Toward More Rational Discourse about Marriage

This exchange has been useful, in my opinion, because it illustrates that much of the public discourse about marriage is based on the illusion that there is more disagreement about marriage-related issues than there really is, or at least than there really is among some of the major participants. This illusory disagreement makes for some interesting, though not very constructive, debate and provides grist for the journalistic mill, but it isn’t conducive to development of effective public policies and programs or private efforts to deal with family issues.

For instance, I, a member in good standing of the so-called “marriage movement,” find little of substance in Stephanie Coontz’s latest comment with which to disagree, but that comment contains several gratuitous slams apparently aimed at that movement and thus indirectly at anyone involved in it. These include the references to the “family values crowd” and “climbing in bed with the religious right.” In fact, most pro-marriage activists never speak of “family values” (even politicians seem to have moved away from use of that term) and are not part of the religious right. Can Coontz seriously argue that support by some members of the religious right of such programs as the governmental marriage initiatives means that anyone who disagrees in any way with the religious right should therefore oppose those programs? The illogic of such a position is obvious. The programs should be judged by their merits, not by the characteristics of a small proportion of their supporters.

Vagueness and lack of specificity in the discourse contribute to the participants’ talking past one another rather than engaging in constructive discussion of the issues. I may very well have been unnecessarily vague in some of my comments, but I’ll let others judge that. I of course can more easily detect this deficiency in the writing of others, especially that of Coontz but to a lesser extent in that of Stevenson and Wolfers as well. I’ll address the latter first.

The essay by Stevenson and Wolfers is generally insightful and well reasoned (although, like all rational choice models, the one they present leaves out important influences, such as altruism, as Coontz points out), but to me it ends with a frustrating lack of clarity. The authors write:

…much of the current political debate is precisely about re-regulating marriage. Our concern is that this re-regulation may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U. S. family.

What precisely do the authors mean by “re-regulation?” What policy proposal is now on the table that stands any reasonable chance of adoption that would constitute “re-regulation?” The only possible candidates for that are proposals to change the provisions for divorce. A few persons want to roll back all provisions for no-fault divorce, but that is a fringe position that stands no chance of success. A less extreme proposal is to limit no-fault divorce to couples who have no children under age 18, but that has gained hardly any traction. Proposals with a greater chance of implementation are to extend the waiting period between filing for a divorce and the granting of the divorce (from 60 days to six months in my state, Texas) and to add fault grounds for divorce in those states that now have only a no-fault ground, the main purpose of the latter proposed change being to give ex-wives more favorable divorce settlements. It is not apparent how either of these proposed changes would undermine the modern U. S. family. My point is that Stevenson and Wolfers end their otherwise nice essay with a jab at shadow opponents and with vague, meaningless rhetoric that doesn’t contribute to rational discourse.

Coontz does the same in her most recent comments. “Family diversity is here to stay…” Well, yes, but what’s the point? Is the implication that no efforts should be made to increase the prevalence of the kinds of families that, according to the preponderance of the evidence, are best for everyone concerned, everything else being equal? If not, what is the purpose of the statement? Cutesy, sum-it-all-up concluding statements are useless or worse unless they convey a very clear and specific meaning.

It seems to me that constructive debate about marriage needs to deal explicitly with the issues that are on the table and about which policy decisions need to be made in the foreseeable future, and it needs to involve real persons who are at the table. Attacking marginal and fringe positions is not helpful, nor are slams and slurs against unidentified persons deemed guilty of nostalgia, hysteria, hand-wringing, or similar sins and shortcomings. In other words, let’s be done with the name calling and get down to evaluating the specifics of what important players are advocating.

Let’s continue the discussion, but let’s do it in a way that promotes the finding of common ground and movement toward solutions to problems that most of us agree exist.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In this month’s lead essay, historian Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, briefly lays out the history of marriage to understand its present and future. “Today, when a marriage works,” Coontz argues, “it delivers more benefits to its members — adults and children — than ever before.” However, “the same things that have made so many modern marriages more intimate, fair, and protective have simultaneously made marriage itself more optional and more contingent on successful negotiation.” Instead of trying to resurrect a bygone ideal of marriage, those of us interested in encouraging healthy families now need to focus on what makes unmarried co-parents, single parents, cohabiting couples, as well as contemporary marriages successful on their own terms.

Response Essays

  • Kay S. Hymowitz, the William E. Simon fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues that Stephanie Coontz’s sketch of the state of marriage is badly incomplete, failing to acknowledge the class divide in marriage and childrearing. “This marriage gap,” she writes, “has profound implications for our political, social and economic prospects for one simple reason: overall, children do better in life if they are raised by their own married parents.” According to Hymowitz, “The de-linking of marriage and childrearing is a particular dilemma in the Unites States … [W]hat you have is a recipe for entrenched, trans-generational poverty, inequality, racial disparities …, reduced social and economic mobility, and — libertarians take note! — demands for government taxes to fund programs to correct the mess.”

  • Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the Univesity of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “re-frame Coontz’s careful history of the family in the language of economics,” exploring the economic forces underlying changes in marriage. Modern marriage, Stevenson and Wolfers argue, is marked by “a shift from the family as a forum for shared production, to shared consumption.” Modern marriage, which they call “hedonic marriage,” is more centered on love and companionship. Marriage as such isn’t doomed, they claim, but “marriage in which one person specializes in the home while the other person specializes in the market is indeed doomed,” especially as women’s educational levels begin to surpass men’s. Attempts to “re-regulate” the family to fit a classic ideal, they argue “may actually be a force undermining the dynamic institution that is the modern U.S. family.”

  • In his reply, University of Texas sociologist Norval D. Glenn, identifies Stephanie Coontz as a member of the “family-change-is-irreversible school of thought,” which he says “includes the view that attempts to retard, stop, or reverse any major aspect of recent family change are futile and thus are at best a waste of effort and at worst downright harmful…” But, Glenn asks, don’t liberals generally think policy can mitigate the consequences of economic change? Moreover, is anyone really asking to return to some Golden Age of marriage? There is evidence, Glenn submits, that marriage trends will further improve and that policy interventions, like marriage education, can help.