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Is marriage simply a civic duty?

July 03, 2009|By DAVID YOUNT / Scripps Howard News Service

With the U.S. population nearing 307 million, demographers have revealed that, for the first time in history, married couples head fewer than half of the nation's households. Today, the typical American adult is unmarried, either living a solitary life or residing with unrelated persons.

During June, don't be fooled by those smiling couples you see in newspaper wedding announcements. Marriage, long in decline, is now a minority institution and shows no signs of revival. It's a cause for concern, and not just for sentimental reasons.

In recent decades, wedlock has fallen victim to a divorce rate near 50 percent. Second and third marriages contracted after divorce suffer an even bleaker success rate. Moreover, failure breeds failure, as children of divorce carry their experience of dysfunctional family life into their own adult years. Little wonder that many young Americans shy from making the mistakes of their parents.

But is marriage itself a mistake?

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To be sure, contemporary Americans retain their capacity to love and their desire to be loved. No one would argue that sexual attraction has waned in the 21st century. What has happened is that men and women who eventually do decide to wed do so much later than ever in history and with more fragile commitment.

Part of the reason is economic. Today, men and women alike typically carry heavy burdens of personal debt through their 20s, 30s and beyond. Theoretically, two can live as cheaply as one, but not if both are burdened by payments for college expenses and auto loans.

Nostalgia alone is insufficient to revive the married state as the way in which most Americans aspire to live. Marriage has been around long before couples were drawn to each other by love and romance.

The reason all societies hallow and regulate marriage is because wedlock is acknowledged as the cornerstone of civilized life. Gay American couples themselves illustrate this fact when they demand the right to marry. Civilized society cannot endure without couples freely assuming responsibility for each other and for their offspring.

Of course, no man or woman is likely to embrace marriage as a purely civic duty; it promises mutual devotion and assistance and the possibility of converting love into new life.

Imagine a society composed of single persons who hook up temporarily and at random, spawning children for whom they feel little affection and no commitment. That would be a society resembling a singles bar -- a long retreat to savagery.

Rest assured, there is nothing wrong with the institution of marriage and everything right with it. What needs to be fixed are the expectations and the commitment that couples bring to living together. Marriage can be revived, but only by one courageous, committed couple at a time.

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