Unclear on the marriage concept

I don’t know anything about Evergreen State College, except that I’d certainly steer clear of one history professor there — and if she’s representative of the rest of the faculty, I’d avoid the school entirely. But let me back up.

In today’s NY Times, one of the top most emailed articles is an op-ed by guest contributor “Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College.” Coontz is not a nobody in academic circles. Judging by her website, she has spent her long academic career focusing on women and marriage, and has published many books on the subject. She looks like a nice lady. All of which makes more incomprehensible the fundamental thinking errors underlying her op-ed piece.

Her article’s premise is spelled out in its title: “Taking Marriage Private.” That is, she suggests that marriage cease to be something affiliated with the state and become a purely private matter — sort of like living together, except with some sort of preliminary party. To support her premise, she embarks on a laundry list of historic moments in marriage, which reads like one of the time charts on a library wall — all facts, no substance or understanding. The end of the article is, of course, the conclusion that the state should allow gay marriage.

But here I am, being conclusory myself. Let me explain what I mean about the intellectual flaws in Coontz’s chronology. I think the easiest way to do that is fisk her essay. I’ll apologize in advance for the fact that fisking her essay destroys the chronological coherence of my argument, since I’m responding to her sometimes random, vague, or misleading points in the order in which she makes them.

WHY do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry? For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married. [This argument may be technically correct, but it still misses by a mile the core issue, which is that marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic faith. Catholic marriage is not simply a formulaic procedural event. Instead, as one Catholic website explains, “Sacraments are outward signs of inward grace, instituted by Christ for our sanctification (Catechismus concil. Trident., n.4, ex S. Aug. ‘De Catechizandis rudibus).” In other words, sacraments lie at the heart of the Catholic faith. People who professed themselves married, even if they did so on their own, were still presumably embracing the sacrament of marriage, which obligated the church to recognize their self-imposed status. And to the extent it was a sacrament, people were not going to mess around lightly with the concept.]

In 1215, the church decreed that a “licit” marriage must take place in church. But people who married illictly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce. [See my discussion above.]

Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match. [True, but Coontz is being disingenuous in this paragraph by coyly handing out minimal facts. What she fails to mention was that, in the 16th Century, the Catholic Church, which hitherto had been practically indistinguishable from the governance of Europe, was suddenly being challenged by Protestantism. In England, for example, Henry VIII broke with the Pope and started the Church of England, with himself as the head. Nevertheless, he was a traditionalist and continued to be believe in marriage as a sacrament. To the extent he merged marriage and state, marriage had to be taken out of the Catholic church and put into the state to satisfy his religious requirements. The same was happening throughout Europe. As the Church faltered, the state took over, either because it was replacing the Church, as in England, or because it was trying to reinforce Church hegemony, as in France or Italy.]

The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry. [Again, true, but there are a few problems. First, Coontz makes it sound as if merely living together was sufficient to create a recognized marriage. The opposite was true. Common law marriages were hard to prove at law: the relationship had to be one of long duration, and both parties to the relationship had to hold themselves out to others as husband and wife. In an increasingly bureaucratized age, and in an era of greater social dislocation and alienation, however, these public representations became harder to validate, and the states needed a recognizable procedure for clarifying relationships. The potent amalgam of a mobile population, children, and the full faith and credit clause requiring State A to recognize a marriage in State B, meant that it made sense to standardize the situation.]

By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, “mulattos,” Japanese, Chinese, Indians, “Mongolians,” “Malays” or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a “mental defect.” Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce. [I’m not sure what Coontz’s point is here. That some states had bad marriage laws has nothing to do with the fact that states had valid reasons for passing basic marriage laws in the first instance.]

In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were “fit” to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners. [Ditto.]

But governments began relying on marriage licenses for a new purpose: as a way of distributing resources to dependents. The Social Security Act provided survivors’ benefits with proof of marriage. Employers used marital status to determine whether they would provide health insurance or pension benefits to employees’ dependents. Courts and hospitals required a marriage license before granting couples the privilege of inheriting from each other or receiving medical information. [Again, Coontz is being disingenuous by slipping in here for the very first time in her lengthy disquisition the core historical (and, perhaps, modern) point of marriage: children. Indeed, she doesn’t even make this point explicitly, instead euphemizing it as “a way of distributing resources to dependents,” and then trying to disguise the point with babble about Social Security benefits and hospital visits. At all times, in all cultures, the focus behind marriage is children and inheritance. When the Church controls a society, the Church sets the terms for marriage. When the state controls society, the state sets the terms. But it’s always about establishing patrimony, ensuring child care, and distributing wealth. To imply that this factor is a sudden mid-20th century phenomenon is misleading.]

In the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married. Cohabitation and single parenthood by choice were very rare.

Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people’s interpersonal responsibilities. Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households. [This is not an argument. It’s a glossy statement that hides the fact that the 40 percent of America’s children that are born to unmarried parents also constitute the greatest number of American children living in poverty. And the fact that people have identities outside of marriage has nothing to do with the societal benefits that arise from marriage (although I assume she’s trying to say that, in the 1950s, when “almost all adults were married,” all you needed was a marriage license to become a recipient of distributed state benefits. That’s untrue, of course.)]

Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect interpersonal relationships is increasingly impractical. Society has already recognized this when it comes to children, who can no longer be denied inheritance rights, parental support or legal standing because their parents are not married. [Whoa, Nellie! Did she just say that children cannot be denied inheritance rights? That’s certainly true in places such as Italy and Brazil, but last I heard, parents could still cut ungrateful American brats out of their wills. In fact, I know of one particularly mean-spirted parent who successfully cut her lovely child out of her will. I will provide for my children as part of my testamentary planning because I love them, not because the state forces me to. And even in the old days, when remarriage was common because of one spouse’s death, the break-up of a marriage didn’t necessarily deny the children of a previous marriage any testamentary rights. It just depended on the way in which the estate was originally devised, a fact all Jane Austen readers understand.]

As Nancy Polikoff, an American University law professor, argues, the marriage license no longer draws reasonable dividing lines regarding which adult obligations and rights merit state protection. A woman married to a man for just nine months gets Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies. But a woman living for 19 years with a man to whom she isn’t married is left without government support, even if her presence helped him hold down a full-time job and pay Social Security taxes. [Well, then, maybe they should have gotten married so as to take advantage of the government benefits. Polikoff and Coontz both get the argument bass ackwards here. They say because the law is unfair to people who make different choices, the law is wrong. It never occurs to them that the law is intended to increase societal stability, especially for children, and that maybe the choices are wrong.] A newly married wife or husband can take leave from work to care for a spouse, or sue for a partner’s wrongful death. But unmarried couples typically cannot, no matter how long they have pooled their resources and how faithfully they have kept their commitments. [Ditto.]

Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep — who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor’s benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn’t serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments. [Ditto.]

Perhaps it’s time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem “licit.” But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship. [Or perhaps it’s time for society to remember what marriage is about and, instead of shaping the law to choices that although beneficial to individuals are deleterious to society, Society should remind individuals that marriage is good for children and stabilizes society, that these laws serve a valid purpose and that those who, knowing the law, still elect to co-habitate, have made their choices and must take their chances.]

As for me, I’m conflicted about co-habitation before marriage. I did it because, in my heyday, everyone did it. I was very pragmatic about it, seeing it as a way to save on rent and as a practice for marriage. As to the latter, it wasn’t, of course, a point best made by a friend of mine who also lived with her husband before marrying him. She said that everyone asked her, “if you’re already living together, why get married?” She replied that this question showed a complete misunderstand of marriage.

“When John and I were living together, we always knew that we could just walk away if it didn’t work out. We were roommates with sex. However, when we got married, we stood before man and God and made a commitment to each other. Our vows were a covenant to the marriage. It’s not a contract. It’s not that, if one person ‘breaches’ the contract, the other person can walk out. A covenant binds you regardless of the other person. Since we’re married, John and I are much more careful of each other’s feelings because we are bound together.”

My friend was absolutely right. And she spoke that way before having children. As those of us with children know, that binding tightens when there are children involved. Even though children can put great stress on a marriage, their needs — physical, emotional and economic — are best met by a stable marriage.

When marriage is a miserably unhappy experience, even if there are children involved, it’s probably a mistake to try to hold the marriage together. However, if the marriage is tolerable, that combination of public commitment, religious covenant, and obligation to the children should keep a couple together, since their togetherness benefits their children and society as a whole.

UPDATE:  Myriad typos corrected, although I’m sure you can still find many more.

Non-traditional families are not good for children

One of the constant themes from the Left is that a traditional home, with a biological mother and father (or a home with a married mother and father who have committed to adopting children) is no better than a single mother home, or a two father home, or a two mother home. With respect to that first — the single mother home — they could not be more wrong, as even an AP article admits:

Six-year-old Oscar Jimenez Jr. was beaten to death in California, then buried under fertilizer and cement. Two-year-old Devon Shackleford was drowned in an Arizona swimming pool. Jayden Cangro, also 2, died after being thrown across a room in Utah.

In each case, as in many others every year, the alleged or convicted perpetrator had been the boyfriend of the child’s mother — men thrust into father-like roles which they tragically failed to embrace.

Every case is different, every family is different. Some single mothers bring men into their lives who lovingly help raise children when the biological father is gone for good.

Nonetheless, many scholars and front-line caseworkers interviewed by The Associated Press see the abusive-boyfriend syndrome as part of a broader trend that deeply worries them. They note an ever-increasing share of America’s children grow up in homes without both biological parents, and say the risk of child abuse is markedly higher in the nontraditional family structures.

“This is the dark underbelly of cohabitation,” said Brad Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia. “Cohabitation has become quite common, and most people think, ‘What’s the harm?’ The harm is we’re increasing a pattern of relationships that’s not good for children.”

The existing data on child abuse in America is patchwork, making it difficult to track national trends with precision. The most recent federal survey on child maltreatment tallies nearly 900,000 abuse incidents reported to state agencies in 2005, but it does not delve into how rates of abuse correlate with parents’ marital status or the makeup of a child’s household.

There’s a lot more in the article which, even though it admits that some statistics are hard to come by, nevertheless says that existing statistics show a very disturbing trend for children trapped in single Mom homes, with revolving door boyfriends.

I’m actually quite surprised that this went through the AP filters, because it’s a tacit admission that the conservative agenda, which promotes stable traditional marriages, is actually better than the alternatives.  I’m not saying, of course, that we should make it illegal for women to raise children alone or that women alone should be denied boyfriends, or anything silly like that.  I am saying, though, that one of the ways in which America can improve child welfare without more taxes and endless government programs is simply to promote traditional marriage.

Right now, between the devaluation of traditional marriage because of the pressure for gay marriage, the PC claim that single women don’t need a man (which is both a sop to feminists and to African-American women who have traditionally found themselves parenting solo, for myriad reasons), and the pop culture that turns its back on the old rhythm of “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage), the social and emotional validity of marriage as a prelude to children is at a low ebb — and children need us to reverse that trend.

Ward and June Cleaver revisited

Back in December 2004, I wrote a post over at my old blog site about how difficult life is in the 21st Century for June Cleaver. Since Blogger posts, after a certain period of time, lose all formatting, I’ll reprint it here, in an easy to read format:

I’ve been looking around at friends’ marriages, and wondering what makes some happy and some unhappy. And I keep thinking of Ward and June Cleaver, who have always typified for me the classic American division of male/female roles in a “married with children” relationship. She maintains the house; he pays the bills. They are polite to each other. She is the first line of defense for matters involving the children, but he is the final word, and all defer to him.

One could argue that, at least from the woman’s point of view, it’s a dreadful division, since she works hard, but he holds ultimate power. What’s weird, though, is that the couples I know who have returned to a Ward and June life-style have very happy marriages. Each knows his or her area of responsibility within the relationship, and that seems to take away from, rather than to add to, stress.

The other happy couples I know are those where they’ve truly mixed-and-matched the Ward and June roles. That is, both work, but both share equally in household management. Each seems to respect the other and there is a health give-and-take for responsibility. I know only two couples who have achieved this, so it seems to be a real rarity, at least in my circles.

The most angry marriages are those where the man clings to the Ward role, but expects his wife to be both June (household manager) and Ward (breadwinner). These are the households where the woman holds a full- or part-time job, and is also the primary caregiver for the children (when they’re not in school), as well as the chief shopper, cook, laundress, and house cleaner. Sadly, this is also the dominant model in my community, and I think it goes a long way to explaining the very resentful women I know.

The problem I’m observing is nothing new. Fifteen years ago, Arlie Hochschild wrote a book called The Second Shift, which examined relationships in which both man and woman work. I haven’t read the book since its publication, but my memory is that the women who carried the heaviest load were the yuppie wives whose husbands paid lip-service to an “equal” relationship in the marriage — a dynamic that precisely describes the married couples in my world.

What Hochschild discovered is that those husbands — even while claiming that, just as their wives added the Ward role to their June role, they too added the June role to their Ward role — were creating an elaborate fiction themselves. Their “equal” role in the house amounted to toting out the garbage once a week, or picking up the occasional milk. Those who laid claim to all responsibilities outside the house’s walls (that is, yard work), essentially mowed the lawn weekly. Meanwhile, their wives, who also held paying jobs, were handling shopping, cooking, cleaning, childcare, and all other miscellaneous stuff.

Ironically, those husbands who were most likely to provide real help around the house were the old-fashioned men who bitterly resented the economic necessity that forced their wives into the workplace. It was they who placed the most value on their wives’ work, and were therefore most likely to recognize the women’s sacrifice in leaving the home for the workplace. “Modern men,” with their views of equality, seemed to see traditional women’s work as valueless and were unwilling to sully their hands with it.

It’s interesting that, 15 years after I read that book as an unencumbered single, I look around my world and see that the book could just as easily have been written today, ’cause nothing’s changed. Apparently Ward and June were on to something….

It turns out Arlie Hochschild’s 18 year old conclusions and my three year old observations are still right on the money. More and more research is showing that, while men still enjoy a Ward Cleaver level of “life is good” satisfaction, augmented by more gadgets and better health than Ward could ever imagine, women are increasingly unhappy because of the burdens their Ward and June expectations impose on them:

Two new research papers, using very different methods, have both come to this conclusion. Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, economists at the University of Pennsylvania (and a couple), have looked at the traditional happiness data, in which people are simply asked how satisfied they are with their overall lives. In the early 1970s, women reported being slightly happier than men. Today, the two have switched places.

Mr. Krueger, analyzing time-use studies over the last four decades, has found an even starker pattern. Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more.

Over the same span, women have replaced housework with paid work — and, as a result, are spending almost as much time doing things they don’t enjoy as in the past. Forty years ago, a typical woman spent about 23 hours a week in an activity considered unpleasant, or 40 more minutes than a typical man. Today, with men working less, the gap is 90 minutes.

These trends are reminiscent of the idea of “the second shift,” the name of a 1989 book by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, arguing that modern women effectively had to hold down two jobs. The first shift was at the office, and the second at home.

But researchers who have looked at time-use data say the second-shift theory misses an important detail. Women are not actually working more than they were 30 or 40 years ago. They are instead doing different kinds of work. They’re spending more time on paid work and less on cleaning and cooking.

What has changed — and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends — is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short.

Mr. Krueger’s data, for instance, shows that the average time devoted to dusting has fallen significantly in recent decades. There haven’t been any dust-related technological breakthroughs, so houses are probably just dirtier than they used to be. I imagine that the new American dustiness affects women’s happiness more than men’s.

For women, it seems to be damned if you don’t have the choices and damned if you do.  Either way, the to-do list is too long, and the rewards for effort are too small.

It’s “random thoughts” day

I’m on another vacation, sitting in a cyber cafe, working at a small computer with a microscopic keyboard, so it must be random thoughts day. Thank goodness DQ is doing the heavy lifting.

The first thing that caught my interest is what Mitt said at the debate, which I really liked:

But it was Romney forced on the defensive on the issue of abortion, when Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback defended automated phone calls his campaign had been making that highlight his rival’s one-time support for pro-choice policies.

“It’s truthful,” Brownback said.

Romney called it “desperate, maybe negative,” adding moments later, “I get tired of people that are holier than thou because they’ve been pro-life longer than I have.” (Emphasis mine.)

The fact is that many people who came of age in the 1960s have taken a long slow journey from one side to the other. As my own change in political convictions shows, the fact that I came late to the game doesn’t mean I’m not one of the biggest fans. In any event, as I keep reminding and reminding people, the best we can hope for is a chief executive who appoints strict constructionist judges, since it is they, not the President, who will change abortion policies.

Indeed, I’m reminded again and again that, probably, the most important thing the new President can do is change the Supreme Court — and we must really hope that the new President is a conservative. I think I’ve hammered hope the point that, if you haven’t already read Melanie Phillips’ Londonistan, you must. It points the finger of blame at activist judges who decided that the laws and traditions of their own country were irrelevant, because they were connected to a higher authority of human rights law, courtesy of the EU and the UN. (As you may recall, some of our more liberal and aged Supreme Court justices have been making tentative moves in the same direction.)

I’m now reading Bruce Bawer’s While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within, which describes in chilling detail what is happening, day-to-day, on the streets of Europe as a result of the multi-cultural, socialist, non-democratically judge ruled European nations that allowed unlimited Muslim immigration, with full funding no matter the fraud, and has proven unwilling because of  its doctrinal blinders to deal with the inevitable Islamist nihilism, violence and brutality.  Bawer is a liberal  gay man who is mad, frightened, and finally aware the America is the last, best hope for Western freedom  and democracy.

Continuing randomly, Confederate Yankee continues to eviscerate the once reputable TNR over the Scott Thomas propaganda piece.  It now turns out that when TNR did  it’s little “we were sort of wrong” mea culpa, it left out  a few pertinent facts.  Whoops!

TNR’s not  the only one covering up information to score political or ideological points (or just to cover up journalistic  malfeasance).  Turns out that, again, the Times is guilty of allowing the publication of an article attacking Orthodox Jews that used as its starting  point a known false anecdote.  Starting with Walter Duranty, journalistic integrity at the Times seemed to have morphed into, if we beieve the underlying ideology, we are acting with integrity when we lie about those  facts to support our ideological  beliefs.  Incidentally, that’s psychologically similar to the European Muslims who have no problems breaking European laws because, as far as they’re concerned, such laws don’t exist.

Incidentally, since I’m in Times bashing mode (it’s editorial policies make it an easy target), let me just  direct you to an American Thinker article exposing its decision to publish a piece by known  Israel  basher — and Canadian — Michael  Ignatieff as he explains  why he can’t support the war in Iraq. Surprise, surprise!  It’s all about the “Jooos.”  As Babu said to Jerry, finger rhythmically wagging, “You are a very bad man.”

And the last random thought, a surprising report today that more women are living with the fathers of their children!  We used to call that marriage, but they don’t because they aren’t (married, that is).   I  suppose this should be heartening, but I find it depressing, at least from the child’s  point of view.  Marriage says (even though it may not  mean) “we’re committed for the long haul.”  Living  together says (even though it may not  mean) “I can walk out at any time.”  I think the former is better for children’s sense of stability, rather than the latter.

Whose common sense?

I like The Atlantic, which is an intelligent magazine that often manages to overcome the more obvious biases of magazines published for the self-selected intelligentsia.  It also has a really cool section every month called “Primary Sources,” that looks at various studies.  One of the studies at which it looked this month is a Rand Corporation study about military marriages.  Here’s how The Atlantic begins its story about the study:

Both common sense and informal surveys of U.S. soldiers and their spouses have suggested that longer, more frequent deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with the stress and uncertainty of combat, make military marriages more likely than ever to end in divorce.

I have to say, those “common sense” conclusions actually didn’t occur to me.  The women I know who divorce their husbands do so because the men are unfaithful.  Absenteeism for work — and a lot of these high income people get their high incomes because the husbands is never home, but is always away on business — doesn’t seem to matter. If you love someone, if that person loves you, and if you both are faithful and supportive, absence seems a less than compelling reason to get divorced.

I’ve also assumed that military people are more religious than your average citizen.  By that I mean that they go beyond just believing in God, and are the type of people who have an active faith.  My understanding of a truly religious marriage is that it’s a covenant, not a mere civil contract.  Covenants are for keeps, whereas contracts can be broken.  Although the reality is that covenants can be broken, too, I suspect people who enter marriage with that “for keeps” attitude are more likely to make their belief a reality.  In other words, military people might take their vows more seriously.

Given my assumptions (whether they’re right or wrong), I wasn’t actually that surprised by what the study really found:

The Rand Corporation recently prepared a study for the Pentagon on the effect of divorce on military performance and retention rates, and the results challenge the conventional wisdom.  The study finds no significant increase of divorce in the military during recent conflicts.  Researchers examined personnel records for every member of the U.S. military serving between fiscal years 1996 and 2005 (more than 6 million people), and found, to their surprise, that while the divorce rate has risen steadily since the state of the war in 2001, it’s still roughly the same as it was in 1996, when the military was under significantly less stress.

There was only one surprise for me in the Rand results, although, thinking about it, it really shouldn’t have been that surprising:

So, can married soldiers breathe easier when they’re parted from their spouses?  The men can, but the study found that the risk of divorce for female service members, particularly enlisted women, is several times the risk for their male counterparts.  Men, it seems, have a harder time waiting at home for the return of their soldier wives.

Think about it:  women at home have their social network and, if they’re like most mom’s I know, are completely bound up in their children’s lives.  Men at war have their social network and are in situations where, while their bodies may not always be faithful, it’s probably difficult to make deep emotional connections that will threaten their marriages.

The reverse is true, at least for the men, when the men are the ones on the home front.  Most men I know, while they may have “a buddy” or “a group” are less likely to have the solid social network that women I know have.  This is true even though the men I know are charming people and wonderful fathers who are deeply involved with their children.  Even if they’re the primary caregivers, they still seem to be more solitary “parenters” than their female counterparts.  More significantly, by being home while their wives are at war, if these men stumble and fall into a situation where they find themselves seeking (to put it delicately) “physical release,” they’re also in a situation where that relationship has more scope to develop emotionally, in a way that can damage the marriage.

My two cents.  What are your takes on this?