The Problem with “The Marriage Problem”

A new book says that modern society is to blame for the decline of marriage and happy families. But a return to traditional, patriarchal society is hardly a better bet for women and children.

Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)-Have democracy and women's rights ruined the family?

James Q. Wilson thinks they have. The influential social scientist is best known for his writings about crime and its prevention as well as his musings on ethics in books such as “Moral Judgment: Does the Abuse Excuse Threaten Our Legal System?” Basic Books, and “The Moral Sense,” The Free Press. But with his new book, “The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families,” published in March by HarperCollins, Wilson has now joined the culture wars. He argues that the Enlightenment-which produced the American Revolution, constitutional democracy and the idea that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are among our unalienable rights-also messed up marriage. In a recent appearance on public radio, he spoke approvingly of traditional societies as being better for children than marriages formed in western democracies. He specifically mentioned the Muslim world.

Traditional societies, of course, are almost by definition patriarchal, with women having few rights. A brief look around traditional societies hardly reveals good news for children. In some parts of Africa, 10-year-old boys are drugged, given guns and then sent into battle. In other parts, an AIDS epidemic has killed millions of children and orphaned millions more, because women do not have the right to demand that their husbands use condoms, even if they know their spouse frequents prostitutes. In Iran, boys as young as 10 were marched into battle by the forces of the Ayatollahs during the Iran-Iraq war. In parts of Asia, female children are sold into sexual slavery by their parents.

In much of the Muslim world, men have the legal right to beat their wives; spousal abuse is rampant, according to Muslim women who advocate for women's rights. Social instability, chaos and poverty mark much of the Muslim world. In certain African and Asian countries, some 2 million little girls are mutilated when their clitorises are ripped out-often without anesthesia. In parts of Jordan, teen-age girls are murdered by their male relatives in what are called “honor killings,” to atone for the sin of dating or having sex. Under strict Islamic law, young girls can be publicly whipped for being sexually active.

Actual History of Childhood ‘Catalogue of Horrors'

In fact, the history of childhood in the pre-modern world and in traditional societies, far from being a story of safe havens for children, has been a grim catalogue of horrors. While exaggerating the blessings of traditional societies in “The Marriage Problem,” Wilson also overstates the woes of modern childhood. Like others in the so-called “marriage movement,” he takes an extremely pessimistic view of any relationships other than traditional marriage.

He presents an unremittingly bleak picture of the prospects of children raised in single-parent families. But we need to look at the picture through a complex lens. Almost all social science data show that socio-economic status is the strongest predictor of almost any index of child welfare, not marriage status, as Wilson claims. The combination of poverty and having only a single parent-usually a woman-can be devastating for kids. But is promoting marriage an answer? Do we really want the 16-year-old pregnant girl in the inner city to marry her drug-dealer boyfriend? Wouldn't we be better off trying to insure that 16-year-olds don't get pregnant?

Wilson also ignores the dark side of marriage. Though overall, both adults and children get a host of benefits from good marriages, the situation for those in bad marriages is quite the opposite. There is overwhelming evidence, points out family historian Stephanie Coontz, that high conflict in marriage, or even silent withdrawal coupled with contempt, damages children more than divorce or growing up in a single-parent family. For example, teens in two-parent families who have a poor relationship with their fathers are more likely to abuse drugs that those in single parent families, according to Coontz.

And most children of divorce, if they have the love and support of at least one parent, grow up fine, says psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington, one of the best-known experts on divorce. She reports in her article, “Marriage and Divorce American Style,” that up to 80 percent of children of divorce grow up to be emotionally healthy and that only a small percent of children are troubled. As for single mothers, that's also a complex picture. The children of poor, single women may face daunting obstacles; the children of affluent professional women are a different story entirely. Lumping those two groups together makes no sense.

It would be wonderful if all marriages could be good ones, but that's a fantasy. Complex economic and social factors like the disappearance of the family wage for men, the expansion of opportunities for women, the increasing costs of health care and education, the crumbling of old taboos and the lengthening of the life span have all contributed to changes in the way we live. We will not roll back history-and what Stephanie Coontz called “nostalgia as ideology” won't help. Nostalgia is fine for nighttime cable TV programs, but you might as well wish upon a star as pine for the return of Ozzie and Harriet. Simple-minded policies to make people stay married just won't work.

Research finds that brief, untested counseling programs aren't effective. As Hetherington reports in her new book, communities must deal with jobs, education, day care and health care-the whole constellation of a family's needs-to make a difference for troubled families.

But that approach costs money. It's much cheaper for some folks to just go on wringing their hands.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.

For more information:

The American Prospect
“Marriage and Divorce American Style”:

The Council on Contemporary Families:

National Council on Family Relations: