The fraying marriage knot

A dozen young couples recently spent a cold Monday evening in a conference room in downtown Oklahoma City, answering tricky questions about their relationships, such as whom their partner's family most resembles: the Simpsons, the Addams Family or the cozily suburban Cleavers from <WC>"<WC1>Leave it to Beaver<WC>." <WC1>Such lightheartedness had a serious aim: getting the couples to think about each other and improving their ability to communicate.

The couples — all new or expectant parents, none of them married — were taking part in a workshop run by the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, a program that aims to help build and sustain marriages. Since 1999 the OMI has served more than 315,000 people. It is the nation's largest and longest-running of its kind, and probably the most successful.

Even so, workshop leader Boston Snowden told his charges, <WC>"<WC1>We're not trying to make you get married. We're trying to show you that there's research that shows that there are definitely a lot of benefits to marriage."

As Snowden's careful phrasing suggests, the politics of marriage promotion is tricky. Some bristle even at the phrase <WC>"<WC1>marriage promotion," hearing in it browbeaten sinners being forced into church and down the aisle. One of OMI's board members, a social scientist from a Democratic state, has said that "marriage promotion gets the ire of left-leaning individuals who see it as really connected to the Bush administration."

President George W. Bush's Health and Human Services Department did indeed launch the Healthy Marriage Initiative, which financed an array of activities designed to encourage marriage. Federal marriage-promotion preceded him, however: The 1996 welfare-reform bill, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, though largely the work of a Republican Congress, called marriage <WC>"<WC1>an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children."

Republicans are hardly alone in valuing marriage. A Pew poll taken in 2010 showed that 61 percent of adults who have never been married want to be, while only 12 percent do not. A 2006 poll of high-school seniors suggested that 81 percent of them expected to get married, and 90 percent of those expected to stay married to the same person for life. Wedding-themed reality shows such as <WC>"<WC1>My Fair Wedding" and <WC>"<WC1>Say Yes to the Dress" abound.

Nonetheless, as of December 2011, only 51 percent of all American adults were married and 28 percent never had been, down from 72 percent and up from 15 percent in 1960. The median age of first-time newlyweds is at an all-time high, however, which may make the marriage-rate decline appear sharper than it actually is: Some are delaying marriage rather than forgoing it entirely.

However stark the overall rate decline, it is not spread evenly. Marriage rates are higher, and out-of-wedlock birth and divorce rates lower, among wealthier and better-educated Americans. A bare majority of whites and minorities of Hispanics and blacks are married — 55 percent, 48 percent and 31 percent respectively. Majorities of all three races were married in 1960.

Similar declines and delays are occurring in much of the developed world, but Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who studies families and public policy, maintains that in America <WC>"<WC1>you don't see the same pattern of long unmarried relationships that you see in Scandinavia, France or Britain <WC>.<TH>.<TH>.<WC1> In the United States marriage is how we do stable families."

If marriage affected only the two people who choose to wed or not to wed, it would be easier to ignore falling marriage rates. With them, however, come rising out-of-wedlock birth rates. In 2010 40.8 percent of all births were to unmarried mothers.

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