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Posted July 8, 2009

Americans believe in lifelong marriage,
but don't live it, speaker says

By Maria Wiering
Catholic News Service

ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) -- Although the majority of Americans want to get married and believe marriage should last a lifetime, the American dream often doesn't match the reality, social scientist Barbara Dafoe Whitehead told an audience of family life ministers in St. Paul.

"You might say that Americans are enchanted with the idea of marriage and the aspiration to marriage, but disenchanted with being married, particularly to one person for a lifetime," she said.

And Catholics are showing tendencies more like the general population than in previous generations, she said in a June 25 keynote address at the annual conference of the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers.

Titled "Becoming a Marriage-Building Church: Implementing the U.S. Bishops' Pastoral Initiative on Marriage," the conference offered a range of workshops and featured national speakers on marriage-related issues. It was held June 25-28 at the University of St. Thomas.

The U.S. bishops have named marriage a top priority and in 2004 launched the multiyear National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage. They also plan to release a pastoral letter on marriage.

In St. Paul, during a June 25 panel discussion, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., who is chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Defense of Marriage; Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga.,; Archbishop Roger L. Schwietz of Anchorage, Alaska; and Bishop Michael D. Pfeifer of San Angelo, Texas, reiterated the bishops' commitment to defending and strengthening marriage.

Whitehead is co-director of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

In her talk, titled "State of Our Unions," Whitehead identified three troubling trends threatening marriage today: the split between marriage and parenthood, the statistical divide between marriages of college-educated and noncollege-educated couples, and a shift from a public to private understanding of the relationship.

Even after decades of rising rates of cohabitation and divorce, research shows Americans deeply believe in marriage, Whitehead said. Most Americans want to marry; 90 percent do marry. And, when they marry, they expect their marriages to last for a lifetime.

However, "Americans break up at astonishingly high rates," Whitehead said. "As a people, we divorce more and remarry more than people in almost any other part of the world."

One out of 10 American women has three or more husbands or live-in partners by the time they reach age 35 -- more than twice the percentage in secular Sweden, Whitehead said.

Catholics are becoming more like the general population when it comes to certain attitudes toward marriage, she said.

Although scholars debated for decades over whether the kind of family structure affected a child's development, or if only an arrangement that provided love was important, most have concluded that children do best when they are raised by two biological or adoptive parents in a stable, low-conflict marriage, Whitehead said.

However, despite this conclusion, trends within the broader culture are moving away from marriage as the main childbearing and child-raising institution, she said. Nearly four out of 10 children are born outside of marriage.

Research shows that children who are born outside of marriage are exposed to more economic and emotional hardship and often lose connection to their fathers. By age 15, the "overwhelming majority" of children born to cohabitating parents will not be living with both parents, although they may be living with another live-in partner of one of their parents, Whitehead said.

Statistics also show that marriage is becoming another form of privilege, Whitehead said. The well-educated and well-employed are more likely to get married and have successful marriages, even though marriage is a goal that most Americans have, Whitehead said.

College-educated couples are more likely to marry in the first place, to be happily married and to have low divorce rates, she said.

The majority of the growth in divorce rates has come from the segment of the population that does not have college degrees, Whitehead said. This same group is also more likely to forego marriage completely.

Whitehead attributes this divide between those she calls "the marriage haves" -- the college-educated population -- and "the marriage have-nots" -- those without a college degree -- to several factors, including a decrease in high-wage blue-collar jobs.

"Young men, if they can't find steady, reliable work, are not considered good marriage material by women and even by themselves; they don't feel prepared to support a family," Whitehead said.

Marriage itself has undergone reorganization over the past five decades, she said.

"(It) used to be the first stop on the road to independent adulthood," defining separation from one's parents, she said. "Now marriage has been redefined in the sequence of adulthood as the very last thing you do" after finding a job, paying back debt and buying a house, she said.

The population without a college education has a more difficult time achieving these road markers than those with a college education, Whitehead said, leading them to put off marriage, but not necessarily parenthood.

"And when they do marry, their marriages are extremely precarious," she added.

One in four marriages among non college-educated couples fail within the first four years, she said.

In addition to its reorganization in early adulthood, marriage has also shifted from a public, legal and religious institution to a private couple's relationship, Whitehead said.

It used to govern sex, procreation, family life, kinship relationships and social lives, but today, marriage is widely understood as a "private, soul-mate relationship" that exists to promote personal growth, happiness and intimacy, she said.

Those are good things, Whitehead said, "but without the broader, religious institutional support for marriage, a "'soul-mate' relationship is very, very fragile," she said, because it always leaves the question of whether or not the person one is married to is indeed his or her soul mate.