Magazine article The Christian Century

Marriage on Trial. (Arts)

Magazine article The Christian Century

Marriage on Trial. (Arts)

Article excerpt

REMEMBER Vice President Dan Quayle's famous complaint about the TV character Murphy Brown, who became pregnant without a husband? Evidently those days are long gone. A season or two ago, Roz, one of the main characters on the Emmy-award-winning show Frasier, conceived a child with her boyfriend, let him "get on with his life," and ventured forth to raise the child alone. Last season two friends on Friends got very friendly and this season they will be adding a little friend to the group. Rachel will join Roz and Murphy in fictional single motherhood-land. There's been no culturewide debate about any of this--or about the casual attitude celebrities take toward adultery, serial marriages and elective single parenthood. Times have changed. And fast.

Marriage--Just a Piece of Paper?, a PBS documentary aired close to Valentine's Day, analyzes the historical factors behind these changes, describes the personal and social fallout from the implosion of marriage, and argues for a revitalization of the institution. The show was produced by the Religion, Culture and Family Project of the University of Chicago in cooperation with Boyer productions. Based on ten years of project research led by Don Browning, the program describes the current crisis in marriage and the consequent crisis in parenthood through interview with members of the academy (such as Lisa Sowle Cahill, William Julius Wilson, Judith Wallerstein), government (Senator Joseph Lieberman, Governor Frank Keating), community leaders (Wade Horn, Charles Ballard), clergy, therapists and so-called real people.

The documentary quotes the familiar dismal statistics: nearly 50 percent of marriages in the U.S. end in divorce; one-third of births are to unmarried parents (the figure is two-thirds in the African-American community); and households headed by divorced or never-married parents are more likely to live in poverty. Narrator Cokie Roberts presents other statistics that are less familiar but just as heartbreaking: 40 percent of children not living with their fathers have not seen "Dad" in one year; half of this group have never been to their father's house.

To some extent, the title of this film is misleading. It is not so much about the crisis in marriage as it is about the effects of this crisis on children. There is little discussion of the effects of divorce and ruptured cohabitation on the adult partners. In the segment "How Did We Get Here?" William H. Doherty of the University of Minnesota notes the increasing acceptance in his circles of the concept of a "starter" or "ice breaker" marriage, "with the expectation that your first marriage won't last." Both terms refer to a short, childless marriage that ends in divorce, usually before the partners are 30. The terms are becoming part of popular parlance. (A recent book by Pamela Paul, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, treats the phenomenon at length.) No interviews with "real people" explore the psychological impact of this shift. …

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