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The Way We Never Were

For much of the century, traditional "family values" have been more myth than reality.

Macfadden Publications/Wikimedia Commons

People have been predicting the death of marriage for almost a century. In 1928, John Watson, the most famous child psychologist of that era, predicted that marriage would be dead by 1977. In 1977, sociologist Amatai Etzioni declared that if current trends continued, by the 1990s “not one American family will be left.” In 1999, the National Marriage Project announced breathlessly that the marriage rate had fallen by 43 percent since 1960. And in 2010, a Pew Research Center poll found that 40 percent of Americans said marriage was “becoming obsolete.”

The marriage rate is calculated on the basis of how many single women 18 years and older get married each year. In 1960, half of all women were already married before they turned 21. Today, the average age of marriage for women is 27, so it’s no surprise that the percentage of women over 18 who are married is much lower.

But most people eventually marry. In 1960, only 2.8 percent of women and 3.5 percent of men married in their forties and fifties. Today, sociologists project that almost a quarter of women still single at age 40 will wed in the next ten years, and that 85 percent of women will have married by the time they reach age 85. As for the 40 percent of Americans who told pollsters in 2010 that marriage was “becoming obsolete,” most of them simply meant that marriage is no longer an institution you have to enter in order to have a respectable or satisfying life. Because we live so much of our adult lives as singles, it no longer makes sense to assume that marriage is the only way people will organize their obligations and commitments.

In 1992, I published The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap, a search for the supposed “golden age” of family values in the twentieth century: I found that the male breadwinner family of the 1950s was a very recent, short-lived invention and that during its heyday, rates of poverty, child abuse, marital unhappiness, and domestic violence were actually higher than in the more diverse 1990s.

Much has changed for American families in the 25 years since the book first appeared. The most dramatic transformation has been the cultural and legal about-face regarding same-sex marriage. The prospect of legalized same-sex marriages seemed far off even when the second edition was published in 2000. As late as 2004, 60 percent of Americans still opposed granting gays and lesbians the right to marry, and in 2013, 35 states had laws limiting marriage to heterosexual couples. Yet by 2014, 138 polls by 21 different polling organizations all found majorities supporting marriage equality. Then on June 28, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 that marriage was a fundamental right and could not be denied to gays and lesbians. Hundreds of thousands of gay and lesbian couples across the country, many raising children, can now enjoy full marital and parental rights.

Other changes reflect the persistence of family trends that were already well established by 1992. Between 1960 and 1990, the average age at first marriage rose from 20 to 24 for women and from 22 to 26 for men. By 2014, it had climbed further to 27 for women and 29 for men. Many more people now delay marriage until their thirties or forties, and some researchers believe that a full quarter of today’s young adults may reach their mid-forties to mid-fifties without ever having been married, although unmarried cohabitation has grown more common.

Many older “rules” of marriage and divorce have been transformed in the past 25 years. In 1992, living together before marriage was not yet the norm. As of 1987, only one-third of women aged 19 to 44 had ever cohabited, and cohabitation before marriage was a risk factor for divorce. By 2013 a majority of marriages began with cohabitation and living together before marriage no longer predicted divorce. But living on one’s own may be growing even faster than cohabitation. Today almost 30 percent of American households comprise just one person. Delaying marriage until one’s early 30s used to raise the chance of divorce; now it lowers it.                      

In 1992 I critiqued the panic over growing family diversity. My skepticism about the doomsayers has since been proven correct. Despite the continuing rise in unwed births since 1994, juvenile crime rates have fallen by 60 percent. Domestic violence is also down 60 percent. Parents today spend more time with their children than in 1965.

But I was badly off the mark in my predictions about the prospects for marriage equality and expanded reproductive rights. I wrote in 2000 that the controversy over gay and lesbian marriage seemed likely to persist, but that the long conflict over abortion and contraception might soon be mitigated by inventions such as the morning-after pill, which prevents a fertilized egg from implanting itself, and RU486, the pill that makes an early abortion easier and more private.

It turns out I got things exactly backward. Support for same-sex marriage soared, from barely a quarter of the population to almost 60 percent, and marriage equality became the law of the land in 2015. But in 2014, the Supreme Court struck down the section of the Affordable Care Act that required employers to cover certain contraceptives for their female employees, granting a religious exemption to certain types of corporations. Many legislators and business owners have tried to block distribution of the morning-after pill, refusing to accept the medical and legal fact that it is not an abortifacient because it acts to prevent implantation of a fertilized ovum rather than to dislodge an implanted embryo. And the past decade has seen vigorous attempts to roll back women’s access to contraception and abortion, including a massive campaign to defund and discredit Planned Parenthood, an organization that Republican and Democratic political leaders alike once endorsed.

Amid these many transformations, however, one thing has not changed since my book first appeared in 1992—the tendency for many Americans to view present-day family and gender relations through the foggy lens of nostalgia for a mostly mythical past.

Nostalgia is a very human trait. When school children returning from summer vacation are asked to name good and bad things about their summer, the lists tend to be equally long. As the year goes on, however, if the exercise is repeated, the good list grows longer and the bad list gets shorter, until by the end of the year the children are describing not their actual vacations but their idealized image of “vacation.” So it is with our collective “memory” of family life. As time passes, the actual complexity of our history—even of our own personal experience—gets buried under the weight of the ideal image.

Selective memory is not a bad thing when it leads children to forget the arguments in the back seat of the car and to look forward to their next vacation. But it’s a serious problem when it leads grown-ups to try to recreate a past that either never existed at all or whose seemingly attractive features were inextricably linked to injustices and restrictions on liberty that few Americans would tolerate today.

One example of how discussions of family life are still distorted by myths about the past is the question of how marriage has evolved historically. Both sides in the Supreme Court decision extending marriage rights to same-sex couples demonstrated confusion on this issue. In his dissent from the majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote, “For all . . . millennia, across all . . . civilizations, ‘marriage’ referred to only one relationship: the union of a man and a woman.” Its primordial purpose, Roberts asserted, was to make sure that all children would be raised “in the stable conditions of a lifelong relationship.”

In fact, the most common purpose of marriage in history was not to ensure children access to both their mother and father, but to acquire advantageous in-laws and expand the family labor force. The wishes of the young people being matched up and the well-being of their offspring were frequently subordinated to those goals. That subordination was enforced through the institution of illegitimacy, which functioned to deny parental support to children born of a relationship not approved by the kin of one or both parents or by society’s rulers. In Anglo-American common law, a child born out of wedlock was a lius nullius, a child of nobody, entitled to nothing.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, meanwhile, wrote an eloquent majority opinion in support of marriage equality. Labeling marriage a “union unlike any other in its importance” to two committed persons, Kennedy argued that gays and lesbians deserved to marry because lifelong unions have “always . . . promised nobility and dignity to all persons” and “marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

These claims are also at odds with historical reality. For thousands of years, marriage conferred nobility and dignity almost exclusively on the husband, who had a legal right to appropriate the property and earnings of his wife and children and forcibly impose his will upon them. As late as the 1970s, most states had “head and master” laws, giving special decision-making rights to husbands, while the law explicitly defined rape as a man’s forcible intercourse with a woman other than his wife.

Today, a marriage based on mutual respect and commitment is a wonderful thing for both partners and for any children they have. But a bad marriage is often worse than singlehood for the health and well-being of most family members. And insisting, as Justice Kennedy does, that marriage is essential to fulfill “our most profound hopes” makes it difficult for society to respond to the needs—or recognize the contributions—of the growing number of singles and unmarried couples in America.

No one can predict what new family trends and incidents will capture media attention in coming years. But it is safe to say that many Americans will continue to interpret new developments in light of historical myths.