A new survey out this week from the National Marriage Project shows that marriage is an institution in decline in many parts of American society. This “retreat from marriage in Middle America” will have wide-ranging social and economic consequences, say the survey’s authors.
Another recent study of marriage, administered by the Pew Research Center, showed that nearly 40% of Americans believe marriage is becoming ‘obsolete.’
What is marriage? Is it a civil union or is it a religious institution? How do you define it? Is there a marriage crisis in America today?
The horse and carriage is old technology; new technologies such as Facebook and Twitter are actually making it harder for young people to communicate in ways that can sustain the kind of life-long, sacred commitment that I believe makes a marriage. But young people are also rightly concerned about the hypocrisy they see in our society where “marriage” is supposed to be sacred, and yet is not available to all people.
If all people are created in the “image of God” in our Christian religious views, why isn’t legal and religiously sanctioned marriage available to all people? The hypocrisy in religion is also another reason many young people of my acquaintance are staying away from marriage in its traditional, legal and religious forms.
The new technologies of Internet communication, I believe, really are one reason why young people can’t seem to identify with marriage as an institution where you commit yourself to one person for your whole life. My husband and I just celebrated our fortieth wedding anniversary, and I can tell you definitively that after four decades of marriage, it’s all about how you communicate.
I was visiting some friends recently and I noticed one of their young relatives sitting in a corner, tweeting furiously with a worried look on her face. She would tweet, check her phone again in a couple of minutes, and tweet again, looking more and more anxious.
When she went outside, I followed her and asked, “Is there something the matter?”
“I’m breaking up with my boyfriend,” she replied, looking at the phone.
“Why?” I asked.
“He says we’re not cutting it.”
“Why is that?” I ask. No answer. More tweets.
“You could call him and talk it through,” I suggested. She looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language.
Well, you know the end of the story. She never did call him and by the end of the weekend they had broken up.
You can’t tweet your way through four weeks of a relationship, let alone forty years. I do believe that the overuse of social media in the age of the Internet is a serious barrier to the kinds of commitment that make for strong and sustained relationships.
But beyond this problem, there is also the issue of hypocrisy. I know quite a few twenty-somethings, and several of them have told me that they don’t feel it’s right for them to be able to get legally married when their gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender friends can’t. I’ve also attended weddings of heterosexual couples in this generation where, as part of the service, this injustice is acknowledged and the right of all people to be married is named. And isn’t it tragic that LGBT people who want to get married and commit themselves to each other in a loving, life commitment are prevented from doing so in most states in the U.S. and by many religious traditions?
We as religious leaders have a hard time making a case to young people that a life-long relationship with one another and with God is possible when religious institutions discriminate. What does discrimination say to young people about God, and about the religious traditions where God is supposed to be at the center?
I believe hypocrisy by religious institutions, especially where discrimination is church policy, erodes trust in religious institutions and makes it hard for young people to believe that these institutions are of value in their lives.
Religious communities should be part of the way young couples find help in supporting their relationship through all the rocky times that marriage inevitably brings. But when the religious community itself seems shallow and hypocritical, young couples turn away and then they’re on their own trying to navigate their lives and their relationships without this support.
It’s a prescription for disaster.
I believe the best thing religious communities could do to help make a case for the value of a life-long, sacred commitment in marriage is to throw open their doors and welcome all people into sacred relationship with God and with one another.
And then, while we’re welcoming young people into sacred community, we might be able to occasionally recommend, “Put down that cell phone and talk to each other.”