What If Marriage Matters?

Every Friday my column appears in a bunch of papers in Ontario and Saskatchewan. This week’s column asks the question: what if marriage matters? What if we’ve started this vast social experiment saying that marriage is just a choice–and we’re doing some real harm without realizing it?

What if Marriage MattersIn Canada we like to think we’re a classless society. Anybody can make it to the top! Nevertheless, you can still divide us into different groups. You could do so on economic lines: the rich and the poor. You could base them on education: those who have it and those who don’t. You could even base it on race.

Increasingly, though, the real divide in our society is a family one. The biggest indicator of future success for children isn’t the parent’s education level, nor is it the parents’ wealth, race or religion. It’s whether or not the parents are in a stable marriage.

Much of this is a poverty issue. Children are far more likely to live in poverty if they grow up with a single parent than if they grow up with two parents present. But it’s not solely a poverty issue, because children born into poverty, if they also have two married parents, tend to escape poverty. Children of single parents born into poverty tend to stay in poverty.

The question is which causes which? Most who believe in the rich against poor rhetoric believe that the problem is primarily one of poverty; families fall apart when they are poor, so the poverty comes first. But increasingly that’s not the picture being painted by our statistics. It looks like family breakdown is what hurts children and their wallets and their schools more than poverty. The real gap is not one of money or race; it’s one of family. With a strong nuclear family, you can overcome almost anything. Without it, it’s pretty difficult.

It isn’t just having another parent present that makes the difference, either. The Urban Institute’s Robert Lerman looked at cohabiting couples, and found that even when you control for education and race, their children don’t do as well as children living with two married biological parents. Something about marriage boosts children’s prospects.

None of this means that any particular child is destined to go down a certain route. All of us, as individuals, have the power to determine our own destiny. I grew up with a single mother who worked incredibly hard for me, and I consider myself very blessed. I have known step-fathers who have been more of a father to the kids than the biological father was. There are always exceptions, but that does not mean that on a societal-wide basis such things are not still true.

For the last several decades we’ve been engaged in a vast social experiment. Does the institution of marriage, as it has been practiced for thousands of years, really matter?

After reams of studies, it’s clear that it does. Yes, some marriages are abusive and can’t be saved, but on the whole, marriage is a positive good for our society.

Of course, many of our opinion-makers in government and media and education don’t want to admit that, because it sounds judgmental. And it also sounds like traditional morals may actually have some benefit, and too many hate the idea of being constrained by morals. But the elite are not the ones bearing the brunt of family breakup. Those who bear the costs are those at the margins–the kids born to girls who were never taught that marriage was something to look forward to, and to boys who were never taught that a real man gets married and takes care of his responsibilities.

If we want to help children, let’s stop kidding ourselves and tell the truth: marriage is good for kids. Yes, people can succeed regardless of background, but why would we not want the best? We’re not afraid to say that smoking carries risks, as does eating badly and not exercising. So let’s say it clearly here, too: divorce hurts kids, and marriage helps them. Those are the facts, and kids would fare better if we faced them.

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  1. KellyK(@RNCCRN9706) says:

    i AGREE 100%!! That’s why I chose to stay in my marriage after discovering my husbands infidelity–because of our son. Had he not been in the picture, I’d have likely walked away. But I know that he will be better off with two parents. I’m all for traditional morals as well and think that the way things are these days (lack of traditional morals) is causing society to go to h3ll in a handbasket.

  2. I have heard countless times that poverty causes divorce. I wrote a post about it and found these stats ~
    Average divorce rate, (per 1,000 people)
    1920-1929: 1.6
    1930-33: 1.4
    1934-39: 1.8
    1940-46: 2.8
    1947-64: 2.5
    After the sexual revolution of the 60s came about the divorce rates changed ~
    50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second and 74% of third marriages end in divorce.

    I have also read that the most dangerous place for children is in a home without their biological parents and siblings. Of course there are exceptions but our Creator knew what He was doing when He created marriage and the family. Man will never improve upon this no matter how hard they try!
    Lori Alexander recently posted…Experiencing An Empty NestMy Profile

  3. It’s fairly simple to realize that single parent families experience poverty because only one family member is and adult, therefore capable of employment, and that same family member is simultaneously responsible for actively parenting the children. Honestly, it’s surprising that any children of single parent families are *not* in poverty. It’s a recipe for poverty, whether caused by a breakdown of marriage, an unsupported pregnancy, disability within marriage, widowhood or any other combination of circumstances.

    I also noticed that your study states that children of parents who are (a) married and also (b) both the biological parents are doing the best. I acknowledge that, but it actually doesn’t quite support the point of your paragraph (that the cohabitation of two parents is not sufficient). It does not compare {children of two biological cohabitating parents} directly with {children of two biological married parents}. Instead it includes {children in cohabitating families where one or both adults are not their biological parent} (which is a high stress situation, or at least involves a high-stress transition) as a skewing factor for the statistics.

    I’d love to see data comparing {children of two biological cohabitating parents} directly with {children of two biological married parents} to see if it is the “marriage” that matters, or simply the term of stability of the relationship between the two parents.

  4. ButterflyWings says:

    As long as people know it is ok to leave abusive marriages, then I totally agree!

    And there are definitely stepfathers out there who are infinitely better than the “sperm donors” biological fathers who abandon their children. My husband is one of those wonderful men, and he has made a huge positive difference in our daughter’s life. Since our marriage last year, even when we have had our issues and disagreements, the positive change in my daughter has been immense.

    Sometimes marriage breakdown is unavoidable (repeated cheating, abuse, abandonment,etc) and sometimes single parenthood from other things is unavoidable (rape, being widowed etc), but I hope those who have gone through the pain of being a single parent are able to find a Godly understanding man willing to be a wonderful (step)father to their child/ren.

    Every child deserves a mother and a father (whether by blood or marriage) wherever possible.

  5. I really enjoyed this article. The dismantling of the traditional nuclear family and the devaluing of marriage in our society right now has been weighing heavily on me lately. The only thing I was wondering is where are the statistics to support the points of this article? As much as I believe in my heart that this is all true I was wondering if there were studies to support your claims like children of married parents are more likely to escape poverty than those of single parents?

    Thank you for writing this article. I think that it takes bravery to stand up for traditional moral values in today’s world.

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