Vow-To Books

I wondered then if he was slyly placing odds on the durability of our new-made marriage. More likely, he was warning us. It was 1975, when the notions of open marriage and no-fault divorce looked ominous, and for a priest in small-town Minnesota, California seemed like the epicenter of apostasy and new twists on sin.

None of us had yet seen the dreary consequences of treating fidelity as pass and marriage as a pact that could be traded like a used car when it started riding rough. We know better now. Pick your indicator: One-third of U.S. births are to unmarried women (it’s nearly 70 percent among African Americans), and the rates continue to climb. The assorted damage inflicted upon children by poor, neglectful, and abusive families–all of which are more common in single-parent homes–is well documented.

Meanwhile, the young adults whose parents married in the 1970s are cohabiting more and marrying later, if at all. True, the divorce rate for first marriages has fallen to about 43 percent from 50 percent. But analysts believe the decline has more to do with rising rates of cohabitation, which takes the worst risks out of the marriage pool, and a growing incidence of divorce later in life, than more hopeful developments. For second marriages, the divorce rate remains at about 60 percent.

Many young men and women want the affection and security of marriage but can’t seem to find the right partner or are themselves unwilling to commit. As essayist Anne Roiphe writes in her new book, Married: A Fine Predicament: “There is abroad in the land an acute anxiety about marriage.” While President Bush wants poor people to get married, various social critics urge middle-class Americans to stay married.

A crop of new books assesses why our collective hopes for marital bliss have soured and what might be done about it. Viewed together, they reflect a surprising consensus that has emerged of late between liberals and conservatives over the virtues of, if not the road to, holy matrimony. It’s a consensus that’s been largely overshadowed by recent partisan debates over whether the government should be getting involved in such private decisions as to whether poor people ought to get married. But this new development represents something of a dtente in the 30-year culture war over gender roles, family values, and the meaning of tying the knot.

Among the authors to take on the subject recently are Roiphe, criminologist James Q. Wilson, and E. Mavis Hetherington, an emeritus psychology professor at the University of Virginia who has studied families for decades. Roiphe and Wilson are the yin and yang of the marriage debate–a liberal feminist focused on the marriage gap for middle-class women of her daughters’ generation, and a conservative criminologist concerned about out-of-wedlock births among poor, inner-city minorities.

But both are partners in long and happy marriages, and they share a deep concern about the erosion of marriage and families. They agree on several fundamentals: Marriage is valuable to society and individuals, particularly children; living together is not the same as marriage–it’s generally short-term, shallow-rooted, and emotionally bruising; the value our society places on personal freedom conflicts with the compromise and support needed for marriage; many people expect too much and give too little in marriage.

But their paths to this common ground could hardly be more divergent. Roiphe writes in lyrical terms from the emotional heart of marriage, drawing from the miserable marriage of her parents, her own unhappy first marriage, and then her present happy one, which has endured for 34 years. Her tone is wryly maternal; one pretext for writing the book was to persuade her unmarried daughters that, despite its obvious risks, marriage is worth the plunge.

Wilson’s The Marriage Problem, meanwhile, probes marriage in a more detached fashion. He scans anthropological reports, sociological studies, and historical accounts for the causes and effects of the breakdown in marriage and suggests possible remedies. While Roiphe focuses on what happens in private, between husband and wife, Wilson looks to welfare policy, the history of the Enlightenment, and the legacy of slavery.

Both writers face a fundamental dilemma. Marriage is clearly a good thing for society. It promotes social stability, the well-being of children, better health, higher incomes, and more family support during illness and life’s other travails. Being loved and honored in an enduring relationship is good for people. The long and contentedly married even have better and more frequent sex. (Take that, Hugh Hefner.)

But those findings aren’t enough to sell marriage to much of the public or to sustain those whose marriages are on the rocks. Moreover, not every marriage is good for the individuals involved, and even Wilson rejects the popular conservative notion that government can fix the problem by making divorce more difficult or marriage more financially attractive. Yet insistence on maximum personal freedom conflicts with the compromise and mutual support necessary for successful marriages. As Roiphe points out, “Freedom is a wonderful, heart-raising ideal, but not so helpful in the house.”

Clearly the terms of the marriage compact have changed as women work more, earn higher incomes, and are more able to have children without marriage. Among the middle-class families Hetherington studied in For Better Or For Worse, women initiated two-thirds of the break-ups. They expected more emotional depth and companionship from marriage than their husbands provided and were less willing than their mothers might have been to stick it out for children or financial reasons.

Some of Wilson’s data–and there’s a blizzard of it–seems designed to scare women into marriage. He discusses at length the problem of a low marriage ratio–too few available men for women of the same race, age, and education levels–and notes that the problem worsens after age 25 for college-educated white women.

The logical conclusion for young unmarried women is to grab your man early and hold on–not particularly helpful advice for women trying to choose carefully and for keeps. Women like Roiphe’s daughters are unlikely to scare so easily. Moreover, perhaps it’s men who should be more frightened. In Hetherington’s study, more men suffered as singles after divorces; they had far less contact with their children and weren’t as skilled as women at building networks of friends to sustain them.

If there are flaws in these books, it’s that both Roiphe and Wilson seem rushed, as if the writers and publishers knew they needed to hurry to catch this wave of interest. Both also remain on opposite sides of the policy vs. personal divide.

Roiphe’s book is an incisive essay on marriage that seems padded to make a book. So we get literary examples and psychoanalytical babble that divert us from her insights into the issues small and large that enhance or destroy marriages. And she says little of the larger social and policy context that might encourage and sustain marriages. Without a moral or religious underpinning for marriage, without stigma to discourage out-of-wedlock births or easy divorces, liberals are left propping up marriage on the slender pillars of personal satisfaction and commitment. Is that enough to sustain marriage?

She acknowledges the problem: “Determination is essential if divorce is to be avoided. You need some bottom line sense that the family, the marriage is not to be questioned, is not to be broken, is sacred and must be treated as such no matter what . . . The forever after part cannot be tentative, just until the weather turns; it must be absolute if the marriage is to have a chance for a long life.”

But her remedy is tongue-in-cheek: arranged marriages. Watching her own daughters cycle through various romantic interests and live-in boyfriends, she muses that the young, especially in our culture, focus too much on romantic love and have no cultural guides. Despairing over her daughters’ enduring single status, Roiphe is certain that parents like her could speed up the selection process and choose mates based on the steadier categories of class, status, wealth, and family connections. “We simply do not always want for ourselves what we ought to have . . . Our freedom of choice sets us loose in a bewildering herd of our contemporaries,” she writes. One can only imagine the rolled eyes when she ran that past her daughters. Again, sons may need guidance more than daughters. Hetherington found women to be pretty hard-headed in choosing their mates; men were more apt to swoon over looks and style.

On the other hand, Wilson’s omnivorous examination of marriage–his footnotes cite studies on everything from jealousy to family patterns in sub-Saharan Africa–can leave the reader intrigued but baffled by how the disparate pieces relate. Meanwhile, he pays little attention to the day-to-day behavior–such as men’s still-paltry contributions to housework and child care–and choices that determine whether marriages endure.

What to do? These books are not manifestoes, full of certainty and wind. None of them has a sure-fire answer for what ails our families. They all approach the question of remedies with some humility, even quirkiness. Wilson reminds us that other cultures have used polygamy as a remedy for excess supply of women but acknowledges that this won’t fly in Western cultures. So he suggests instead better PR for marriage, more stigma for out-of-wedlock births, more effort by churches and other private groups “to inculcate self-control” into young people, much as the YMCA, temperance movement, churches, and other organizations did in the Victorian era.

The skills that make for successful marriages are easily stated. Here’s Hetherington’s list: “learning how to compromise, to be sensitive to each other’s needs and feelings and to support each other in difficult times.” Deal with problems that can be fixed, and don’t fixate on those that can’t. Mutual respect, friendship, and support sustain marriage; hostile criticism, contempt, and withdrawal undermine it. After 27 years of marriage to the man the priest tried to warn me about, I well understand Roiphe’s conclusion that what is so easily written can be so difficult to live. In the end, as these books make clear, dogma isn’t the answer, and eventually both liberals and conservatives may reasonably conclude that trial and error might be.