The Real Challenge to Marriage

Traditional marriage—you know, one man-one woman, life-long lovers and best friends, faithful and true until death do them part—still looks good, in a wistful, nostalgic kind of way, but it’s under threat in America today. The fiftieth wedding anniversary may go the way of the dinosaur, ocean-caught salmon and the SUV. But the greatest challenge to marriage today is neither feminism nor gay rights. It’s us.

Marriage is in trouble. I say this not because for me the glass is always, at best, half full. Hard statistics bear this out. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the average American first marriage lasts just eight years. Close to half of all marriages (fully 48% of them) will end in divorce. That’s about the same rate of success that NHL hockey players have when taking penalty shots.

Now here’s a shocker. The marital success rate for self-professing Christians is not significantly higher or lower than the national average. Despite all our rhetoric about family values and moral virtue, and our focus on the family, we self-professing Christian believers in America are seeing our marriages dissolve at roughly the same rate as do the general populace. This reality was brought to light a few years by the Barna Research Group—the pollsters of choice for the evangelical community. Now the devil is in the details, or the small print. This finding was based on a research tool that identified Christians purely on the basis of self-reportage. They said they were Christians (which is, when you think about it, fairly easy to do). But when a follow-up study compared national divorce rates with the rates of those who actually attended church with some regularity, those in the religious sample came off looking better. The profile is still not great—horrendous, in fact—but relatively speaking, a bit better.

There is a lot of hand-wringing about this pervasive decline in marital stability. And there should be—not least because of the millions of innocent children who have consequently been deprived of adequate emotional security, sustained nurturing and guidance, and a decent standard of living because their parents fought a lot and finally broke up.

So what is the cause of all this?

I know some people who blame feminism. Women are out there now in the workplace, instead of safely at home in the kitchen, and they get hit on and seduced. Or they start earning their own paychecks and realize that they don’t have to put up with hubby’s irritating behaviors, and can manage on their own. Marriages were more stable when women didn’t have so much financial independence. Unfortunately it’s not just the shirtless guy in the den, hollering for another beer, who thinks like this. There are still educated people who actually believe it to be so.

Others blame gays. They view the legalization of gay marriage as a serious threat to the institution of Christian marriage. Such legalization presupposes a civil definition of marriage that is considerably more expansive than the traditional and orthodox Christian understanding of it. There can be no doubt about this. But for the life of me I can’t see how the State’s assessment of homosexual unions should threaten or destabilize in any way the monogamous, heterosexual, and distinctly Christian marriage my wife and I have been blessed with for over thirty years. I also doubt that this controversial legislation, if sustained, will undermine the mutual commitment of any of our married friends to each other. I don’t think we can scapegoat the gay community for threatening the future and stability of heterosexual marriages.

The greatest threat to marriage lies much closer to home. I think of C. S. Lewis’ sober self-assessment: “I am legion.” By uncritically imbibing the same toxic values as other Americans, we Christians are losing our capacity to forge lasting, mutually-empowering and deeply satisfying love relationships.

The problems start when we select a partner using a vacuous check-list of priorities. Use superficial criteria (like “he’s got to be hot” or “I prefer blondes”), and guess what? You get superficial. A promiscuous past adds more problems. Previously-indulgent partners bring to each new marriage attempt the ghosts of trysts remembered, and that is certainly not a helpful beginning. Even more seriously, we (and it started with us Boomers) have an under-developed capacity to nurture and sustain covenant commitments. We may not even know what a covenant is. We instinctively opt for taking rather than giving, and even our giving is largely conditional. In short, we lack the values, character, self-discipline, and in too many cases, even the basic social skills to make any relationship sustainable, much less a marriage, which is perhaps the most satisfying but also the most demanding relationship of all.

We too quickly ingest the latest dirt on celebrity hook-ups—failing to realize that many of these Hollywood types have the morals of alley-cats. We buy the lie that marriage is pre-eminently a sexual performance sport, and the key to success is some combination of provocative dress, wax jobs, stretching exercises and Viagra.

But marriage was designed as a permanent spiritual union of two gracious people, with sex as its sacrament and not its heart. So the greatest threat to it today is neither feminism nor gay rights. It is our own character and values—our own hearts. The way forward is to give first priority to nurturing goodness and faithfulness in our interior lives.

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