Finding God in All Things: Marriage Beyond the Hollywood Hype

Colleen Carroll Campbell
From the Mar/Apr 2007 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine

Is marriage a raw deal? If primetime television dramas and syndicated sitcoms are any indication, the answer is an unequivocal “yes.”

The small screen brims with images of miserable married couples having far less fun than their swinging single or divorced counterparts. ABC’sDesperate Housewives celebrates marital infidelity while NBC’s Will and Grace centers on the gay dating scene and reruns of Friends and Sex and the City promote the pleasures of promiscuity. Faithful married men and women, meanwhile, are depicted alternately as boring, boorish, or borderline miserable. Fathers come out looking especially silly: The bumbling sitcom Dad, roundly mocked by an exasperated wife and children who have little use for him, is a staple of the small screen.

Yet like so much of what Hollywood produces, its caricatures of family life bear little resemblance to reality. To hear the social scientists tell it, the swinging singles—and their children—are the ones missing out. That was the claim made by University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite and marriage scholar Maggie Gallagher in their groundbreaking book, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Financially  (Broadway, 2001). The book pulled together an enormous amount of social science data, much of it from the university’s National Opinion Research Center, showing the overwhelming benefits that marriage confers on adults, children, and society. The authors used hard numbers to explode the most common myths about marriage, including the oft-repeated claims that marriage is good for men but bad for women, that men and women who live together are happier than married couples, and that children whose parents are in unhappy but nonviolent marriages are better off when their parents divorce. The Case for Marriage proved exactly the opposite: On nearly every measure available, married couples are better off than their single, divorced, or cohabiting friends, and their children have the best chance at success in life.

Since The Case for Marriage debuted six years ago, a steady stream of studies have emerged to confirm the authors’ findings and ignite a public conversation about the practical benefits of marriage that was considered politically incorrect just a decade ago. Social scientists from across the ideological spectrum are increasingly speaking out about a truth that Americans seem to have forgotten in recent decades: that the most proven way to guarantee a child’s well-being is to ensure that he is raised by his married, biological parents.

It is still a radical claim in some quarters, but the statistics are indisputable. On every measure from health to self-confidence to financial stability to graduation rates and rates of drug use, children raised by their married, biological parents do better than those raised in other types of families. That is not to say, of course, that children not raised by their married parents cannot succeed. They can, and many do. And children whose parents are in high-conflict or violent marriages often benefit from marital separation. But domestic violence is a factor in very few divorces today, and statistics consistently show that women who cohabit with a man are far more likely to be abused than married women. The escalated danger of abuse also extends to a cohabiting woman’s children.

The vast majority of children are better off if their parents stay married, even if those marriages are unhappy ones. Children whose parents split are more likely to live in poverty and state dependency, to suffer abuse, to become depressed or suicidal, to become physically ill, to drop out of school, to contract sexual transmitted diseases, to conceive children out of wedlock, and— if they marry—to divorce. Sadly, statistics show that remarriage does not change those adverse outcomes. The presence of a biological father and mother committed to each other and to their children through the socially supported bond of marriage is the unmatched ideal for child welfare.

That is true for many reasons, from the fierce bond a biological parent feels to his own offspring and the division of labor between spouses that makes child rearing easier to the economy of scale that allows married couples to provide more material benefits for their children than single parents alone. We also know from social science and the teachings of our faith that men and women are equal, but not the same. Children need both the nurturing of their mothers and the firm guidance of their fathers, and they need the sense of security that comes from knowing that their parents are committed to each other and to the family.

As for same-sex marriage, the vast majority of gay parenting studies that exist are based on comparisons of the children of single lesbian mothers to the children of single straight mothers. Not surprisingly, those studies show relatively comparable outcomes between the children, all of whom are fatherless and therefore prone to the social problems mentioned above. They are hardly a rousing endorsement of gay parenthood, and they offer nothing to contradict the common sense and consensus of social science that children need both a mother and a father to flourish.

Children are the greatest, but by no means the only, beneficiaries of the special protections and benefits attached to traditional marriage. All of us benefit from living in a society where men and women form stable, lifelong unions, support each other and their children rather than relying on government assistance, and raise and educate a new generation of citizens with the virtues needed for self-governance. We benefit from the sacrifices that married couples make when they opt for sexual fidelity, which creates social stability, rather than sexual promiscuity, which leads to rampant illegitimacy, child poverty, and the social chaos that follows when men neither know nor assume responsibility for their children. Throughout history, society has relied on marriage to serve as a civilizing influence on young men, whose erotic energies might lead to carousing and violence if they are not directed toward marriage. Marriage also protects young women, who are more prone to victimization and poverty when men fail to commit to marriage and support their progeny.

Traditional marriage, in turn, relies on a supportive culture. Marriage survives as long as it is viewed by a critical mass of the population as the only socially acceptable context for sexual activity and child rearing. When popular support for traditional marriage drops too low, and public policy ignores or rejects the inherent value of marriage, the institution becomes imperiled.

A culture cannot affirm the singular value of marriage between a man and a woman and simultaneously affirm the equal value of every other type of sexual union and child-rearing arrangement. Either the lifelong, procreative, public commitment of heterosexual marriage is an intrinsic public good deserving of special protections and social supports or it is not. If we believe that it is, we must defend marriage in the public square, answering Hollywood’s propaganda with our own common-sense refrain: that every child deserves a married mother and father.

Colleen Carroll Campbell is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a research institution based in Washington, DC. Author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy, Campbell has served as a speechwriter to President George W. Bush and as a commentator on religion, politics, and culture on CNN, FOX News, and PBS. She speaks to audiences across America and hosts her own show, “Faith & Culture,” on EWTN. To learn more about her work, visit her website at www.colleen-campbell.com.

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