Further Erosion of Marriage Is Expected after Millennium

Article excerpt

Experts predict that married couples will be a minority in America within 10 years. But some remain optimistic about the institution and predict a marriage renaissance.

Marriage promises to be a top cultural issue in 1999 as worries deepen about the social costs of family breakdown. "I think the institution of marriage is in serious trouble," says David Popenoe, social scientist and leader of the newly formed National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

Marriage is disappearing in some lower economic classes, hardly is mentioned in Congress and is treated like "a joke" in sociology departments, Popenoe recently told a meeting of 40 family-policy experts at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. Meanwhile, "cohabitation is dramatically increasing," especially among people with children, added Popenoe. "This is something the nation has to take more seriously than it does."

Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, was more upbeat during the seminar. "I think that what's going to happen in the next millennium is a marriage renaissance," said Sollee. Florida and Arizona recently enacted pro-marriage laws and Utah's Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt created the nation's first commission on marriage.

According to Brent Barlow, chairman of Leavitt's marriage commission and professor of family sciences at Brigham Young University, or BYU, 88 percent of Americans marry at least once. But the number of Americans marrying is down from a high of 94 percent; within 10 years, if divorce and cohabitation trends continue, "being married could be a minority status." Government should care about supporting marriage because it has to "pick up the pieces" of marital and family disruption, said Barlow.

To discourage divorce, Louisiana enacted an optional "covenant" marriage license in June 1997. The license requires premarital counseling and sets strict conditions for divorce. To date, around 3 percent of newlywed couples are opting for covenant licenses, notes Alan J. Hawkins, a family-sciences professor at BYU, in a recent report. If, as expected, 25 percent of newlyweds choose covenant licenses, they and the thousands of married couples who "upgrade" their licenses will constitute a "significant" proportion of couples.

At the National Marriage Project, Popenoe and colleague Barbara Dafoe Whitehead have identified some knotty trends they believe must be addressed to revive marriage, including:

* People are becoming sexually mature younger but marrying later. How can society ensure that premarital lifestyles "will contribute to, rather than detract from, eventual marriage?"

* It is widely believed that husbands and wives should be each other's best friends. Does this role put an undue burden on modern marriages?

* Couples used to live near friends and family who helped raise the children. Does today's mobile society undermine marriage by keeping the burden of child-rearing solely on parents? …