BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
Marital status the most reliable social indicator
, November 24, 2012
MAYBE ‘I DO’:
Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness
by Kevin Andrews
(Ballan, Victoria: Connor Court)
Paperback: 496 pages
Reviewed by Angela Shanahan
Recently, we have had several attempts to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia, and one of the most powerful arguments for this is that spreading the benefits of marriage around is a good idea.
However, the irony contained in that argument for a bizarre social experiment is that all modern liberal societies are plagued by a new phenomenon — a retreat from the norm of the old-fashioned, everyday heterosexual marriage. Indeed, the gay commentator Andrew Sullivan has said that it is precisely the decline in heterosexual marriage that has been the catalyst for homosexual marriage.
Why marriage seems to be in decline in all post-modern societies, and what can be done about this, is the subject of the shadow minister for family and community Kevin Andrews’ new book, Maybe ‘I Do’: Modern Marriage and the Pursuit of Happiness.
Andrews is uniquely placed to consider many of the problems associated with modern marriage. He and his wife Margaret have for many years been involved in marriage education.
It is his familiarity with the personal aspect of the marriage relationship that makes this book particularly noteworthy. His study is a unique attempt by a politician to look at the intertwining of the institutional and personal aspects of a relationship that is the fundamental building block of the natural family.
Having myself written about marriage and family life for about 15 years, I can attest to the fact that there is a lot of research about marriage as an institutional phenomenon. We know quite a lot about the statistics on marriage — how many, who and when.
Of course, we also know about divorce and who doesn’t marry. Lately, non-marriage and its consequences have become a big field of study, mainly because of the decline in the birth rate, which is directly linked to non-marriage or very late marriage.
Andrews’ book has all those statistics, with the attendant appalling social and personal consequences. That makes it a valuable reference for anyone interested in the issues of declining marriage rates. The book identifies most of the current trends in marriage, and also has some interesting observations on why all this is happening, from the unique perspective of a marriage educator, policy-maker, husband and father of five. But what it doesn’t provide are any real remedies for the marriage retreat or what policy solutions the state can offer.
Andrews identifies several major negative trends that have manifested themselves over the past 30 years and how those trends have evolved. So, for example, the first major negative trend is the trend towards non-marriage, i.e., ex-nuptial cohabitation. This might or might not lead to marriage. It began as a common occurrence among the baby-boomer generation, and it led to a great many marriages, being the product of “drift”.
Consequently, as statistics have shown, for this generation the incidence of divorce after cohabitation which “drifted” into marriage is very high. Contrary to popular perceptions, a period of cohabitation before marriage does not always lead to longer, more stable marriage.
But now that trend has changed again, and Andrews is rather sketchy on this, partly because his book is slightly behind with the latest statistical data here. The divorce statistics have actually levelled off; and, although divorce is still a pretty catastrophic occurrence, there are simply not as many divorces.
Why is this so? The answer is fewer marriages. Drift still happens, propelled by pressure from one’s family to marry, and (interestingly) from the woman in the partnership. But the most recent trend is serial cohabitation. And serial cohabitation is even more destructive than drift or the trial-marriage approach — especially for women.
As women lurch from one relationship to the next, their fertility declines; their emotional resilience declines, leading to long-term problems; and for both sexes there is a failure to connect or establish intimacy. But, as Andrews points out, there is something even worse here. Accompanying the trend towards serial cohabitation is a big spike in the number of ex-nuptial births.
A lot of women just give up and have children, often by many different fathers. In Australia, the ex-nuptial birth rate is 34 per cent of all births. In Britain, it is around 50 per cent. In the Scandinavian countries, it is the majority of children.
The culprit here is not as simple as the state taking over the role of the father. For example, in some countries the incidence of ex-nuptial births has been increased by a combination of the all-encompassing state control of children’s lives and a culture which does not value state-sanctioned marriage very highly.
For example, in most English-speaking countries, and even in France which gives family top welfare priority, the state has been forced to step into the father’s place because the father has disappeared. Intervention in place of the father then allows more fathers to disappear. It is the old chicken-and-egg problem. On a policy level, Andrews doesn’t offer many solutions to any of this.
But there is more, as they say. The picture becomes even more complex when one considers those divorce statistics. In Andrews’ book, the divorce rate is just part of the ongoing worsening catastrophe; but, as we have seen, the divorce rate has actually levelled off and started to decline.
Some commentators think this is reason for hope, a small indicator of a re-establishment of the “culture” of life-long marriage. This trend also points to a particular phenomenon, the rise of the companionate marriage — the marriage of equals — in which people will stick it out, no matter what.
But in truth, in 2012, it really points back to the fact that fewer people are actually getting married, and the ones who do are those who differ from most of their peers in their attitude to marriage. But even they are finding it harder in the shrinking “marriage markets”.
And this brings me to the last big phenomenon which Andrews tries to address — the so-called “marriage gap”.
The marriage gap is a bit complicated. It means, briefly, that the lower socio-economic and educational groups (i.e., those with only basic education), who were once likely to marry young and have children, are no longer marrying.
This trend is found both within groups, so that women with tertiary education are marrying (64 per cent by the time they are 30), but not their less well-educated sisters. In the past, the latter were precisely the women who would have been keen to marry young, have children and become stay-at-home mothers.
They do not marry now for a number of reasons. The sexually-lax social milieu is one; but it is also now harder to find anyone in full-time employment to support a family long-term. Nowadays, tertiary-educated women are not just marrying tertiary-educated men; they are also increasingly marrying men with good trade qualifications. These men have money; they are the new rich.
Meanwhile, poorly educated, ill-qualified men are finding it harder and harder to get permanent full-time employment. So both sides of this sexual equation opt for casual — hopefully long-term — ex-nuptial relationships, complete with children.
It is this demographic of 20-somethings, struggling to live the sort of “half married” suburban dream, who are actually responsible for the bulk of Australia’s ex-nuptial births — not teenagers, as is the usual view.
This is the marriage gap that Andrews’ book probably should have emphasised. Indeed, this problem can be addressed, as an issue of policy, simply because it is so fundamentally tied in many ways to the government’s handling of economic policy in general and family economic policy in particular.
What is more, the marriage gap is the single most significant indicator of other social trends, especially divisions of wealth and class within society. Marital status is one of the main pointers to who is poor, who is rich, who is well educated, who is floundering in ignorance — and, even more worrying, who is likely to be a good citizen, and who is likely to commit crime, have drug-abuse problems and end up in jail.
It is a sad thing to say, but Western liberal societies, which for so long have sought to achieve greater economic equality, can no longer be defined just by rich and poor, but rather by who is the offspring of stable marriage — and who isn’t.
The problem of a marriage gap within societies and within groups, and its relationship to other problems such as fertility, is touched upon in this book, but not addressed as fully as possible. And that is rather frustrating, because this is where Andrews could make his most valuable contribution.
One gets the impression that Andrews wants to address as much as possible in as little space as possible. His discussion of marriage, despite the handy summaries and the references to various experts, is a bit prone to being bogged down — and in rather stilted pseudo-academic language — in the personal aspects of marital relationships.
This approach derives from both his and his wife Margaret’s experience in marriage education. It is interesting, but tells us little about what policy remedies the state can offer.
Admittedly, the personal and public aspects of marriage are intertwined. After all, marriage is about life, and we don’t have two lives — public and private — just one. But public policy needs to be more hard-nosed if we are to hold the line against ex-nuptial births in Australia. Do we really want a society so divided between the marriage “haves” and “have-nots”?
We need to promote marriage and talk about marriage, and, just as importantly, publicise the overwhelming advantages a family derives from marriage.
Kevin Andrews’ book is a good start; but it is just that — a start. It would be great to have a more comprehensive look at the subject.
Angela Shanahan is a regular opinion columnist with The Australian.