Is Marriage Still Possible?

March 14, 2019 Updated: March 14, 2019

What is marriage? After a thorough exploration of definitions, David Blankenhorn offered his own in his book, “The Future of Marriage,” published in 2007 when he still thought that marriage so defined had a future:

“In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived both as a personal relationship and as an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are—and are understood by the society to be—emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents. That’s what marriage is. It’s a way of living rooted in the fundamental physiological and biochemical adaptations of our species, as developed over the course of our long prehistory.”

Note that Blankenhorn is not describing the elevated view of marriage in Judeo-Christian orthodoxy, as presented in sacred and secular works, such as the “Song of Songs,” the comedies of Shakespeare, and Milton’s “Paradise Lost“—works that emphasize the delight of man and wife in each other, the dance of the sexes, not their chronic contempt for each other. Blankenhorn simply sets out the basic elements of marriage, not only in Judeo-Christian sexual morality, but also as it was codified in the earliest known legal codes and has been understood always and everywhere for the past 5,000 years—but is no more.

The sexual revolution of the 1960s, with the Pill, pornography, and the normalization of almost every kind of sex in and out of marriage, broke the basic natural links in Blankenhorn’s definition, and with that, the idea of the sexes being made for each other, coming together in a sexual union ordered to the bearing and raising of children and a commitment to each other and to any children that resulted.

Instead, marriage has been redefined as a kind of state-registered friendship, with no necessary requirement of sex, let alone the one and only kind of sex that can ever result in new life (though obviously, it does not always do so every time or in all circumstances). Like friendship generally, there is, in the redefined version of marriage, no serious expectation of fidelity of the couple. The new marriage involves, for now, a bonding of only two adults rather than three or more. In this it imitates conjugal marriage, where the couple forms a single reproductive system of man and woman, father and mother, rather than having any inner logic of its own. As with other kinds of friendship, there is no permanence, no long-term commitment to each other or to parenting. All of this retreat from the principles of conjugal marriage preceded legal recognition of same-sex “marriage,” which was not the cause but one expression of the decay of marriage and its deinstitutionalization.

With the decline in marriage, the later ages at which it happens when it does, the increase in cohabitation, the decline in fertility, and the increase in birthrates out of wedlock, marriage is no longer the social institution it was for millennia. Although most aspire to marriage, it has become a reward for attaining adult status and economic stability, not a path to those things. It is one option among others, producing one kind of family structure among others. Even as an option, it receives little support from cultural elites. who strongly oppose any suggestion that it is preferable to the alternatives. The most senior family judge in England and Wales, for example, recently opined that Britain should “welcome and applaud” the collapse of the nuclear family and welcome diversity of family forms.

Describing the destructive impacts of “cheap sex,” a world of hook-ups and casual short-term relationships, sociologist Mark Regnerus notes that the route to marriage—still the goal of the vast majority—is “more fraught with years and failed relationships than in the past.”

“Once-familiar structures, narratives, and rituals about romance and marriage—how to date, falling in love, whom to marry, why, and when—have largely collapsed, sustained only in subgroups, and that with increasing difficulty,” he wrote in his 2017 book “Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy.”

Marriage Depends on Virtues

But is marriage as once understood still possible today, even as an option, even in sub-groups? Marriage depends on the virtues, such as self-mastery—controlling our strongest impulses and appetites, rather than being a slave to them. It depends on prudence or practical judgment, on justice and courage in giving others their due and keeping our vows and commitments. These are personal virtues, but we all live in a moral ecology where a legal code, cultural institutions, popular culture, and mores either make it easier to cultivate and exercise the virtues required for marriage, or frustrate our ability to behave virtuously.

I live in a small town where marriage and the virtues needed for it are highly prized. It is the home of a small, orthodox Catholic college with stricter-than-usual rules about students visiting each other in their dorms, let alone living together in dorms for both sexes (which do not exist). There is no sex week promoting and normalizing all kinds of nonmarital sexual behavior (instead students organize an annual Love Week), and no condom machines on or off campus. There is more community life among students and with the community.

So it is different from a typical large school with thousands of young people, who are, in the words of a recent graduate, “all corralled together in housing, with little to no interaction with adults, married people, children, elderly.” The students know and support each other and form informal networks of care and accountability. They organize student groups such as the Anscombe Society, which, as at Princeton, Stanford, Harvard, and elsewhere, examines the impact of the sexual revolution on sexual ethics, marriage, and family. The women students at Ave Maria also formed a group, Genuine Feminine, which examines the differences between the sexes, the impact of the sexual revolution, and how to help each other pursue better relationships.

The Ave Maria parish also offers groups and programs for couples, for men, and for various other ministries and groups. As in other parishes, the more formal groups and activities support the informal networks of care and control that foster the virtues needed for marriage to flourish. One example from a parish in Colorado is Families of Bethany, which brings together couples in groups, from which other, less formal activities spring, like a men’s group that meets weekly for coffee before work and is planning its own Bible study.

Such activities, informal and semi-formal, may be essential to a healthy culture of marriage. But there can be few if any communities that remain unaffected by the hookup culture. Everything in popular culture—movies, TV shows, music—is saturated with the message of casual sex. High-definition pornography is ubiquitous and addictive—a kind of cheap sex that cheapens all sex. Even staid detective series seem compelled to include preachy messages that normalize nonconjugal sexual activities and deny the brokenness of broken homes.

So my answer to the question of whether marriage is possible today is yes but barely, and only with a lot of community support and personal commitment. There is no utopia in our broken world.

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.