At the very least, Americans are confused about marriage. While the institution has been under assault in some quarters for reasons ideological and economical, and therefore declining, in other quarters people who have been excluded from conjugality have been clamoring to be let in.
Speak about jumping on a sinking ship.
One reason for this social chaos is that people do not seem to know what marriage is and what it is not. The public debate about marriage feels like an afternoon at the theater of the absurd, with plenty of name-calling and derision thrown in.
Let’s be clear. Marriage confers rights, but it is not a right. In truth, it is not a privilege either. It is a social obligation. People have a duty to marry because they have a duty to reproduce. They have a duty to their genes and a duty to their community.
It is not an accident that these two duties coincide in the institution of marriage. Marriage would not be a universal staple of human community if it did not make any sense and if it did not connect nature with culture.
Marriage is a contract; it confers responsibilities. And since the definition of the institution involves children, these obligations must extend far beyond personal fulfillment.
This means that marriage is not an expression of personal affection or even love. Among the billions of marriages that have existed during the course of human history, very, very, very few have been contracted for romantic love.
For most of human history romantic love, an unstable and maddening experience, has been consigned to extramarital relationships.
Note well, if marriage were merely an expression of love and affection, any changes in said love and affection would spell the end of the marriage. No human institution can be build on something quite so aleatory as the ups and downs of human emotion.
Certainly, an institution that is designed to care for the most vulnerable cannot be subject to the emotional whims of adults. You cannot abrogate your responsibilities to your children because you do not feel like fulfilling them or because your feelings for their other parent have changed.
In truth, you do not have a social duty to marry someone you like. You do have a social duty to raise the children that are the product of your marriage to the best of your ability, to provide for them a stable home environment.
Sad to say that one feels obliged to repeat this, but marriage is and has always been a mating ritual. Thus it is and always has been contracted between two individuals who might possibly mate and it requires that they perform the one action that might lead to procreation.
There is nothing very complicated or difficult about this. All human beings since the dawn of human history have understood that marriages join two members of opposite sexes.
And just about all of them have understood that it makes no sense to marry two people who never have and never will commit the act that might lead them to procreate. Thus, a couple for whom procreation is radically impossible.
They have also understood that if people who cannot mate are said to be married, then the nature of the institution is fundamentally changed.
As for heterosexual couples who marry and do not procreate, the point of the institution is not to make fertility tests a precondition, but to accept couples who, by their marriages, are expressing solidarity with the institution, and thereby affirming their belief in its social utility.
Abraham and Sarah notwithstanding, marriage as an institution was not invented at a time when people lived to a ripe old age, and thus could remarry at a time when they had outlived their reproductive potential. In truth, at the beginning of the twentieth century, which is not too long ago, the average life expectancy in America was in the late 40s.
What is marriage? It is an alliance between families whose primary purpose is to produce and raise new members of a community.
Marriage is a concrete commitment to the future of the community. Thus, some unions are prohibited while others are considered especially desirable. Intrafamilial mating would undermine the alliance between families, and thus is prohibited.
As I recall, Claude Levi-Strauss showed in his book: The Elementary Structures of Kinship that while some marriages between cousins are prohibited, others are prescribed. He was arguing that the social function of marriage is more important than the biological risks of incest.
Anyway, most Americans nowadays do not feel that marriage is necessary or desirable. According to a Pew Research Center poll, reported by Time magazine, they feel that it is becoming obsolete. Link here.
Whether or not this means that they no longer understand what it is, or that they believe that if marriage is no longer strictly identified as a mating ritual, then it has not real purpose or meaning, I do not know. There are socio-economic reasons for the decline of marriage, in America and in Western Europe.
It is fair to ask, I believe, whether the decline in marriage has something to with the fact that Western civilization is currently losing influence and importance in relation to East Asian civilizations.
Whether you follow Lincoln’s thought that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” or the original form, from Matthew 12:25: "Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand," we are within our rights to wonder whether a culture that sets out to undermine everyone’s most primary social tie can bring people together to solve its problems and to compete effectively in the world.
However, Americans do seem to understand that marriage is not about sex, security, happiness, or fulfillment, but, about raising children. As Time reports: “When it comes to raising kids, though, it's a landslide, with more than three-quarters saying it's best done married.”
Yet, Americans do not exactly practice what they preach. While they believe that married couples do the best job of raising their own children-- self-evidently, because they have the greatest genetic investment--, they do not see the existence of children as a reason to get or, presumably, to stay married: “… very few people say children are the most important reason to get hitched. Indeed, 41% of babies were born to unmarried moms in 2008, an eightfold increase from 50 years ago, and 25% of kids lived in a single-parent home, almost triple the number from 1960.
What does life look like for children who are not living with their natural parents? While most mothers, according to Pew, did not get pregnant by having sex with strangers, and while most of them believed that they would eventually marry their child’s father, reality points in a different direction.
As Time reports: “Most of those unwed mothers said their chances of marrying the baby's father were 50% or greater, but after five years, only 16% of them had done so and only about 20% of the couples were still cohabiting. This didn't mean that the children didn't live with a man, however, since about a quarter of their moms were now living with or married to a new partner. That doesn't always work out as well as it seems to in Modern Family or Phineas & Ferb. Offspring from earlier relationships put pressure on new ones. For the least wealthy children, Mom's new boyfriend often means their biological father is less likely to visit and less likely to support their mother. Many stepparents are wonderful and committed, but a series of live-in lovers is not at all the same thing. 'About 21% of American children will see at least two live-in partners of their mothers by the time they're 15,' says Cherlin. 'And an additional 8% will see three or more.'"
How good is it for children to live in this kind of anomie, to be disoriented about relationships, not to understand who is related to whom and how?
When adults come and go in a child’s life, when their relationships are undefined, you cannot expect children to feel any sort of security or any real identity. How do you know who you are when you have step-parents, step-brothers, half sisters, and a dizzying set of relationships with your parent’s second or third partners' other relations?
Step parents can certainly be responsible adults. But live-in lovers, as Andrew Cherlin pointed out, are largely more inconstant. Their relationships do not involve the same level of duty and responsibility, and they are not contractually bound to protect and provide. It should not be surprising that they are, statistically, more likely to abuse children.