In the sociology classes Linda Waite teaches at the University of Chicago, she fervently argues the case for marriage. Even so, many of her undergraduates remain skeptical. "Oh, it's a personal relationship," they tell her. "I don't want the state involved. What really matters is how we feel about each other."
So prevalent are such attitudes among altar-shy Americans that Ms. Waite is joining more than 100 prominent scholars, lawmakers, civic and religious leaders, and marriage experts to launch a nationwide, bipartisan marriage movement. Arguing that marriage is not a special interest but a common good, they are pledging to "turn the tide" in this decade by reducing divorce and unmarried childbearing.
Their blueprint for change outlines ways to encourage couples to marry and stay married. Released yesterday in Denver at an international conference on marriage, their statement of principles offers recommendations on an array of policies and programs - public, private, and legislative.
"We need to be able to say the 'M' word and talk frankly about ... what's unique about marriage, without stigmatizing people in other situations," says Waite, author of the forthcoming book, "The Case for Marriage."
Quietly but steadily in recent years, research by sociologists, demographers, economists, and family therapists has made a persuasive case for marriage. Now, "there is a convergence ... of opinions that just didn't exist 10 years ago," says Scott Stanley of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. "This movement cuts across political lines, religious lines, even philosophical lines like nothing I've seen in a long time."
The individual vs. society
Supporters of the marriage movement trace the decline in marriage to the 1960s and '70s, when an emphasis on individual rights and women's rights prevailed. Currently, one-third of babies in the United States are born to unmarried mothers.
"We have been slowly but surely suckered into believing a whole series of myths," says Judge James Sheridan, who presides over a district court in Adrian, Mich. The first, he says, is that divorce is not a problem, but a solution. A second myth holds that children are resilient and will quickly get over their parents' divorce.
"If you tell a lie often enough, people will believe it," says Judge Sheridan, whose county was the first in the US to require civil officials who perform marriages to give couples premarital education, just as local clergy do. "Now truth has to be spoken over and over again like a drumbeat."
Courses that teach couples how to communicate and how to disagree have positive effects, says Diane Sollee of the Coalition for Marriage, Family, and Couples Education in Washington, who organized the Denver conference. "We're not saying stay married just to stay married," she says. "We're saying, work on your marriage because it's a big benefit for you and your children."
Like others in the marriage movement, Ms. Sollee emphasizes that there is no desire to discredit people who are single or divorced. "I don't want to take any supports away from single mothers," she says.
A patchwork of help
Solutions and support for couples vary widely from state to state, city to city. Helen Brown, a family-court judge in Detroit, saw the toll divorce was taking and decided to approach local ministers (who perform 75 percent of weddings) about it. When she suggested that they bore some responsibility for the high divorce rate, "they agreed with me," she recalls.
Now Judge Brown has established a community-based Coalition for Family Preservation. Through it, religious leaders and others provide premarital education, marriage mentorship, and alternatives to litigation.
In Florida, state Rep. Elaine Bloom (D) wrote legislation that mandates marriage education in state high schools. It also gives applicants for marriage licenses a manual describing their rights and responsibilities to each other and to any children they might have.
"If we give people a manual when they get a driver's license, they should at least get some information when they go for a marriage license," she says. "We should be doing everything we can, tax-wise and program-wise, to encourage marriage to be stronger and family life to last longer."
In the public-policy arena, marriage advocates want to make supporting and promoting wedlock an explicit policy goal. They urge governments to reduce marriage penalties in the tax code, boost funding for marriage research, and reconsider no-fault divorce laws.
"We're not seeking neutrality toward marriage from public policy," says Allan Carlson, president of the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Ill. "We're seeking favorable treatment for marriage.... It's good for society, it's good for children."
Emphasizing the importance of bipartisan support for the movement in the US, Sollee adds, "It's ludicrous that the word marriage has come to have some kind of conservative political connotation. Feminists should be out in front trying to make marriages work, because women and children suffer so when marriages fail."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society