ON SOCIETY

BY JOHN LEO

Marriage bashing a la mode

One of the problems in trying to shore up the institution of marriage is that so many of the professionals who teach and write about it--counselors, therapists, academics, and popular authors--really don't support marriage at all. Some depict it as archaic and inherently oppressive. Others give it tepid support as just one of many acceptable adult arrangements.

Another study showing this trend will be released this week: "Closed Hearts, Closed Minds," a report from the Council on Families, under the auspices of the Institute for American Values. The study analyzes 20 textbooks used to teach about marriage and family in 8,000 college courses around the country. The report concludes that these books are "a national embarrassment," offering "a determinedly bleak view of marriage" as "more of a problem than a solution."

Norval Glenn, author of the report and the council's research director, writes that in these books, "Marriage as a lifelong child-rearing bond holds special dangers, particularly for women, who if they don't find marriage physically threatening, will very likely find it psychologically stifling." Glenn finds the books riddled with glaring errors, omissions of data, and distortions of research.

Last week I read eight of these books and concluded that Glenn is right. The books generally portray families as loose collections of rights-bearing individuals. One book complains that the traditional view of family "collapses the interests of all family members into one whole." Marriage is depicted more as a convenience than as a commitment. As a result, children appear in the books as almost incidental to marriage, and authors expend great energy to show that they don't need two parents and aren't really harmed by divorce.

Families and Intimate Relationships, by Gloria Bird and Keith Melville, strongly argues that most problems showing up in children of divorce actually precede the marital breakups. Only one of the eight books focuses on the enormous accumulation of evidence that children in single-parent homes are far more at risk than children in two-parent homes. Most treat the single-parent home as an inescapable fact and glide swiftly past the findings of high risk.

Parent trap? The effect of children on parents is handled oddly too. In the opening pages of Marriage and Family: The Quest for Intimacy, Robert H. Lauer and Jeanette C. Lauer casually mention that children "clearly do not always increase satisfaction." They say "most studies show that marital satisfaction decreases" during child-rearing years, although (here comes their good news) "parents may find their marital satisfaction increasing again" after the children grow up and leave home. Later, however, they say 130 studies show that "the tendency for married people to be happier and healthier is long-standing." They also cite a Gallup Poll showing that 95 percent of Americans say family life is very important to them, compared with 61 percent who say that about work and 48 percent who say it about religion.

But in all 20 books surveyed, Glenn found that this positive news is muffled or omitted. He writes that "almost half of the meager space devoted to marriage effects is taken up with discussions of how marriage hurts women."

The worst of the books, Judy Root Aulette's Changing Families, is a feminist analysis mostly devoted to the question of whether Marxists or radical feminists are more nearly correct about marriage as an inherently oppressive institution. At one point, she suggests that the wife alone, not the husband and wife together, should make decisions on childbearing. Any wife who listens to Aulette will probably want to stay childless anyway, since she, too, tells us that "research shows that children may have a detrimental effect on parents' mental health." Aulette approvingly cites Marx's intellectual ally, Friedrich Engels, arguing that marriage was "created for a particular purpose: to control women and children."

In these books, what many of us see as the gradual collapse of the family is just an adjustment to social and technological change. In many passages, this collapse is portrayed as an achievement: The two-parent family isn't especially good for children, but luckily it is fast disappearing.

That view has been in retreat for a decade now, as evidence has piled up that family form matters. James Q. Wilson writes in Commentary that when the American people "look at the dramatic increase in divorce, single-parent families, and illegitimate children that has taken place over the last 30 years, they see families in decline. They do not need studies to tell them that these outcomes are generally bad." But the message hasn't gotten through to the determined and tiny minority that Wilson calls "the high culture," Mary Ann Glendon calls "the knowledge class," and most of the rest of us call "the cultural elite." They are still tossing out the old Ozzie and Harriet taunts and grinding out the same ideological tracts. The battle for public opinion may be over, but the losers are still writing the textbooks.



Back to DA*DI's Home Page