Family Life in America: What’s the Real Story?

Family picture with siblings

Americans, it seems, have been thinking that they are doing pretty good when it comes to marriage—after all, the divorce rate has gone down 20% since 1980, right? Wrong. According to recent research published by Family Studies, the divorce rate has only declined by 2.2%. But the picture is even bleaker if we dig deeper. Family Studies reporter Kay Hymowitz writes:

When you control for the change in the age of the population between 1980 and today— the population of married men and women is considerably older now— the divorce rate has actually risen 40 percent. By these measures, after a brief pause in the recessionary year of 2009, the divorce rate peaked in 2011. 

The numbers tell a very disturbing story about marriage trends in America today. Divorce is on the rise, even as the number of unmarried couples living together is going up. Men and women are waiting longer to tie the knot—but not to have children. More babies are born to unmarried women than ever before in our nation’s history. And nearly half of young people ages 18-29 have a step sibling.

The authors of the research paper, according to Family Studies, say the bottom line is this: “Our results document striking growth in … turbulence since the 1980s.”  These patterns of instability weaken the state of our marital unions. Each fractured family chips away at the foundation of our society, creating fissures in the bedrock, so to speak.

The family is the basic unit of any society because it is the protective shelter into which children are born. Traditional marriage is the binding force that ties a mother and a father to their children—as well as generations past, present and future. It is a powerful, stabilizing force in society. The concept that families can be formed out of any group of people is simply not correct. A family based on loosely connected individuals will be just that—loosely connected with no ties that bind them together. But a family that begins with a man and a woman committing themselves to each other for better or worse, in sickness and in health, no matter what trials and tribulations may come their way, is the family that has the power of longevity. This is the stabilizing force of our society.

Children born into the stability of a committed traditional marriage have a firm foundation upon which to build their character, their self-worth, their morals and values. They understand the power of commitment because they have seen it in their lives. They value themselves and others. And they bring all of these assets into the world with them, building a brighter future for the coming generations.

It’s time to examine marriage and the trends that are weakening it in our culture, why they are so destructive and what we can do to strengthen the traditional family.


Why Traditional Marriage Matters


Marriage Patience Nelson


Before we delve into the destructive trends, we need to understand why traditional marriage matters. The family is the foundational unit of society, and marriage is the creation of a new family. This pattern for marriage was instituted by God with Adam and Eve—the very first two people on earth, and our first parents. Marriage and family relationships are designed by God not to last until death, but beyond the grave. Apostles and prophets of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) explained in The Family: A Proclamation to the World:

We … solemnly proclaim that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and that the family is central to the Creator’s plan for the eternal destiny of His children. … The divine plan of happiness enables family relationships to be perpetuated beyond the grave. Sacred ordinances and covenants available in holy temples make it possible for individuals to return to the presence of God and for families to be united eternally.

Elder Dallin H. Oaks, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (with the First Presidency, the governing body of The Church of Jesus Christ), taught:

Knowledge of God’s plan for His children gives Latter-day Saints a unique perspective on marriage and family. We are correctly known as a family-centered church. Our theology begins with heavenly parents, and our highest aspiration is to attain the fulness of eternal exaltation. We know this is possible only in a family relationship. We know that the marriage of a man and a woman is necessary for the accomplishment of God’s plan. Only this marriage will provide the approved setting for mortal birth and to prepare family members for eternal life. We look on marriage and the bearing and nurturing of children as part of God’s plan and a sacred duty of those given the opportunity to do so. We believe that the ultimate treasures on earth and in heaven are our children and our posterity.

For most people, marriage does matter. A 2010 Pew Research study found that marriage is still a life goal for many people who have never been married—61%, to be exact.  A 2010 poll of high school seniors found that 80% of senior girls and 72% of senior boys stated that having a good marriage and family life is “extremely important.”  It’s a good sign that so many members of the rising generation believe in marriage. We just need to give them the tools for success in marriage.


Religious Teachings Offer Tools for Success in Marriage

paper doll familyMarriage was ordained of God; so it makes sense that if you want a successful marriage, you turn to people who believe in God. But much has been made recently of reports that Christian marriages fail at a higher rate than anyone else. If true, this doesn’t bode well for traditional marriage. The numbers, however, tell a different story:

Research found in Christians Are Hate-Filled Hypocrites… and Other Lies You’ve Been Told, shows that couples who are active in their faith are much less likely to divorce. Catholic couples were 31% less likely to divorce; Protestant couples 35% less likely; and Jewish couples 97% less likely….

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who are married in the temple of God have just a 6.5% divorce rate. Research by Dr. Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and a leading sociologist at the University of Virginia, shows that “there is a big difference in the divorce rates between those who are committed to religious practice and those who self-identify with a particular faith.”  Thus one tool for success in marriage is to put God at the center of the relationship. Elder Russell M. Nelson, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, taught:

…Family relationships start with the love of a husband for his wife, and of a wife for her husband. Marriage brings two very different and imperfect people together. Husbands and wives deal with their imperfections best with patience and a sense of humor. …

Differences of opinion occur between husband and wife. But one’s objective in marriage is never to win an argument, but to build an eternal relationship of love. Marriage is sanctified by family prayer morning and night and daily scripture study. Marriage is stabilized by careful financial planning, avoiding debt, and living within a budget…. Marriage is energized by making prime time together. Marriage is protected by an absolute commitment to make it successful. 


Is Abstinence Really Important?

Most of the trends that weaken marriage and family relations begin with ignoring or breaking at least one of the commandments of God. Many in the world today view sexual abstinence as an old-fashioned mantra. But there are reasons that God has given this commandment. Elder David A. Bednar, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, taught:

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a single, undeviating standard of sexual morality: intimate relations are proper only between a man and a woman in the marriage relationship prescribed in God’s plan. Such relations are not merely a curiosity to be explored, an appetite to be satisfied, or a type of recreation or entertainment to be pursued selfishly. They are not a conquest to be achieved or simply an act to be performed. Rather, they are in mortality one of the ultimate expressions of our divine nature and potential and a way of strengthening emotional and spiritual bonds between husband and wife. 

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, further explained:

The body is an essential part of the soul. This distinctive and very important Latter-day Saint doctrine underscores why sexual sin is so serious. We declare that one who uses the God-given body of another without divine sanction abuses the very soul of that individual, abuses the central purpose and processes of life….  

But sexual relations between a man and a woman are also the means by which life is created. Elder Bednar said:

The means by which mortal life is created is divinely appointed. … Marriage between a man and a woman is the authorized channel through which premortal spirits enter mortality. Complete sexual abstinence before marriage and total fidelity within marriage protect the sanctity of this sacred channel. 

Thus, as Elder Oaks explained: “Outside the bonds of marriage, all uses of the procreative power are to one degree or another a sinful degrading and perversion of the most divine attribute of men and women.”


What’s Wrong with Living Together Before Marriage?

couple arguingAn increasing number of couples are deciding to live together before getting married. Some want to see if they are compatible, others aren’t ready to tie the knot.  Some think a wedding is too expensive and don’t see a difference between cohabitation and marriage. There are lots of reasons couples choose to do so, but the empirical evidence shows it’s still a bad idea if you want a stable relationship. To begin with, it is a violation of God’s law of chastity. Elder Boyd K. Packer, an Apostle of Jesus Christ, taught:

There is a practice, now quite prevalent, for unmarried couples to live together, a counterfeit of marriage. They suppose that they shall have all that marriage can offer without the obligations connected with it. They are wrong!

However much they hope to find in a relationship of that kind, they will lose more. Living together without marriage destroys something inside all who participate. Virtue, self-esteem, and refinement of character wither away.

In addition, unmarried cohabitating couples are leaving themselves an easy way out of the relationship. You can’t build a solid foundation by pretending to be committed when you really aren’t. And research shows this is true. Dr. Wilcox, citing research from sociologists Michael Pollard and Kathleen Mullan Harris, explained:

… Cohabiting young adults have significantly lower levels of commitment than their married peers. This aversion to commitment is particularly prevalent among young men who live with their partners. …

Pollard and Harris found that the majority of cohabiting young men do not endorse the maximum indicator of relationship permanence: 52 percent of cohabiting men between ages 18 and 26 are not “almost certain” that their relationship is permanent. Moreover, a large minority (41 percent) of men report that they are not “completely committed” to their live-in girlfriends. By contrast, only 39 percent of cohabiting women in the same age group are not “almost certain” their relationship will go the distance, and only 26 percent say they are not “completely committed.” Not surprisingly, the figures … also indicate that married women and men are much less likely to exhibit the low levels of commitment characteristic of many cohabiting relationships today.  

This is not a stable foundation upon which to build a relationship. Elder Holland said:

… Human intimacy is reserved for a married couple because it is the ultimate symbol of total union, a totality and a union ordained and defined by God. From the Garden of Eden onward, marriage was intended to mean the complete merger of a man and a woman—their hearts, hopes, lives, love, family, future, everything. … But such a total union, such an unyielding commitment between a man and a woman, can only come with the proximity and permanence afforded in a marriage covenant, with solemn promises and the pledge of all they possess—their very hearts and minds, all their days and all their dreams.

Can you see the moral schizophrenia that comes from pretending you are one, pretending you have made solemn promises before God, sharing the physical symbols and the physical intimacy of your counterfeit union but then fleeing, retreating, severing all such other aspects of what was meant to be a total obligation? 

Living together before marriage undermines the commitment necessary for the complete union of a husband and wife. Marriage is not just a piece of paper. It is legally, lawfully and in the eyes of God binding a man and a woman as husband and wife. They covenant to leave family and friends and cleave unto each other and none else. They give themselves body, mind and soul to each other. And those who seek the benefits of marriage without the commitment lose out on the security, stability and peace that come from the real thing.


Not Married… With Children

Next to life itself, the ability to create life is one of the greatest gifts that God has given to His children. It is a partnership with God as we give life to His spirit children. But with this gift comes great responsibility. I am always surprised at couples who say they are ready to have children together—but not ready to commit to marriage. When you have a child with someone, you are making a lifelong commitment. It just makes sense—and is God’s plan for us—to make this commitment to have a child in the protective shelter of the marriage covenant. A husband and wife commit to each other first—and then to their children. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states:

Children are entitled to birth within the bonds of matrimony, and to be reared by a father and a mother who honor marital vows with complete fidelity. …  By divine design, fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.

It is difficult for a man and a woman to raise a child as equal partners do if they are not a team at the start. And unwed parenthood translates into chaos for the children involved—whether the parents are cohabitating or living separately. Children do not thrive in this chaotic environment. Dr. Wilcox wrote:

… Cohabitation looks a lot less appealing from the vantage point of children who find themselves in a household headed by cohabiting parents. Children in cohabiting families are about twice as likely to drop out of high school, use drugs, or end up depressed, compared with children in intact, married families. They are also at least three times more likely to be physically, sexually or emotionally abused, according to a recent federal report. …

Why is cohabitation so risky to children? Compared with marriage, cohabitation furnishes less commitment, stability, sexual fidelity, and safety to romantic partners and their children. Consequently, cohabiting couples are more than twice as likely to break up and four times more likely to be unfaithful to one another, compared with married couples. All this has obvious implications for children in these homes. 


How Divorce Contributes to the Family Churn

unhappy teenIn addition to the emotional trauma of the family breakdown, children of divorce are often pulled into what has been termed the “family churn,” where mom and/or dad begin new relationships and form new families—sometimes with, sometimes without marriage. The risk factors for these children increase exponentially for premarital sex, drug abuse, juvenile crimes and other problems.  Psychologist Judith Wallerstein followed a group of children of divorce for 25 years. She interviewed them at 18 months and then 5, 10, 15 and 25 years after their parents’ divorce. She found that children were impacted by the divorce for decades. She said:

Contrary to what we have long thought, the major impact of divorce does not occur during childhood or adolescence. Rather, it rises in adulthood as serious romantic relationships move center stage . . . Anxiety leads many [adult children of divorce] into making bad choices in relationships, giving up hastily when problems arise, or avoiding relationships altogether.

Wallerstein and other researchers found that children of divorce don’t see premarital sex and living together are as bad things. Still dealing with the breakdown of their own families, they were struggling in their own relationships. It’s not just the breakup of their family but also the emotional impact of mom and dad forming new families. Wallerstein found:

The kids [in my study] had a hard time remembering the pre-divorce family . . . but what they remembered about the post-divorce years was their sense that they had indeed been abandoned by both parents, that their nightmare [of abandonment] had come true. …

It’s not that parents love their children less or worry less about them. It’s that they are fully engaged in rebuilding their own lives… Parents’ and children’s needs are often out of sync for many years after the breakup. 


Fractured Families Weaken Our Foundation

Fractured families weaken the foundation of our society because they affect not only the adults involved but the children who are stuck in the middle. As Elder Oaks said:

Children are highly vulnerable. They have little or no power to protect or provide for themselves and little influence on so much that is vital to their well-being. Children need others to speak for them, and they need decision makers who put their well-being ahead of selfish adult interests.

Behind the divorce and cohabitation rates are the faces of people and children impacted by these decisions. Americans’ attitudes toward divorce, cohabitation, premarital sex and unwed parenthood are becoming increasingly lax, even as we are dealing with the negative consequences of these trends. The only way to reverse these trends is by teaching the rising generation that there is a better way.

Children learn what they live. And more and more children are living in the chaos of the family churn—with parents and live-in adults coming into and out of their lives, and without the security of the same two parents under one roof throughout their childhood. They live in chaos, and so they create chaos in their own lives. The way to reverse this trend is to teach kids the better way. Successful marriages require hard work, but they are always worth the effort. It’s time to teach this to the rising generation.

Lisa Montague is a staff writer for the More Good Foundation. She graduated from Brigham Young University. And is currently raising four great kids with her husband in the mountains of Idaho. She loves spending time with her family, writing, skiing, and making quilts.