The new U.S. census data showing a huge increase in the number of cohabiting couples and single parents have made strange bedfellows of conservative spokespersons and dispassionate social scientists. Both called the trend disturbing, citing its negative effects on children and reduction of the "social capital" gained from marriage.

Beliefnet asked two participants in the Princeton Conference on Family and Religion whether religion could be doing more to promote the concept of the nuclear family. Dr. William Doherty, author, researcher, and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, and Bridget Maher, a marriage and family policy analyst for the conservative Family Research Council, discussed this issue.

WD: My analysis is that the liberal churches have been quiet about marriage because in part they don't want to offend divorced people and unmarried people. Nowadays offending somebody, creating feelings of being marginalized is really the great sin, particularly in the liberal communities. Last night I heard a story from a friend of mine who said that his minister will not only not talk about marriage, but a couple of years ago wouldn't talk on Mother's Day about motherhood because not everyone is a mother, and some people are infertile and it would be distressing. The downside is that you don't talk about marriage with the assumption that marriage is doing well. Well, marriage is not doing well.

I think the conservative churches have been reluctant to go beyond the moral and theological statements about the importance of marriage into the realm of psychological and social support and reaching out to people in distress. Why? Because the conservative churches historically have been skittish about psychology. And I understand that, because psychology has been skittish about religion. But the sort of hands-off approach to the psychological area has meant that they don't know what to do to actually get involved in the support of people after they're married. So from my point of view you get both sides of the Christian churches not really doing much to counter the culture. If you have a hands-off approach to marriage except at the wedding, the culture is going to take over.

BM: A lot of churches do emphasize marriage and family, but they're really competing with our popular culture. Especially in regard to sexuality and marriage-even though churches might be teaching it, they can often get drowned out by what we see in the movies, on TV, shows like "Friends" that show it's fine to live together, there's no point in getting married. I was brought up Catholic and I thought for a while that my parents were just freaks, I didn't understand the messages I was getting in school and from friends and the culture just didn't match up.

In the Catholic church we're required to get six months of marriage preparation before getting married. You go through the focus test and have couples assess their strengths and weaknesses, as well as learn about the church's teachings on marriage. But I didn't realize how rare that was. I just assumed other religions did that. I find out from other Christian friends that they'll get married in three months with no marriage prep. I'm really excited now about Mike McManus's Marriage Savers program, which trains mentoring couples to help prepare couples for marriage. And it continues once they're married. Since most marriages take place in churches, the church should just continue nourishing and nurturing those relationships.

WD: The problem is we now have what I call "consumer marriage"--marriage as a consumer lifestyle. Increasingly in the consumer culture, if your lifestyle isn't working out for you, your job, your house, your neighborhood, you move on. And that mentality increasingly is being applied to marriage. It's the power of the culture not offset by church or religion. It can be a kind of cut-off that occurs. A friend of a colleague who describes himself as a born-again Christian said, what if you discover that you married the wrong person? That's a terrible question-it's like, suppose you're in the wrong job. You move on. A consumer is inherently disloyal. I've been eating Cheerios my whole adult life, but if they mess with that recipe, I'm gone. and that's invaded marriage.

Beliefnet: With regard to influencing people to get married-how does religion counteract the "Friends" culture?

WD: The theology alone won't do it. People are used to deciding for themselves about what we used to call premarital sex. But the social science research has given me pause on the subject of cohabitation.

What we're increasingly seeing from the social science literature is non-committed cohabitation may not be a smart thing to do. Particularly people who get into a number of these relationships-these are associated with poor quality relationships at the time, poor quality marriages later.

I used to be neutral on the topic. In fact, in the 70s I was for it-I thought it would prevent divorces, that some people who got into a foolish marriage might find out if they lived together they were not compatible. It seemed like something that could help marriage. And the research was neutral as well. In the last five to ten years, with very large nationally representative samples, the research is much more consistently negative: lower satisfaction with the current relationship, lower sexual satisfaction, more conflict with families of origin, more domestic violence in cohabiting couples than married couples. Those who went on to get married had higher divorce rates and lower quality relationships. The question is how much is it because the people who cohabitate have qualities that would lend them to these sorts of difficulties and how much is the fact that you've cohabited. The most reasonable thing is to think it's both, and not just selection.

Living with somebody without a commitment-trying it out, being domestic with somebody where either of you could walk tomorrow-may itself have an impact on you when you get married. Particularly if you've lived with multiple partners.

BM: It makes sense, since God created us and we're spiritual, physical and emotional beings, that this would also show up in the psychological area, in the way people live their relationships in real life. <>
I was talking to a neighbor who read up on whether daycare was good for your child, and the research indicated it wasn't. She and her husband decided to do a tag team effort to take care of their child. People need to take that step to look into things, whether that's a wise thing to do. Priests and clergy should take advantage of the research that's out there. People are going to church to be fed and nourished. Since clergy have their ear, and people base their social life around their church, the information could be disseminated there.

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad