First comes love, then comes marriage — but these two things are no longer inextricably linked to nor necessarily followed by “the baby carriage.”
A new poll by the Pew Research Center finds that Americans are de-linking children as the sine qua non of successful marriages. In fact, they now tell pollsters they rate “having children” as the ninth most important out of 10 markers of successful marriages.
Higher on the list are such factors as “healthy sexual relationships … faithfulness … household chore-sharing, economic factors such as adequate income and good housing, common religious beliefs, and shared tastes and interests,” according to The Washington Post.
For more Americans the purpose of marriage isn’t raising children, but rather finding “mutual happiness and fulfillment.” This is a big difference from 1990, when 65 percent of those surveyed told Pew pollsters that children are “very important” to successful marriages. Today, just 41 percent agree with that statement.
But don’t jump to the conclusion from these numbers that Americans discount the importance of having children. Parents say relationships with their kids are still among the most fulfilling aspects of their lives — even more fulfilling than marriage in many cases. But experts say these poll numbers reflect the times, as fewer adults marry and more children are born out of wedlock.
So, Americans have de-linked marriage and children and the majority no longer sees children as the primary indicator of a successful marriage. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? The answer is: yes.
It’s good that we’re taking a more analytical approach to relationships.
Just because one marries and has kids does not mean the marriage will be a happy one. Quite the contrary. Children add stress to marriages and even more so to bad marriages. No two people are ever going to be in complete sync on how to handle misbehaving children. Add to that the costs of child rearing and the stress of balancing work and family — and voila! You have just mixed up a recipe for potential disaster. Unstable marriages are more likely to short out under intense pressures.
If knowledge aforethought makes young couples more careful and contemplative before taking the leap to what everyone hopes will be a lifetime commitment, then these changing attitudes are a good thing. They show we are maturing as a culture and becoming more realistic.
If, however, young people assume the next step in the syllogism is that good marriages are so few and far between that they might as well precede marriage with kids, then our changing assumptions are bad.
I have never understood the thinking of women who surmise, “He’s not good enough to marry, but I’ll have kids with him anyway.” Shouldn’t women be just as selective, if not more so, about choosing a father for their children than they are about choosing someone to marry? Marriages can terminate in divorce. But a child’s gene pool is forever. If he’s not smart enough, hard-working enough, dependable enough, etc., to marry, why subject your children to his defective genes? I know others see things differently, but I’ve never understood that.
So if de-linking marriage and children means that more Americans are taking a more realistic approach to marriage, then this survey shows we’re making progress. If the findings mean we’re dropping marriage as a precursor to children, we’re doing nothing but back-pedaling.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)