless and threatening. Could you get something more upbeat, positive and cheerful?

Scott said...

Andrea - I agree with you. The desire for intimacy is there even if we don't acknowledge it. I do have an intimacy series you might want to check out (see the Notable Series links at left).

Myron - thanks for you comment. I took that picture at the top of a fell in England in the Lake District, so it has an entirely different feeling to me. Kind of a "bright spot in the middle of darkness." But I suppose it may be interpreted by many as you say. Worth considering...

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