The Real Marriage Problem

'We all — all classes, races and genders of every sexual persuasion — have a stake in restoring the authority of marriage, because our civilisation depends on it'

Marriage is under scrutiny, but for the wrong reason. The issue of same-sex marriage is, it seems, of consuming interest, especially to those who want it (the minority of homosexuals who feel that civil partnerships lack the dignity of matrimony) or those who fear that they will sooner or later come under pressure to solemnise it (the churches and other faiths). This debate has revealed widespread uncertainty about the definition and value of this most ancient of institutions. In this month’s issue, David Green and Douglas Murray write from opposite sides of the argument; next month Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali will consider the question of what we mean by marriage.

Yet the question of whether the rights already enjoyed by same-sex couples should be redefined is really rather arcane. Only a minority of people are homosexual; of those, only a minority choose to live in civil partnerships; and of those, only a minority are actively demanding that their unions be recognised as “marriages”: a minority of a minority of a minority. The real reason why we should be thinking about marriage is that it has been undermined over the last two generations by a culture that is inimical to matrimonial bliss and the virtues on which it thrives. Our civilisation has depended and will continue to depend upon the legal, social and spiritual framework in which children are raised. Marriage is about much more than procreation, but it matters above all because children matter. Without the civilising effects of marriage, the history of humanity would be so different as to be unrecognisable. 

Yet we are living now through the first period when it has become not merely common but normal for unmarried women to have children, supported not by a man but by the welfare state. Those who never marry and those who divorce now outnumber those who stay married. The “honourable” and “holy estate” eulogised by the Book of Common Prayer remains a desideratum for almost everyone, but it is no longer an expectation for anyone. Whole communities have allowed marriage to fall into desuetude. Husbands and fathers are rare in a society raised by single mothers. Deprived of their role as protectors and providers, men become predators instead. 

Across the Atlantic, one great political thinker in particular has thrown light on our marital predicament. James Q. Wilson, who died last month, is best known for the “broken windows” theory of crime prevention. Ten years ago, however, Professor Wilson published The Marriage Problem, a wide-ranging and profound study, arguing that the decline of marriage was the key to the division of Anglo-American society into what Disraeli called “two nations”. Wilson blamed that decline on “our own desire for extinguishing shame and achieving an illusory emancipation”. Using all the arsenal of social science, he recounted the havoc wrought by “the failure of marriage to hold its ground among many poor people”. He highlighted the fatal legacies of slavery, which precluded marriage, the welfare state, with its false promise that someone else would take care of broken or fatherless homes, and the more recent nostrum that single mothers should work more rather than care for their children. It is still the family that gives meaning to most of our lives, he concluded. Hence: “Our task is to teach our children to seek out the same satisfactions by insisting on a simple rule: Do not have children before you are married.”

The enduring value of what we might call Wilson’s Rule has been reinforced over the past decade. Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart, shows that the damage done to American blacks by the decline of marriage has long since spread to whites. Murray points to the insulation of the liberal upper class from the destructive impact on the poor of a state-financed dependency culture which has done nothing to reduce inequality but has supplanted marriage as the economic foundation of the family.

One thing is missing from Wilson’s account, however: he did not even mention same-sex marriage. Ten years later, the British government has decided that this pseudo-injustice is the marriage problem — even though little has been done to address the genuine and incomparably more formidable problem identified by Wilson. Indeed, the sheer intractability of the real marriage problem may help to explain the bizarre focus on same-sex marriage: it is what Freud called displacement activity. 

Instead of “consulting” on the legal definition of an institution that for large sections of society is sinking into oblivion, the government should be rallying public opinion behind Wilson’s Rule. Marriage is a cause that should unite rather than divide people of all classes, races and genders, of every political, religious or sexual persuasion. We all have a stake in restoring the authority of marriage, because our civilisation depends upon it. The alternative is the barbarism of the urban wilderness in which the weakest go to the wall.

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