Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005
Conclusions and Recommendations
The seemingly endless array of contemporary public and private efforts to promote marriage, reduce out-of-wedlock births, encourage responsible fatherhood, and persuade unmarried parents to marry would have made little sense to Americans living just fifty years ago. For them, marriage was the central and defining feature of adult identity; for them, such goals were elemental moral principles. Not so for today's Americans, who find themselves far removed from such a marriage-centered culture and struggling to redefine the role that marriages and families play in society.
Sociologists refer to historical moments such as our own, when technology has advanced much more rapidly than the institutions surrounding it, as periods of culture lag. The technological advance in this case was effective fertility control. When scientists discovered how to control the link between sex and reproduction, they set off prodigious changes in the institutions of marriage and the family. Many Americans are now engaged in the contemporary marriage debate precisely because they are struggling to understand the meaning of the wrenching dislocations in American social and family life over the past half-century.
As other articles in this volume show, champions of marriage have thus far had few victories. Perhaps it is still too early. More likely, the related goals of promoting marriage and discouraging divorce or out-of-wedlock births will fare about as well as other national attempts to alter large social trends.
At the moment, most marriage-promotion efforts focus on individuals and the choices they make. It may be possible to convince poor women that it is best to get married before having children. It may be possible to convince them that marriage is better than cohabitation. It may be possible to teach couples how to resolve problems that jeopardize their relationships. Evidence suggests that most poor women already understand many of these things.47 Given how little researchers and professionals know about helping couples get or stay married, however, our expectations of policies in these areas should be modest, at best. Despite the lack of effective strategies to accomplish these goals, there nevertheless appears to be an emerging political, cultural, and scientific consensus about the consequences of different family structures for children's well-being. Increasingly, Americans appear to understand that the best arrangement for children is with two loving parents even if we have yet to develop ways always to achieve that goal. Our current efforts reflect this uncertainty about how to strengthen families.
Attempts directed toward changing or “fixing” individuals reflect a psychological behaviorist assumption that the root “problem” lies within the person, not his or her society or environment. If one adopts this perspective, then the obvious solution is something like education or training—couples education, for example, or counseling. Again, if one adopts this perspective, then the assessment of such solutions lies in measuring individual change, as studied through such strategies as random assignment experiments. But if the problem is viewed as larger than the individual, and if it is seen as endemic to an entire historical era, then it cannot be addressed solely at the individual level. One way to begin to address it would be to engage in a prolonged and sometimes painful national discussion. Such a discussion would take place in public among lawmakers, clergy, teachers, journalists, opinion leaders, and intellectuals—and in private between partners, between parents, and among family members. Such a national conversation would interpret and make sense of the changing roles played by marriage and families in society. This is how social change is managed and understood. And this, I believe, is how to understand today's debate over the value of marriage.