The sinking sanctity of marriage

“Marriage,” said the actor Gary Busey, “is the only war where you sleep with the enemy,” and most of us can see the truth — and therefore the humor — in this quote found on the Internet. Though they are supposed to be loving, marriages devoid of emotional bruises must be nearly as rare as unicorns.

But that’s the slightest fraction of the whole story, which I was contemplating the other day as I sat in a church watching my oldest son and his fiancee rehearse for their coming wedding, seeing the sparkle in their eyes and reading the words of wisdom in the printed program.

“The union of husband and wife in heart, body and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord,” I read, and I agreed.

I believe there is indeed a power at the root of being that beckons us to the commitment of marriage in our relations with the opposite sex, that gives us endless rewards there and that furthers humanity.

If that sort of theology doesn’t work for you, consider the facts produced by the social sciences. They tell us that married men and women are more likely to pronounce themselves happy and their sex lives fulfilling than single men and women. They tell us that communities adhere to the extent families adhere. They tell us that a chief cause of poverty is unwed motherhood. They tell us that children raised in single-parent homes are far more prone to be unhealthy, to be uneducated, to live lives of crime, to be poor as adults and to kill themselves than children raised by married couples.

And yet, we know that marriage — the fundamental, familial institution that has existed in every society known to scholarship — is in deep trouble in America, meaning that America itself is in deep trouble. Start with divorces — think of all the people you’ve known who have split up — and you get it that we are stumbling toward disaster.

When my wife and I were young, it seemed that about every time we became good friends with another couple, one of the pair would tell us before many months had passed that, well, it just wasn’t working out between the two of them. I would almost have believed my wife and I were poisonous somehow if it weren’t for the kind of scary numbers that tell us roughly half of new marriages will end in divorce.

I never make moral judgments in individual cases. There clearly can be very good reasons to end a marriage, and if you haven’t lived in a household of people who ultimately decide to leave each other, you cannot know whether those reasons obtained or not. But I am inclined to think a lot of divorces come about because of a self-centeredness that disregards the children or any obligation to anyone else or to society at large. Not a few of those divorcing, it seems to me, have been spoiled by affluence and tricked by romantic myths and were looking for a perfection that cannot be found. They may have gone into the marriage without thinking of it as something that should last a lifetime.

The other blow marriage has taken is the decisions of millions of women to have children first and think about husbands second. The phenomenon has been increasing to the point that a third of all American children are now born out of wedlock, two-thirds among blacks, and for a long list of complicated reasons. The answer may also be complicated, but begins with community leaders of all kinds stressing over and over again the gross misfortune for both the mother and her children if the mother does not resolve to delay pregnancy until she is wedded to a man with whom she wants to spend the rest of her life in a devoted relationship.

The answer to divorce also resides in coming to value the institution of marriage the way it was once valued — of skipping over the absurd radical-feminist position that marriage is a kind of slavery for women or the disproved modernist notion that divorce is not all that big a deal. It is not laws that are at fault, but a culture that will ultimately create laws to reflect what it most cherishes, but a culture can change.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)