So there is no reason to give up on building successful marriages — but we won’t do it by giving people outdated advice about gender roles. We may be able to bring the divorce rate down a little further — but since one method of doing that is to get more people to delay marriage, this will probably lead to more cohabitation. We may also be able to reverse last year’s uptick in teen births and return to the downward course of the late 1990s and first few years of the 21st century — but not by teaching abstinence-only to young people who if they do delay marriage are almost certainly going to have sex beforehand.
The second lesson of history is that the time has passed when we can construct our social policies, work schedules, health insurance systems, sex education programs — or even our moral and ethical beliefs about who owes what to whom — on the assumption that all long-term commitments and care-giving obligations should or can be organized through marriage.
And what will take the place of marriage, as a societal building block? Why, our proggy betters, securely ensconced in the seats of power, that's who:
Of course we must seek ways to make marriage more possible for couples and to strengthen the marriages they contract. But we must be equally concerned to help couples who don’t marry become better co-parents, to help single parents and cohabiting couples meet their obligations, and to teach divorced parents how to minimize their conflicts and improve their parenting.
The right research and policy question today is not “what kind of family do we wish people lived in?” Instead, we must ask “what do we know about how to help every family build on its strengths, minimize its weaknesses, and raise children more successfully?” Much recent hysteria to the contrary, we know a lot about how to do that. We should devote more of our energies to getting that research out and less to fantasizing about a return to a mythical Golden Age of marriage of the past.
Thus does left-wing radicalism present itself as a disease masquerading as its own cure. If it hadn't been for liberationists of various stripes heedlessly kicking the supports out from under the edifice of society these past 50 years, we wouldn't be in this fix. Someday they'll learn: an ounce of tradition is worth a ton of government.
H. L. Mencken has this doped out nearly 80 years ago:
To propose that marriage be abandoned and half-marriage substituted is like advising a man with a sty to get a glass eye. He doesn't want a glass eye; he wants his own natural and perfect eye, with the sty plucked out. All such reformers forget that the real essence of marriage is not the nature of the relation but the performance of that relation. It is a device for time-binding, like every other basic human institution. Its one indomitable purpose is to endure. Plainly enough, divorce ought to be easy when the destruction of a marriage is an accomplished fact, but it would be folly to set up conditions tending to make that destruction more likely. Too much, indeed, has been done in that direction already. The way out for people who are incapable of the concessions and compromises that go with every contract is not to fill the contract with snakes but to avoid it altogether. There are, indeed, many men and women to whom marriage is a sheer psychic impossibility. But to the majority it is surely not. They find it quite bearable; they like it; they want it to endure. What they need is help in making it endurable.
-- H. L. Mencken, "Divorce" The New York World, Jan 26, 1930
Footnote: The author is a professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, same radical hothouse that the late Rachel Corrie came from.