A Symposium on Marriage and Its Future

By Walker, Alexis | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 2004 | Go to article overview
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A Symposium on Marriage and Its Future


Walker, Alexis, Journal of Marriage and Family


Marriage is a social institution but it is also a contested domain. In the United States, politicians at the federal and state levels strive to craft policy that presents marriage as a solution to such large-scale concerns as poverty and children at risk. At the same time, religious leaders speak of marriage as divinely inspired and imbued with a special grace. Perhaps partly in response to its elevated status (see Cherlin, 2004), gay men and lesbians seek affirmation of their romantic partnerships through legal marriage, an effort celebrated in some locations but thwarted in most. Public discourse about marriage echoes these themes, focusing on same-sex marriage, high rates of cohabitation, and equally high rates of divorce. To some, the conversation about marriage is all about children; to others, it is all about adults; to still others, it is about the social order and the very future of society.

Family scholars have been weighing in on this conversation. Studies of cohabitation and its relation to marriage, marital stability, and marital quality have proliferated, as have studies of the effects of marriage and the lack thereof on children. Yet marriage has always been a hot research topic. Sixty-five years ago, in the very first article in the very first issue of this journal, then named Living, Ernest Burgess (1939) summarized what was known about "Predictive Factors in the Success or Failure of Marriage." He argued that (a) researchers should identify more significant items to indicate marital happiness; (b) statistical procedures should be refined and adapted to enhance research efforts; (c) case histories should be used for validity checks and to reveal information on processes and interactions; and (d) a Marriage Adjustment Research Institute should be established. This institute would be composed of biologists to conduct exams and to search for heritable influences on "cancer, mental disorders, and physical detects" (p. 3); pediatricians to study child development; psychologists and psychiatrists to examine personality in marriage; home economists to advise housewives on diet, budget, and home management, and to advise researchers on organizing a research program; and sociologists to study the cultural aspects of personality adjustment. The institute also should advise couples.

Just a few pages later, Sidney Goldstein (1939) called for a White House Conference on the Family: "There is a deepening rebellion on the part of children and on the part of women and corresponding restlessness toward the routine and regimentation of married life" (p. 13). States issue marriage licenses, Goldstein argued, and then do nothing but wait "for the breakdown to appear in the divorce court" (p. 13). He asked that the federal government "...spend a little money in developing a program that will mean the protection of marriage and the conservation of the family in America" (p. 14). In the same issue, Pauline Wilson (1939) called for an extended and improved parent education program, better coordination between homes and schools, and an enlarged and strengthened secondary education program "more applicable and meaningful to the student and less academic than in the past" (p. 8).

To my surprise, the final issue of volume one included an excerpt from Pope Pius XII's encyclical, "The Family and Marriage in the United States," issued in November 1939. In it, the Pope identified a litany of social ills, including

... levity in entering into marriage, divorce, the break-up of the family, the cooling of mutual affection between parents and children, birth control. ... Oh! If only your country had come to know from the experience of others rather than from examples at home of the accumulation of ills which derived from the plague of divorce! Let reverence for religion, let fidelity toward the great American people counsel energetic action that this disease, alas so widespread, may be cured by extirpation. (p. 69)

In the current issue, Pamela Smock (2004) notes that researchers have been concerned about changes in marriage and families since the late 1800s.

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