Oh, horrors: Childless marriages, unwed cohabitation!

Some say survey spells disaster for parenthood and matrimony.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
July 2, 2007 11:00PM (UTC)
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Grab a paper bag. This new survey of Americans' views on marriage could very well cause hyperventilation. The Pew Research Center survey's two biggest finds: Having kids is no longer seen as key to a successful marriage and younger, unwed couples are increasingly cohabitating.

The survey's findings failed to sound any alarm bells in my mind, but it seems to have successfully sent some into hysterics. And ... only agitated those already in hysterics over the current state of matrimony in America. For instance, the Associated Press quotes Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of Rutgers University's, ahem, National Marriage Project: "The popular culture is increasingly oriented to fulfilling the X-rated fantasies and desires of adults. Child-rearing values -- sacrifice, stability, dependability, maturity -- seem stale and musty by comparison." Wowza! In one fell swoop she manages to blame poor parenting on pop culture and sexuality.


Why the hand-wringing over the findings? The survey found that "children had fallen to eighth out of nine on a list of factors that people associate with successful marriages," reports the AP. In fact, sharing in household chores and having a satisfying sex life were seen as more essential than children to a good marriage. What's more, 65 percent of Americans say the purpose of marriage is "mutual happiness and fulfillment"; only 23 percent say it instead services the "bearing and raising of children."

None of this suggests that parenting has become a low priority in America. In fact, the survey found that nearly all parents rank their children as one of their greatest sources of happiness and fulfillment. And, interestingly, Americans list unwed parenthood as a major concern. What's changed is that adults expect marriage to be personally rewarding; most agree that divorce is preferable to sticking with an unhappy marriage. This doesn't spell the downfall of marriage, which, let's face it, isn't doing all that well. Instead, I'd argue Americans might be slowly edging toward a more realistic model for marital success. It's no longer viewed as a construction that merely facilitates raising children. As Dafoe Whitehead told the Washington Post: "Marriage and kids were kind of hyphenated before and now the hyphens have been removed."

It's a meaty survey, so I recommend taking a look at it yourself. It's interesting, too, to scan the headlines that ran with the various newspaper coverage of the survey; not only does it show the range of the findings, but the various media slants: "Cohabitation, Unwed Motherhood Soaring in Younger Generation," "To Be Happy in Marriage, Baby Carriage Not Required," and "Key to a Good Marriage? Share Housework."

Tracy Clark-Flory

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