Chance* refuses to get out of bed. I don’t know what to do with him. Is there anything you can do to help?” I heard the desperation in Megan Atkins’s voice. The social service agency had assigned me to work with Megan’s 11-year-old son, Chance, and her 6-year-old daughter, Amity. The sudden departure of Justin, Megan’s fiancé, had left the household emotionally devastated. As the oldest son, Chance had internalized his mother’s grief and feelings of rejection as well as his own. The double emotional burden left him listless and depressed. His schoolwork suffered.
Because of my background as a teacher and my experience working with troubled adolescents, the social service agency kept my schedule full. I worked mostly with boys like Chance who were having trouble with school because of disruptions at home. Fewer than 1 in 20 of these cases involved children who lived in a household with both of their biological or adoptive parents. In the more than four decades that I spent working with families and children, I witnessed firsthand the decline in marriage rates. But you need not take my word for it. Everywhere you turn, people are becoming increasingly aware of the trend.
An article on the Bentley University Web site expressed it well: “Traditional marriage has been on a downward trajectory for generations but with millennials [the generation reaching adulthood around the year 2000] it appears to be in free fall.”
CNN reported that “today’s young adults are on track to have the lowest rates of marriage by age 40 compared to any previous generation. If the current pace continues, more than 30 percent of Millennial women will remain unmarried at age 40.”
A study by the Pew Research Center found that “after decades of declining marriage rates and changes in family structure, the share of American adults who have never been married is at an historic high.”
And it isn’t happening just in the United States. The Guardian, a British newspaper, reported that “marriage rates have fallen dramatically in most major European countries over the past decade. . . .
“The number of weddings has fallen to historical lows in France and Spain and has tumbled in other Catholic countries such as Italy, Ireland, Poland and Portugal, according to national and European data. But people have also fallen out of love with marriage in . . . Greece, Denmark, Hungary, the Netherlands and Britain.”
Is marriage important? Different people give different answers. The Guardian quotes Italian Germana Chemi talking about her relationship with Carmelo Cardea: “We have focused on our own things, at the same time as being together, without having to spend a year planning a wedding.” Doesn’t sound like marriage is very important to them!
In all these articles and studies, those who have chosen not to marry cite various reasons, ranging from a Spanish couple’s declaration that “we are opposed on principle to the establishment and patriarchal values that marriage symbolises,” to economic conditions and housing shortages.
Marriage, it seems—to those of marriageable age, at least—matters less and less.
Marriage in the Bible
The decline in marriage in these cultures has followed the general decline of religion. It seems very likely that the two are linked, for when we read the biblical account of Creation in the book of Genesis, we find there that marriage is a central fixture—it matters a great deal. God, the Genesis account declares, created humans “male and female,” and bade them to “be fruitful, and multiply” (Genesis 1:27, 28, KJV). Indeed, in Genesis 2, the fact that Adam is alone and has no mate is the first thing in all of the Creation narrative to be declared “not good” (verse 18). As the animals were paraded before Adam for naming, it became increasingly evident that there was no mate for him (verses 19, 20). And so long as he had no mate, he could not fulfill his mission to be fruitful and multiply.
The Genesis account also declares that a man and wife become “one flesh” (verse 24). Not only are they physically joined in the marriage act, but that act produces children—children who are not like one or the other of the parents but a combination of both. The two become one in the child.
The Genesis creation narrative represents God’s intended design for the whole earth. And integral to that was marriage: 1 man + 1 woman = 1 flesh.
Even after the Fall and the depredations of sin, that design remained God’s intention. We know this, because when Jesus was asked about the institution of marriage, his answer was based upon the Genesis account. He said, “From the beginning . . . ,” (Matthew 19:8), citing the Creation account as the basis for His statement. The question He had been asked was about divorce, but it could have been about polygamy or any number of other things. It’s clear that Jesus regarded the Genesis account as representing a timeless paradigm concerning marriage.
In addition, the Genesis model of marriage served as a metaphor for God’s relationship with his people. In Isaiah 54:5, the prophet declared, “For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name.” And in Jeremiah God said to Israel, “I am your husband” (Jeremiah 3:14). In the book of Revelation, the new Israel, the church, is called the bride of the Lamb, and Christ and His church come together at “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7, 9, KJV). So this model of marriage is a continuing theme throughout the Bible, literally from Genesis to Revelation. If marriage represents God’s ideal relationship not only for men and women but also for Himself and His people, it seems almost inevitable that as we abandon this ideal, problems will multiply.
In the Old Testament, the first example of deviation from God’s ideal plan for marriage is found in Genesis 4:19, where Lamech, of the line of Cain, took for himself two wives rather than one. Not long after that, the earth is depicted as being full of violence and in need of cleansing by the Flood (Genesis 6:11, 13). Abandoning God’s pattern had consequences!
The decline in marriage today
We should not be surprised to discover that the same is true today. It’s ironic that economic conditions are often cited as a reason that young adults delay marriage. CNN quoted University of Michigan professor Pamela Smock to the effect that “the evidence shows that getting married increases wealth and income.” Indeed, “Poverty is higher in cohabiting homes, around 23 percent. By contrast, the poverty rate for married couples is just 7 percent. Researcher Linda Waite of the University of Chicago confirms that cohabiting households generally have less wealth.”
Lack of wealth may be a factor, but whatever the causes, “Cohabiting mothers have more depressive symptoms than other women. These mothers also report having more difficulties rearing their children than married or single mothers.” That accurately describes the people I worked with, like Chance Atkins and his mother, Megan.
Even more ironic is a 2011 Pew Research Center study that found that while more than half of young adults—52 percent—believe being a good parent is of paramount importance, only 30 percent value marriage in the same way. The Guardian article quotes a French couple who demonstrate these values: “The real commitment for us was to have children.” It’s ironic, because the data concerning the problems associated with children being raised by cohabiting rather than married parents is unequivocal.
In the first place, “Growing up in a stable married home with two biological parents appears to be a child’s best bet, statistically speaking.” And it’s not just that stable marriages have positive effects. Cohabiting has specific negative effects on children.
For example, a study by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that “children born to cohabiting parents exhibit large deficits in terms of educational attainment, socio-emotional development and engagement in risky and antisocial behaviors compared with children born to married parents.” Specifically, “Spending extended time in cohabiting households at an early age is linked to slowed cognitive growth and language acquisition in children. . . . Even in stable cohabiting households, children show smaller gains in mental development.”
And as if that were not enough, “Men and women who cohabit are more likely than married people to experience partner abuse and infidelity.”
But the world isn’t perfect
Marriage is important. We abandon God’s design at our peril. We may be tempted to blame people for their poor decisions in this regard, but blame isn’t helpful. When I began working with a family, it was because they were hurting, because they had reached out for help. They knew they had made mistakes. Often they began with a complaint about a partner, parent, or teacher.
“In my experience,” I would say to them, “there’s always plenty of blame to go around. The question for us is not, Who’s to blame for the past? but, How do we make things better now?”
We are broken people living in a broken world. Families suffer from many causes. Death may take a spouse and parent, leaving a blameless and hurting family behind. Broken and hurting families go all the way back to the beginning. Adam and Eve’s oldest son murdered his brother. God’s answer is not blame but blessing; not reproach but restoration.
God made this explicit when He gave Israel its civil law. He said, “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry” (Exodus 22:22, 23).
As Moses prepared the Israelites to take possession of the land of promise, He reminded them, “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow” (Deuteronomy 10:17, 18). Notice that God’s might and authority are directly linked to His advocacy for broken families.
The prophet Isaiah exhorted God’s people to “learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17).
The psalmist described God as “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families” (Psalm 68:5, 6).
And James, in his ever practical epistle, told us, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress” (James 1:27).
The Bible’s testimony is overwhelming and clear: while we uphold God’s original design for marriage, we must do our best to relieve the condition of those who have fallen short. The cost of failing in either regard is too great.
And it’s not just religious people who see this.
The Web site TwoOfUs.org posted an article titled “The Impact of Cohabiting on Children” that said, “While many people dismiss the state of matrimony as ‘just a piece of paper,’ there are some significant differences between living together and marriage.”
As Boston Globe columnist Tom Kean warned, “Not getting married at all could prove tragic. . . . Millennials waiting for marriage is probably to the good. But they—and everyone else— will regret it if they wait too long.”
In short, marriage is still important.