In 2010, the US crossed a significant threshold: for the first time in our history, married couples no longer form the majority of American households.
This decline in marriage was an important subject of discussion at our recent “Breaking the Spiral of Silence” conference, and a close look at the numbers tells us why.
In 1950, married couples made up 78 percent of all households. In 2010, they made up only 48 percent of American households. That’s a nearly forty percent decline!
The decline is even starker when it comes to married couples with kids: these comprise only 20 percent of households in America, less than half of their share in 1950.
Even more disturbing is the way that marriage is becoming a kind of class marker. As Charles Murray pointed in his new book, Coming Apart, better-educated and more affluent Americans are significantly more likely to get married and significantly less likely to have children out-of-wedlock than their working-class counterparts.
One Brookings Institution scholar summed up the changes by saying, “the days of Ozzie and Harriet have faded into the past.” But the impact goes far beyond 1950s sitcoms. The flight from marriage has real-world consequences.
Not surprisingly, the impacts are felt most keenly by children. Less marriage means more insecurity for children. As W. Bradford Wilcox of the University of Virginia told the New York Times, “kids are much more likely to be exposed to instability, complex family relations and poverty.”
The difference that marriage, or more precisely, the lack of it, can make in a child’s life is startling: boys reared without their fathers are two-thirds more likely to end up in prison; 35 percent of adolescent girls whose fathers left before the age of six become pregnant out of-wedlock, compared to just 5 percent of girls whose fathers did not leave before that age.
When you add the undeniable link between childhood poverty and family structure, you have to wonder how Americans can be so casual about the future of marriage
Actually, you don’t have to wonder: it’s a function of how they understand marriage. The vast majority of Americans, including most Christians, see marriage as an expression of an already-existing “relationship.” It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that people are increasingly finding other ways of expressing their relationship. It also shouldn’t surprise us that people have trouble understanding why marriage should be limited to one man and one woman.
That’s why making the case for marriage begins with asking the question “what is marriage for?” As Christians, we know that it is for the permanent joining of man and woman for the purpose of mutual love and support and the raising of children; that it exists within the context of the family of faith, the Church, and that it is a symbol of the union of Christ and his Church. In other words, marriage is much more than just a “relationship.”
And it’s time we Christians admit we haven’t always lived in ways that reflect the purpose and meaning of marriage. Because, while television has changed a great deal since the 1950s, the need for strong marriages has not.
For Chuck Colson and BreakPoint, I am Eric Metaxas.
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