In 2007 the Pew Research Center surveyed over 2,000 Americans for a study on attitudes about marriage and family. In one of the questions, participants were asked:
Here is a list of things which some people think make for a successful marriage. Please tell me, for each one, whether you think it is very important, rather important, or not very important.
Agreement on politics
Happy sexual relationship
Sharing household chores
Shared religious beliefs
Shared tastes & interests
So how would you answer that question? How many of those items would you list as “very important” for a successful marriage?
You might be interested to see how your answers compare to the survey results. Here are the percentages of adults who said each item was “very important” for a successful marriage:
Happy sexual relationship 70%
Sharing household chores 62%
Adequate income 53%
Good housing 51%
Shared religious beliefs 49%
Shared tastes and interests 46%
Agreement on politics 12%
Note that children ranked ninth on the list. The Pew Research Center noted that that in 1990 children ranked third (65 percent), so that's a big drop in 17 years.
Did Americans rate children lower out of respect for couples who cannot have children? After all, we know that couples struggling with infertility can have a successful marriage. And yet … that wouldn’t explain why the results changed so much in just 17 years. Why did so many people in 2007 rate children as less important to marriage than other things, including “sharing household chores”? Are children becoming less important in marriage to many Americans?
To me, these results were not surprising. They confirm a trend that has been developing for several decades—a steady redefinition of marriage with a greater focus on personal fulfillment.
Barbara Dafoe Whitehead writes about this in her book, The Divorce Culture. Her words are profound:
Beginning in the late 1950s, Americans began to change their ideas about the individual’s obligations to family and society. Broadly described, this change was away from an ethic of obligation to others and toward an obligation to self …
This ethical shift had a profound impact on ideas about the nature and purpose of the family. In American tradition, the marketplace and the public square have represented the realms of life devoted to the pursuit of individual interest, choice, and freedom, while the family has been the realm defined by voluntary commitment, duty, and self-sacrifice. With the greater emphasis on individual satisfaction in family relationships, however, family well-being became subject to a new metric … People began to judge the strength and “health” of family bonds according to their capacity to promote individual fulfillment and personal growth.
In other words, as a culture we are increasingly viewing marriage and family with an “It’s all about me!” attitude. It’s a seductive philosophy … after all, who doesn’t want to be happy and fulfilled? The problem is that when this attitude becomes too pervasive and powerful, you gradually lose a sense of obligation, responsibility, and sacrifice.
In her book, Whitehead showed how this philosophy led to a culture in which divorce is pervasive … without a sense of obligation and sacrifice, and lacking the skills to work through their problems, many couples are unhappy in their marriage and they seek a change.
The “It’s all about me” focus also can lead to a decaying bond between marriage and parenthood. Because marriage is all about personal fulfillment, a growing number of people not only believe that children are not an important part of marriage, but also that it’s not important for parents to be married. The recent Pew Research Center report (which was titled, “As Marriage and Parenthood Drift Apart, Public Is Concerned about Social Impact”), also noted that younger adults are cohabiting and having children out of wedlock “at rates unprecedented in U.S. history.” Nearly 37 percent of births in America today are to unmarried women, the report said. “Nearly half (47%) of adults in their 30s and 40s have spent a portion of their lives in a cohabiting relationship.”
I can’t help but think of what I learned the first time I attended a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway—that when God created the institution of marriage He had something much grander in mind than our personal happiness.
Yes, marriage is about companionship and commitment and even fulfillment, but it’s much more than that. God also created marriage so that husband and wife would reflect His character to their children and to an unbelieving world. Marriage and family is a foundational part of His plan for teaching each new generation about His love, mercy, and grace.
What our culture needs to know is that marriage is not “all about me.” It’s all about God—and we are so much better off when it is.
This article originally appeared in Marriage Memo, a weekly e-newsletter.