Advice for A New Conversation on Marriage

FamilyScholars, 2013

Scholars and opinion leaders give their time and careful attention to pondering what advice to give those seeking to have a new conversation on marriage.

Subject: Marriage

Symposium Participants

Evidence and Humility in the Marriage Conversation

John Corvino is the Chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University in Detroit. He is the co-author (with Maggie Gallagher) of Debating Same-Sex Marriage, and the author of What's Wrong with Homosexuality? (forthcoming March 1), both from Oxford University Press.

One of Stephen Colbert's best jokes about George W. Bush praised the 43rd president for being steady: "He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday," Colbert deadpanned, "no matter what happened Tuesday."

In effect, my main piece of advice for those seeking to have a new conversation on marriage is to pay attention to what happened Tuesday.

By "Tuesday," I'm referring not to any particular span of time, but to evidence, and specifically to evidence that challenges our well-entrenched biases.

This advice is harder than it sounds. The line between steadiness and stubbornness is often both jagged and blurry. On the one hand, we become wedded to familiar scripts precisely because they're "tried and true." ("Wedded" is an apt metaphor here; we value marriage largely because of the stability it provides.) In a turbulent world, we crave constancy, and who can blame us?

On the other hand, reciting scripts is not a recipe for great conversation.

Which brings me to a corollary piece of advice: Good conversations involve both talking and listening. The marriage conversation, especially when focused on "gay marriage," has involved scant little listening. This must change.

It's not that we don't try, or at least put on a good show. I've been involved in public "Conversations on Marriage" where hosts pat themselves on the back to the point of bruising for their "open-mindedness" and "tolerance," only to jump right to their canned scripts – if not at the event itself, then moments afterward. If you don't believe that the other side might possibly have anything worthwhile to say, you won't hear them saying anything worthwhile.

Although all of us are prone to such closed-mindedness, the risk is particularly acute for religious believers who claim to have the Truth, capital T – from the Bible, infallible church pronouncements, personal revelation or whatever. Once you have the Truth, what's left to hear? The primary danger of religion is that it can lead people to believe they have infallible backing for their very fallible prejudices.

Of course, you don't have to be a religious fundamentalist or even a theist to be an arrogant jackass. And there are many orthodox theists who grapple admirably with opposing evidence (St. Thomas Aquinas is a nice historical example). Thoughtful believers can agree with non-believers on the following, at least: None of us is God.

I'm concerned, naturally, about how the New Conversation will proceed while many of us are still involved in the "old" conversation: the one focused on marriage rights for same-sex couples. That conversation must go on, since virtually no one is happy with the status quo: an untenable patchwork of conflicting laws and practices, with marriage equality in nine states and amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage in dozens of others. The New Conversation is a recalibration of priorities; it need not involve "throwing in the towel" on the equality debate.

But, meanwhile, there are important questions that deserve more attention than they're getting: What is the social and personal significance of marriage? How can we promote a healthy marriage culture, for both adults and children? How can we ensure fairness of opportunity for those who pursue other life options? (Not everyone marries, and not everyone should.)

There are also new questions that arise now that married same-sex couples are a permanent part of the American landscape: What is the distinctive contribution that gays and lesbians can make to our marriage culture, and to our marriage conversation? What does freedom entail, both for these couples and for those who would generally prefer to avoid them?

If we can approach these questions with rigor, humility, and grace, we might all learn something new. It's worth a shot.

Marriage Unites Fathers, Mothers, and Children

Heather Mac Donald is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal.

Children are the most important beneficiaries of marriage. Explaining why, however, entails propositions that are now considered scandalously retrograde. The most taboo of these ideas is that fathers are as essential to raising children as mothers. That proposition itself rests on other disfavored concepts, including:

  • That men and women are biologically different and that they bring, on average, complimentary attributes to child rearing;
  • That men on average have distinct predilections for risk, competition, and aggression, among other emotional differences from women, which will affect how fathers interact with their children, discipline, and bond with them;
  • That on average, sons look instinctively to their fathers to learn what it means to be a man.

As has been repetitiously and undoubtedly futilely emphasized above, these generalizations are based on averages; life is filled with counterexamples of super-nurturing, protective fathers and risk-encouraging, martinet mothers. Life is also filled with tragic twists of fate which turn a spouse into a widow or a child into an actual or functional orphan. Countless self-disciplined, successful adults have been raised by one biological parent or by none at all.

But we are dealing here with social norms. The fact that a norm is not always followed, whether due to choice or unavoidable circumstance, does not undermine its importance in establishing the ideal arrangement for living, arrangements which, in the case of marriage, have been repeatedly shown by social science to result in the best outcomes (on average) for children.

The very idea that men are of course expected to marry the mother of their children and to support those children already sends an important message to boys about personal responsibility. A boy who knows that society expects him to become a worthy spouse will have more incentive to develop bourgeois habits of self control.

Feminism is the greatest enemy of the above propositions. To stress that children need their biological fathers is an implicit challenge to the conceit that strong women can do it all, whether solo or in pairs. In the feminist worldview, men are at best an optional appendage to anything women choose to do. Moreover, too much work remains to be done advancing the cause of female equality to waste any time trying to rehabilitate the importance of men.

However unfashionable the opening propositions any effort to increase the incidence and permanence of marriage must advance them fearlessly and unapologetically. The weakening of marriage is due more to the dissolution of what were once core assumptions about mothers, fathers, and their children than to poorly designed tax policy penalizing married couples, say, or even to fatally permissive divorce laws. These latter are the product of a misapprehension about the importance of married biological parents to their children, not its cause. (A further misapprehension is the liberating idea that if parents improve their happiness by divorce, children must, too. In fact, children are conservative little creatures who in most cases would prefer that their parents remain together, despite conflict, rather than suffer the heartbreak of a father's departure and the necessity of pretending that parental dating and possibly remarriage are just a fun new development.)

It is an open question, of course, whether an institution can be reconstituted by advocating reasons on its behalf. People adhere to customs precisely because they are customary, less often because the individual has made a conscious choice to do so. Once a norm becomes optional, it loses much of its power to mold human behavior. To be sure, if marriage has in fact strengthened of late among the upper class, as is claimed, it has likely done so because status-obsessed baby boomers understand that marriage provides their children with a competitive advantage. The effort must therefore be made to spread that understanding more widely, above all in inner city culture and among lower middle class whites. The message is simple: the most important gift that a mother can provide her child is his biological father, united to her in marriage. If the "new conversation" cannot cogently and vigorously explain the importance of both biological parents to their children, it will not succeed in strengthening marriage.

Marriage Debate Still Vital

Ron Haskins is Co-Director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families and Budgeting for National Priorities Project.

I think it's a safe bet that, unlike the debate over abortion, the gay marriage debate will fade as a front in the nation's culture wars. When the Supreme Court intervened in the abortion issue by making abortion legal, the debate became even more intense and has not waned in four decades. The permanence of the abortion debate reflects a deep fault-line in our culture.

By contrast, the debate over gay marriage appears to be dwindling. Last November, three states became the first to approve gay marriage by popular vote; President Obama became the first sitting president to publicly endorse gay marriage; and several opinion polls have found that a majority of Americans support gay marriage. Like the change in American values on race, the young have played a decisive role in changing public sentiment on same-sex marriage. It can now be expected that public support for gay marriage will continue to grow and that gays will become a fully-integrated part of American society with only occasional outbursts of resistance from organizations like the military and churches, although even the military and churches seem to be coming to terms with the reality of gay rights.

Where does this leave the marriage debate? As the legalization of gay marriage spreads, the marriage movement may be somewhat augmented by the addition of new troops to the pro-marriage side of the debate. If true, this is a good thing because there is no issue of greater importance to the future of the nation than the decline of marriage and the ascendency of nonmarital births.

But Americans are still voting on the marriage issue with their feet: marriage rates are declining and young adults are marrying at later ages, both of which are contributing to the relentless rise in nonmarital births. It follows that the percentage of children living in single-parent families continues to grow and is now at an all-time high.

So even if the gay marriage debate is on the way to resolution, and even if the pro-marriage side has been slightly augmented, the underlying problem of declining marriage and rising nonmarital births continues to grow and still represents a major threat to the future of the nation. Advocates for marriage and marriage before birth still have a lot of work to do. Here's a reasonable way to conduct the argument.

First, the debate should be civil. We should begin by recognizing that the most formidable critics of the pro-marriage forces are reasonable people who are by no means opposed to marriage. Indeed, many or even most of them are married. Rather, their primary case is that even the most basic societal institutions evolve, that Americans are free to make their own decisions and to maximize their own interests regarding family composition and living arrangements, and that the solutions the pro-marriage side are advocating have only modest evidence of success. This case is now and will remain accurate and persuasive to many.

The marriage case is also reasoned and potentially persuasive. The heart of our case is that both the adults and children who live inside the institution of marriage tend to be happier, healthier, and richer. The most important pro-marriage argument is that children grow and develop best when they live with their married parents. Even so, the nation is now burdening its children with government debt and forcing a rising share of them to live in single-parent families where we know they are less likely to flourish.

Worse, marriage is declining and nonmarital births are rising most rapidly among the 60 percent of Americans who have a high school degree or less. By contrast, those with a college degree, who are already advantaged, have high marriage rates, low divorce rates, and almost non-existent nonmarital birth rates. Thus, family composition is now adding to the already considerable difficulties imposed on the majority of Americans without a college degree, further complicating the nation's problems with opportunity and inequality.

The facts about the costs to children, adults, and society by the dissolution of the married couple family living with their children are arresting. The pro-marriage argument is powerful and potentially persuasive to young adults. We should continue to make the argument whenever and wherever we can, and to recruit new voices–scholars, community leaders, church officials, politicians–to our side.

Three Questions for the New Marriage Movement

Maggie Gallagher is the author of four books on marriage and a Senior Fellow at the American Principles Project. She blogs at

Back in the year 2000, in the old new marriage conversation, we said in The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles: "Marriage is a universal human institution, the way in which every known society conspires to obtain for each child the love, attention and resources of a mother and father." In today's new marriage conversation, we say "because marriage is the main institution governing the link between the spousal association and the parent-child association, marriage is society's most pro-child institution."

That is the difference gay marriage makes about how we converse about marriage.

Back in the year 2000, we who signed The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles understood that we were arguing with people who said that family structure doesn't matter, that the only thing that counts is family process.

With gay marriage, that rift is healed, because with gay marriage, the old debate between family structure and family process conceptually collapses. In whatever ways we believe marriage matters, in this new conversation, it is not because there is one kind of family structure that is best for children.

With gay marriage, marriage is no longer a vehicle for stabilizing a certain kind of family structure, rooted in deep and enduring human realities, but a kind of instrumental vehicle for expressing adults' and society's longing for important goods like commitment, stability and love–things that may be achieved elsewhere, but are undoubtedly more likely to be achieved in marriage, statistically speaking. Well, love, stability and commitment are all good things.

David Blankenhorn set out 25 years ago to rescue marriage from the sterile and angry culture wars, to create a new consensus that commitment to children and marriage were social goods. With “A Call to A New Conversation on Marriage,” he and the Institute for American Values now seeks to do so once again adapting, as the Marines say, to realities he didn't create but embraces as the conditions of the current fight.

It's always possible to do things a little better or a little worse. Here are the three great questions I believe we will need to answer to rebuild marriage as the normal, usual, and generally reliable way to raise children:

  1. How do we bridge the gender divide?

    Not long ago I stood on stage with Andrew Sullivan while he said "The gay and lesbian communities are like oil and water, it takes a great deal of energy to keep them together."
    Men and women are quite different and tend to pull apart unless pulled together by sexual desire. The desire that pulls them together is not enough on its own to keep them together over the lifetime necessary to build an enduring family for children. The collapse of marriage, as David Lapp's work shows in the great middle class, is the collapse of the social effort to bridge the gender divide, particularly to find a way to create men women want to marry (and who want to marry women).
    Our current project, which is to have genderless sex and family norms, is an abject failure in the key task of creating marriageable men–men that women want to marry and who are good for the women they marry. There are many statistics I could offer in proof of this proposition but let me just give you this one: Nearly one out of four 18-year-old boys with college-educated parents is illiterate, more than 3 times the rate of girls.Our civilization is failing boys massively to the detriment of both sexes, and yet we cannot (because we are committed to genderless norms) even name the problem, much less address it.
    Most human societies for most of human histories devoted enormous energy to giving social meanings to gender– creating in each sex a profound need for the other. We are engaged in the reverse process of attempting to raise men and women who do not need one another, and I fear we are succeeding.

  2. Will the creative class make room for the needs of the procreative class?
    I think Joel Kotkin and his colleagues are right: We are entering an era of post-familialism, where the family, rather than being seen as a key and necessary institution for the common good, is viewed primarily as one more locus of self-realization.
    Most of our institutions are not built the way families are, their norms, needs and ideals are radically different from what families require.
    The "creative class" is a term coined by Richard Florida to describe the confluence of thinkers, artists, and entrepreneurs that attract others to city life. He now makes a living advising cities how to attract the creative class. Meanwhile cities are becoming unlivable for families, drained of children. There's something important in that metaphor about the larger trends we face.
    Are we going to subordinate the needs of the procreative class to the needs, norms and institutions of the creative class or will we find a way to bridge that divide?
  3. How much will we tolerate religion?

    Religious ethics are almost all deeply familial institutions–one reason Brad Wilcox speculates that college grads (who are more likely to be married) are also more likely to attend church, temple, or synagogue. Forty-six percent of college-educated white Americans between 25 and 44 attend church, compared to 23 percent of less educated white Americans.
    If there is to be a marriage revival, the most likely candidate for leading it is religious communities. Yet our unfolding gay marriage debate subjects these very institutions, their schools, and charities, to new scrutiny, repressing one of the main potential voices for renewal.

I am only one voice. Perhaps others can see a pathway I cannot now see.

It Needs To Be About All of Us

Susan Dutton is Founder and President of Smart Relationships.

In my view, it is a great misfortune that the word marriage has been politicized because two very different issues are confounded in our public discourse. The first advice I would give anyone seeking to join the national conversation on marriage for purposes of forging a consensus would be to disentangle the two issues and let the conversations be conducted separately.

The first issue that has created rancor and divided Americans is the issue of who gets to be married and why? This is the world of family and property law, divorce reform, and religious ideology. The answer to this question is already being fought out at the state polls. For those with a passion for the political side of the marriage conversation, I believe that to be the appropriate arena for action.

The way I understand the call for a new conversation on marriage, however, relates to the second issue – one that all Americans should take seriously and unite around. We have, as David Popenoe of Rutgers University stated, the weakest families in the Western world based on the number of single parents and the rates of divorce and cohabitation. What must we do to strengthen this vital building block of society?

The process of addressing the latter question should not be a political battleground. I believe answering it also requires that we reconcile two claims that seem, currently, to be competing in public dialogue. The first is the claim of children to safety, stability, loving nurture, and the freedom of innocence. The second is the claim of adults to the pursuit of happiness.

I believe we need to start the new conversation on marriage by declaring that juxtaposition of individual claims is a false premise. We all, together, form a society. The needs of all members of our society surely can be seen to coalesce into a common vision for social good where our families are concerned. In this light we need to seriously consider policies and approaches to strengthen all American families.

  • What can be done to meet the needs of the single parent and his or her children?
  • What can be done to help the families that are cohabitating, either because marriage is denied or because it is avoided out of fear, or financial considerations? These families include older couples, same sex couples, and many of our young couples who are currently having children.
  • What can be done to strengthen married couple families, including the growing number of remarriages?
  • What can be done to better prepare the children of today to become adults that are fully equipped to form safe, stable, nurturing families for the next generation, especially if they have not received such modeling at home?

Answering these questions will not be easy. Three tremendous change agents are reshaping the American family at an unprecedented pace. First, we have passed out of the industrial age, and the economic conditions that created the nuclear family with a single wage earner are unlikely to return on a broad scale. We desperately need family policies that take into account the real tradeoffs between job requirements and family needs that Americans juggle every day. Secondly, we have passed out of the age of the hegemony of Judeo-Christian culture. I believe it is a Hindu-Asiatic world culture that is on the ascendancy, but regardless, we need to formulate universal reasons to value marriage and family that do not require acceptance of Judeo-Christian precepts. Thirdly, the balance of economic power has now shifted to women, who increasingly are out-educating and out-earning men. We need to formulate new strategies for building strong marriages and families that take into account the very real challenges men and women are facing as their roles and responsibilities undergo radical redefinition.

The new conversation on marriage needs visionary individuals who can explore solutions without insisting on old forms and norms. Serious answers to the question of why our families are so unstable compared to others in the Western world should be carefully considered. Various ways of creating stable marriages and families throughout history should be studied for important lessons. Effective ways of creating harmonious, loving, connected relationships should be clearly and universally taught to our young people in age appropriate ways throughout the course of their education.

The future of America is indeed up to us to shape. Let's do it purposefully, and with the good of all American families in mind. The UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights declares, "The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State." (Article 16:3) Let's start the new national conversation on marriage by agreeing to begin with this end in mind – to build the strongest families in the world, for our own good, and that of generations to come.

The New Marriage Conversation

Lawrence M. Mead is Professor of Politics and Public Policy at New York University.

The part of the new conversation that most interests me is what can be done to solve the marriage problem. How do we stop the plague of divorce that troubles the middle class? Especially, how do we stop the rising tide of unwed pregnancy – where parents never marry at all – that is engulfing lower-income America?

The big issue, I think, is tolerance. Not values. Few dispute the value of marriage in principle. Gay marriage has only reaffirmed the appeal of marriage as an ideal. But society today has great difficulty living up to that ideal. Government is developing counseling programs that may help parents get married or stay married, but so far these programs have not shown much effect. The main reason is probably that they are voluntary. Those who attend them face no pressure actually to work harder on marriage.

When society gets serious about a value, we enforce it. That is, we insist that behavior conform to the norm, and we sanction noncompliance. That is the way society has reduced such evils as organized crime, drunk driving, and smoking in public places. It is also what we did to reform welfare. Society cares enough about the work ethic to insist that more welfare mothers work as a condition of aid. We threatened to deny them aid if they did not work, and we also paid for new benefits and services to help them work.

With marriage, however, we have become tolerant. I think that is the main reason marriage has declined. Divorce was once seen as an evil to be avoided at all costs, while unwed pregnancy was positively shameful. Girls who got pregnant before marriage were sent away to have their babies in secret, or the fathers were forced to marry them in "shotgun weddings." Polls show that most Americans regret the decline of marriage, but they are no longer willing to stigmatize single mothers. I see no prospect that marriage can be strengthened without restoring at least some of the stigma that once deterred divorce and unwed pregnancy.

There are things we could do to enforce marriage, such as repealing no-fault divorce and forcing more absent fathers to pay child support. But we cannot do these things effectively without a clearer will to enforce marriage. In welfare, the public will to enforce work actually did most of the work of reform. Many single mothers went to work without ever going on welfare, because they sensed that society now expected this. Similarly with marriage, a public will to enforce it is more important than any specific policies – and would help make those policies succeed.

The main conversation we need is about this enforcement problem. How do we get more serious about marriage, to the point of resisting divorce and unwed pregnancy, as society used to do? How do we deal with the discomfort we feel at disapproving anti-marriage behaviors, when they have become so common? Two steps seem essential. First, we must come to believe that the behavior we enforce is good for those who face the demand, not bad. We must think they can do it, and that they would benefit as a result. In welfare, most people believe that welfare mothers can work, and that they and their children gain if they do. Similarly with marriage, we must believe – as society once did – that marrying and staying married are possible and good. Currently, we are a lot less sure of that than we are about employment.

Second, we must honor the struggle to achieve marriage. Nothing society enforces is easy, or we would not need to enforce it. To "do the right thing" requires resisting temptation. To restore marriage requires that people who are married struggle to maintain their relationships when it seems difficult. It requires that the non-married avoid pregnancy when it is easier not to. To admit the struggle is different from tolerance. We must sympathize with those who have difficulty with the norm – yet still expect compliance.

How to square that circle is the center of the marriage problem. In other areas, society has managed to maintain clear standards, yet allows people repeated chances to achieve them. We allow people to drop out of school, yet return and graduate later. We allow people to fail at one business, yet start another. It's hard to win the game, but the game is never over. We are demanding, yet understanding. In marriage, we need to restore clear norms while also accepting that marriage is difficult. How to do both should be the chief subject of the new marriage conversation.

Advice for a New Conversation on Marriage

Leah Ward Sears is Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Georgia.

The Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi says:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.

For all who seek to engage in a new conversation on marriage, this, too, should be the prayer.

That is to say, going forward, when talking about marriage, particularly as it pertains to same-sex couples, all sides need to be prepared to compromise. It's time for the jousting, strutting about, chest pumping, and mouthing off that has become the norm for both sides of the gay marriage debate, to end. Instead, let's put our heads together and come up with the best ideas to resolve this issue in a peaceful and mutually acceptable manner. Compromise means, of course, that all must accept some things we don't want in order to get some things we do.

Compromise is the cornerstone to a true democracy. Without it, our government wouldn't be what it is today. Why? First, because in the United States, all people are considered equal; and, second, because our founders knew that no one side will always have the answer. If a group is allowed to have its way without compromise, the equality of the rest of society–often minorities and those who are least represented–could be jeopardized. And that would undermine the core principles upon which this nation was founded.

Some think that it's a good thing to be "uncompromising." And occasionally I believe that to be the case, particularly when you're combatting evil. But the truth of the matter is that nobody gets through even one week without compromising some principles. In our homes, our relationships, at work, and in life in general, we must all compromise, like it or not.

But compromise can't be achieved if the dialogue is all about blaming and shaming. There must be an open dialogue that includes a full and free discussion, conversation and sharing. This dialogue must involve civilized adults laying their concerns and their pain on the table and educating each other from an empathetic standpoint. It includes adults talking about their differences with an appreciation for the importance of fair-mindedness, self-control and respect for the person with the differing opinion.

The prayer of St. Assisi goes on to say:

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love, for it is in giving that we receive.

These words have thus far been ignored in our conversations about marriage. Both sides of "the marriage issue" have dug in their heels, closed their minds, clenched their fists, and, as a result, have not gotten this country very far. "A New Conversation" means that here and now we can change all of that. We can talk to each other, not past each other. We can listen. We can compromise. We can figure this out.

For the sake of this great nation we all love so much, we must figure this out together.


Institute for American Values, 420 Lexington Avenue, Room 300, New York, NY 10170-0399