Fourth Edition, November 2011
260: Best Essays in Intermediate Composition
2nd Place Winner
Defining Marriage: Cohabitation for Modern Childrearing
Our society’s definition of marriage has changed over the years. The structure of the ideal, nuclear family has always been held together by marriage. Marriage always served a specific purpose; whether it was intended for legal, social, or economic stability, the formation of a family, procreation, legitimizing sexual relations, fulfilling religious obligations, publicly declaring love for one another, or obtaining citizenship, marriage fulfilled a function. Marriage had strategy and there was an agenda to be executed. Regardless of the reasons, the essential and leading incentive for marriages was, and is still today, childrearing, the upbringing, educating, and nurturing of children. It was a common belief in the past that it took the marriage of two people, a man and a woman, a husband and a wife, to raise a family. Recently, however, the demand for these classic male and female, husband and wife, roles that marriage used to offer have been on the decline, seen by the steady increase of divorce rates across America, making cohabitation a healthier resolution for both today’s couples and their children. In today’s modern society, in conflict with conventional and conservative theories, cohabitation is a more responsible and logical decision over marriage when it comes to childrearing due to the changing definition of marriage resulting with the increase of divorce rates and the irrefutable psychological problems divorce has on American children.
Current statistics show there has been a radical and steady increase in the number of divorces across America. Arguments have been made claiming that as we try to analyze how and why the divorce rate have gone up it is important to factor in the age, race, education, and status of the people who are getting divorced and how many times. But who is getting divorced in terms of age, race, education, status, etc., and how many times is not the concern here; what needs to be examined from these statistics is how our modern society is much more tolerant and lenient of divorce. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the rate of divorces to rate of marriages was consistent at about 20%. Meaning 20% of all marriages will result in a divorce. After the 1970s, the rate increased quickly and dramatically by a shocking 30% in only a short ten years, keeping the new rate of divorces to rate of marriages consistent at 50% until today (Bureau of Census, 2009). Society’s past expectations for married couples pushed them to stay together; divorce was looked down upon. However, current expectations are not so extreme; divorce is now common, almost expected in all marriages. Society will not discriminate or judge a marriage if it fails.
Sociologists will debate why divorce rates have increased, whether it is due to the never ending improvement of medical and science fields resulting in the increased life spans or whether the rates are due to society’s changing roles of men and women in the workplace and home. Psychologists will evaluate the positive and negative aspects of each and every marriage in attempt to start counseling and resolve any to all marital issues. Endless amount of time and effort can be spent in an attempt to try and understand and possibly solve the high percentages of divorces, but the facts show that marriage is outdated. The marriage system has failed. Modern society has acquired new techniques to be just as successful at fulfilling the wants and needs marriage used to provide couples. If two people want to live together, enjoy their sexual relationship, or have a family, they do not need marriage to legitimize their actions.
Until recently, the focal, singular purpose for a marriage was to legalize, legitimize, and justify a family in order to raise children. And it’s true, in the past marriage was needed to raise children. Men and women played very different roles then and the two-parent, nuclear family dynamic taught children their predetermined roles in American society based on their gendered expectations. Men were the breadwinners and women were the housewives. But the American family has changed, and as James Q. Wilson, professor and American academic political scientists, quotes in his essay Cohabitation Instead of Marriage, “If marriage such as ours have created ways of raising children that are not independent of the family life then family life ought not to be very important” (374). And it’s true; society no longer values family life. Our society has established alternative ways of raising children because the marriage aspect of our modern family life has failed and is no longer necessary or an obligation. Wilson goes on to say that, “If a child can be raised by a nanny or day-care center, if its education can be left in the hands of public and private schools, if its physical well-being can be entrusted to police officers and social workers, then marriage does not offer much to the father and mother” (374). Society’s acceptance of how parents now hire nannies, use day-care centers, are provided teachers at public and private schools to educate their children, have police officers and social workers to keep them protected and safe, and schedule visits to their doctors for health care and expertise, all have aided the increasing rate of divorce through how each alternative has replaced the roles and expectations that the married father and mother, husband and wife, used to provide for their children on their own.
Parents were expected not only to be the primary care-takers, but their educators and protectors through married demonstration. In today’s society, these roles have been replaced and there are new demonstrators removing the need of married parents to raise children. Children need parent(s) in the sense that they provide financially for them and are expected to love and support them, but these parents, if not parent, do not need to be and actually should not be married.
It is to be considered irresponsible for couples who want to and are planning on having children to even consider marriage because of the high risk of divorce. In fact, because divorce rates are so high it would be more logical for them to simply cohabitate. Similar to how one’s personal independent financial security is a good reason not to get married, personal independent financial security is a good reason not to get divorced; marriage, for the most part, means sharing all aspects of life together, while divorce means dividing all that was previously shared. This includes money. In general, two people in a relationship do not begin to merge bank accounts until they have married, until they legally commit to one another. In the past when divorce was so scarce this would have been fine. Most divorces become hostile situations because of the territory and the finances, specifically in terms of alimony and child support. Even with prenuptial agreements to avoid these scenarios, these prior legal agreements are usually fought over and renegotiated in court, costing even more financially and emotionally. Cohabitation would diminish this problem. Both cohabitating parents keep what is their own throughout the relationship, especially their money, no matter how long the relationship lasts, because both individuals only invest emotionally instead of investing financially in the relationship. If the two do separate, which is expected given the statistics, the separation will be drastically simpler, straightforward, undemanding, and relatively painless, especially for children if there are any involved.
E.J. Dionne, Jr., a columnist since 1993 for the Washington Post, claims the two-parent family is still the norm in America. He argues the numbers and accurate reporting’s in his favor from the Census on “two-parent families” but never reveals if these “two-parent figures” are in fact married. When he does mention marriage, half way into his argument, he quotes, “The much-repeated line, entirely true, is that for the first time, married-couples-with kids families represent less than a quarter of all American households” (Dionne 9). He goes on to further my argument when he quotes Jonathan Rauch, stating in his current issue of National Journal, how “children raised in single parent homes are at great risk of poverty, school dropout, delinquency, teen pregnancies, and adult joblessness” (Dionne 12). However, it is my claim that children are at greater risk from parents of divorce compared to the single parent home.
If you look at the statistics and the responses over the years, children of divorced parents suffer poverty, ill-health, educational failure, depression, and many psychological problems. The common proposal of just “staying together for the kids” is in no way a better alternative either. This decision can be just as damaging or even make children feel guilty for their parent’s unhappiness and usually the hostility is still apparent in the relationship or worse. Elizabeth Marquardt, the author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children and Divorce who basis her published works on the first nationally-representative study of grown children of divorce in the U.S. argues children of divorced parents have reported to feel like an outsider in their own home, feel like they’re a different person with each parent, are under stress, have always felt the need to take care of themselves, feel the pressures of taking sides, tend to feel they do not have a home, feel they are alone, did not feel they were the center of their family, and did not feel emotionally safe (Marquardt, 2006). Cohabitation and the removal of the financial investment of marriage would decrease the amount of harm done to a child if a cohabiting couple decided to go their separate ways. Separating after being emotionally invested in a relationship will be challenging and painful enough for both the parents and the children, and adding the financial investments and the hostility that goes along with that investment will just make the situation worse.
I would actually go as far to say that children are better off raised by a single parent compared to married parents that have gone through a divorce. In 1999, a research study measuring problem behaviors of children based on parent’s marital status found that children who are raised by one “intact parent,” defined as a single parent, father or mother, due to adoption, artificial insemination, or a result of an unforeseeable occurrence such as death, have significantly less problem behaviors compared to children who are raised by divorced parents (Bureau of Census, 2009). Problem behaviors included lying about something important, stealing from a store, damaging school property, getting drunk, hurt someone enough to need a doctor, had to bring parents to school, and skipped school without permission (Bureau of Census, 2009). Based on this research, it is apparent that since divorce has such a negative affect on children that they actually fact better off raised by a single parent, instead.
Overall, the past has shown us how the leading reason for a marriage was to constructively raise healthy and happy children. However, the more recent past has also shown us that the marriage system has failed and due to our changing society it is failing consistently, but we cannot continue to allow our children to be raised with the risk they will not be raised safe and healthy. Our society’s definition of marriage is always changing. It’s time to acknowledge that cohabitation has replaced what marriage used to define: childrearing. In today’s modern society, marriage is without a doubt outdated, and the healthier, safer, more responsible, logical solution for raising our children is for childrearing parents’ choice of cohabitation.
Bureau, Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2008-2009 The National Data Book
"No. 70: Live Births, Deaths, Marriages, and Divorces: 1950-2009." Cambridge: Bureau
of Census, 2009. Print.
Fahnestock, Jeanne, Marie Secor, and E. J. Dionne. "The Fading Family." A Rhetoric of
Argument. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1990. Print.
Marquardt, Elizabeth (2006). Between Two Worlds The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce.
New York: Three Rivers.
Wilson, JQ. Cohabitation instead of marriage. In Writing in the disciplines: a reader for the
writers (pp. 372). Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Pearson Education
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