FLORIDA, November 18, 2012 — Marriage just isn’t what it used to be.
With each passing year, fewer and fewer Americans are opting to tie the knot. This has left everyone from evangelists to social scientists wondering just exactly why such a sea change is taking place.
We all have our reasons for choosing whether to marry. America is one of the most philosophically diverse countries that the world has ever known. Yesterday’s standards might not be today’s, and almost certainly not tomorrow’s.
Cindy Butler is the executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, an organization that champions the concerns of unmarried Americans. In a candid discussion, she explains about what family values mean to her, why marriage is increasingly unpopular, whether or not the stigma associated with parenthood outside of marriage might fade away, and much more.
Joseph F. Cotto: Very often, we hear a great deal about “family values”. How would you define this term?
Cindy Butler: Family values are love, support, acceptance, trust, and commitment. These values can be found in many types of relationships. We consider a family to be any combination of individuals who are committed to each other and have formed an intentional relationship that is meaningful to them. These families may or may not include a legal marriage or a sexual relationship. Child-rearing is managed in a personally-defined way. Ultimately, “family values” are not determined by legal or legislative decisions, but by deeply personal, intentional design.
Cotto: Over the last several years, an increasing number of Americans have chosen not to marry. What do you believe might account for this trend?
Butler: There are many reasons why unmarried people may not marry. They may not be able to, due to legal constraints, cultural or religious issues, family pressures, immigration laws, etc. Or they may simply decide that their relationship does not need to be approved of by a governmental body. We are also seeing, especially in the senior community, that there may be financial reasons why marriage would not be advantageous. Since a high percentage of marriages end in divorce, many people question marriage as an institution that provides a framework for relationship success.
Cotto: Can the aforementioned trend be considered a positive consequence of increased socioeconomic opportunity?
Butler: Many people marry after college or time spent in a career; their chances of earning higher wages and creating a successful marriage increase. However, for those who are uneducated and/or living in poverty, it is less likely that they will come into contact with a highly educated, high earning potential spouse. Marriage is seen as less of an attractive option then, since it does not involve improving one’s standard of living and may even decrease the standard. The lack of benefits afforded to married couples then compounds the socioeconomic disadvantage.
Cotto: There is a great deal of opposition to delaying marriage or putting it off entirely. What would you suppose that this opposition is rooted in?
Butler: I would not say that there is a “great deal of opposition” to delaying marriage or not marrying. One-third of the entire US population is unmarried, and that percentage is growing. There is a vocal minority that promotes marriage; some of the opposition to unmarriage is based on conservative religious beliefs, but much of it comes from resistance to change and the fear that a decrease in marriages will somehow negatively impact our society.
The trend toward unmarriage is not unique to the U.S. by the way; we are seeing the same developments in other developed countries, especially throughout Europe.
Cotto: Many are now choosing to remain single for life. Why do you think that this option has become so popular?
Butler: Single life offers the benefits of independence, self-determination, freedom of movement. Financial and career decisions can be made without the concern of impact on others. Time can be prioritized according to personal preferences. Unmarried people tend to build larger networks of friends, and are more engaged in volunteerism. And it’s wonderful to have control over your personal space.
Cotto: Fewer people are having children today than in past decades. Many find this to be troublesome. What are your opinions about the subject?
Butler: AtMP believes that this is a personal choice and that child-bearing and -rearing decisions should be accepted and respected. Of course, any of the issues that we are discussing here about life choices come with the caveat that it is never acceptable to make choices that hurt yourself or others.
Cotto: In many locales, there is still a stigma associated with parenthood outside of marriage. Is this sentiment becoming a thing of the past, in your opinion?
Butler: We would like to believe that it is a thing of the past, but unmarried parents are still the targets of disapproval and judgment. Single mothers are often pointed to as a major cause of poverty, which has not been borne out by research. “Marriage promotion” is included in programs providing support to single parents and children, while there is no evidence that forcing people to marry has a direct correlation to improvement in economic standing. In more highly educated populations, which tend to also to be of higher economic levels, unmarried parents are a non-starter.
Cotto: From your perspective, why do many modern couples find cohabitation to be preferable to marriage?
Butler: A marriage is a contract that you sign for life. An intentionally cohabitative relationship is something that you commit to every day. Committed couples simply may not see the need for governmental recognition of their relationships.
Cotto: During the years ahead, do you expect to see marriage rates continue to fall? Or, is there evidence that this trend might reverse itself?
Butler: None of the evidence supports that the decline of marriage is likely to reverse any time soon, if ever.
Cotto: How did you become an advocate for unmarried Americans? Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Butler: I am single, and have been aware of the perceptions about and different treatment of unmarried people since early in my career. I have been seen as a bad influence by husbands of my married girlfriends, have been asked to work overtime to cover for married colleagues who take time off for their children’s activities, and been presented with a “gift” of one ticket to something when married employees receive two, presumably because I don’t have a significant someone I’d like to accompany me.
My career has focused on the management of nonprofit organizations, especially those that represent underserved populations. Working with the Alternatives to Marriage Project has opened my eyes to many forms of discrimination against unmarried people of which I had been unaware. I am passionate about fighting discrimination in all its forms, but AtMP allows me to lead the charge against unfairness I have personally experienced.
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