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Marriage as an anachronism

I’ve been hearing an interesting statistic in the news lately. Apparently, the number of single parent households now exceeds the number of “traditional” households. With divorce rates at over 50%, I suppose this isn’t surprising, but it does make me wonder. What is going on, what are the causes, and what does it mean?

            The “normal” family now is a single parent with one or more kids. This indicates that either women are opting for parenthood without marriage (I would guess that this is mostly women, as it would be a hard thing for a guy to pull off on his own), or that enough marriages are failing (after kids) that failed marriages with kids are now the norm, or a combination of both. Almost certainly, it’s the latter. But why?

            Well, for starters, the social repercussions of divorce are pretty much gone. When I was a kid, divorce was something whispered about, and was a definite social no-no. Today, I know people that brag about their third and fourth failed marriage. Without social pressure to stay together and work out difficult times, a lot of people simply opt for the easy way out. Of course, the way the divorce industry is set up, if you are female, married, and have kids, a divorce is an easy way to ensure a zero-effort income – at least until the kids are 18. The financial incentive for women to divorce certainly plays a large part in making divorce easy (and profitable – least for women).

            So why do people opt for parenthood without marriage? Well, with divorce rates at 50% or higher, why bother with marriage? I know many men who simply refuse to enter into a civil marriage because of the inequalities inherent in the divorce system. Why enter into a legal partnership when you know that if it fails, you’ll lose everything, and have no recourse? I also know couples that have split up over this very issue. The women in the couples feel that the man’s unwillingness to ‘sign on the dotted line’ is an indication of lack of commitment to the relationship. The men feel that the only purpose of the civil marriage is to ensure that if the woman decides to walk, she gets to take the house, assets, and whatever else she may want, and leave him penniless on the street. Pre-nuptial agreements used to be a way to get around these issues, but the divorce courts have made it clear that they no longer consider pre-nups to be binding, and often refuse to even consider them. These conditions create an interesting question: If you are male, wish to have a family, and don’t want to expose yourself to the financial suicide that civil divorce represents, what are your options?

Most of the people I know want to be in a traditional family relationship. Many of the “traditional” families that I know have never had a civil marriage. So far, none of the non-married families I know have broken up, but many of the married couple I know have. Is that an indication that the divorce system actually encourages divorce? Maybe. If so, there are certainly other causes.

I guess the real question is: what is the purpose of a civil marriage? If more than half of them are failing, the whole concept of marriage being a life-time partnership is obviously wrong. If that is the case, maybe its time to start treating civil marriages like any other business contract, with exit clauses, formal tracking of assets, and pre-determined custodial arrangements and agreements. If nothing else, that would at least balance out the inequalities in the current system….

So Question for all you readers: Is civil marriage an anachronism?


4 Responses

  1. Honestly? I don’t know the answer to your question, and it’s something I’ve thought about for a long time.

    My husband and I have a civil marriage (as opposed to a religious marriage. Just so I’m practicing full disclosure, we were married in a church by a pastor, but that was simply because my husband’s parents wished it – and it was lovely – but really, religion doesn’t play any real role in our day to day lives…).

    When I stop to think about WHY we got married, I don’t really have a lot of flowery answers. We knew we both wanted the same things. We knew we both love and care deeply for one another, and wanted to commit to doing so for the long term. We knew we wanted children (preferably two girls, which we got) and that bringing children into a marriage is more socially acceptable than bringing them into a “live-in relationship.” I don’t think either of us had any unreasonable expectations of what marriage entailed. As a matter of fact, I joked that the only thing that would be different the day after was that I’d have a new name and more jewelry.

    My marriage to my husband is a serious commitment on my part; I made promises to him that, whether or not they’re legally binding, are nonetheless vital to who I am. Could I have these kinds of commitments to him without the marriage certificate? Of course, and I’m not sure that it would be any different in MY mind, but it is in other’s – and certainly in the state’s.

    There are both financial and social benefits of marriage. I am my husband’s de facto next of kin and he is mine. Should anything happen to him, I am granted full access to him, I’m able to make decisions for him, and I don’t have to fight with his parents or anyone else about any of that. If he were to die, all of his property automatically transfers to me without any tedious or expensive court proceedings (and, of course, the same for him if I were to die). We share the tax burden and are given lower insurance rates because of our status as married people. We are each other’s beneficiaries.

    While I see where you’re going with this – and agree with your main premise – I still can’t bring myself to be cynical about marriage (even though I, too, see them crumbling around me with ALARMING frequency). I don’t think the fault is with the “systems,” either of marriage or of divorce, but with a general lack of commitment to and respect for one another. It IS possible – even today – to have a strong, healthy marriage that lasts till death does the parting. The fact that we don’t see that happen so often is more a function of society than it is of any legal or financial mechanism we have in place.

  2. I also agree that it is exceedingly difficult to be optimistic in a world where marriage can often be pretty much disposable, with too much bias toward the woman in the marriage in the dividing up of the assets and visitation if there are children involved.

    When I got married, I would like to say I didn’t have stars in my eyes, but I did; I thought then that given the extraordinary man dropped inti my lap (as it were) by the universe and the relationship we had built, it seemed the right, Hallmark -ordained thing to do. Would I place as much importance on the legal ceremony to confirm our union TODAY? I don’t think I would. SO many couples I know have children and no legal commitment except they are are co-owners of property and co-parents. Granted, many of these couples are in Europe where marriage IS seen as an anachronism (I speak of Dutch cousins) and not worth the bother.

    I think that oft-touted 50% stat of marriages failing is not quite correct – based on the statistics I have read, that figure depends on too many factors to round into a nice, neat number. Such things as WHEN you got married, your parents’ marital status, your education, where you live, etc.. all affect the statistic.

    I do agree with Mrs. Chili about the deterioration of marriage as a result of lack of commitment and respect, but I would add failure to communicate, of lack of honesty or too much selfishness. Divorce IS a necessary component of our society – some people should simply not be married to one another, but I wonder if we, as a society, shouldn’t look
    at how we equip ourselves and our children with conflict resolution, self-awareness and basic communication skills so we can ensure that whatever commitment they make, they manage it well.

  3. I won’t argue that divorce is a necessity – I think it is.
    I guess what I feel is that divorce is used too often as a way to run away instead of sealing with issues. If a couple is truly dedicated to each other, they will never end up in divorce court – they will work together and figure out how to make thing function. I suppose that’s the same as saying that the couple has a commitment to each other, and respect for each other. But there has t be a lot more to it than just that. It wasn’t until the 60s and 70s that divorce became common. I don’t believe that there were any fewer difficult marriages before then, but there was a definite social cost associated with divorce. It was there as a tool, but it was a last resort. Today, for at least a portion of the population, divorce seems to be the default path as soon as things get tough. Every relationship has its hard times. The question is how the couple will deal with them. In the past, there was lot of social pressure to figure out w ay to make things work. Today, a person that has been divorced 3 or 4 times is simply viewed as having had “bad luck”. Honesty, personal responsibility, and self-awareness are definitely part of the recipe for a successful marriage.
    As to if marriage is an anachronism, it would be very simple to resolve the tax, inheritance, and other issues that are currently tied to “marriage” – the whole civil union movement is showing that there are other ways to provide the same benefits to people who are committed to lifetime partnerships. Of course, the way those laws are being put together, they also carry all the baggage of the current divorce laws…..

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