(Note: I am Canadian, which is part of North America. I am using the term ‘American’ to refer to both Canada and the United States. Our societal norms are very similar, although Canadians are nicer and we have Tim Horton’s coffee.)
Most Americans consider the Old World tradition of arranged marriage as an inhumane, cruel, even barbaric way to match couples. A frequent plot line in novels and movies is the scenario of the immigrant family with a son or daughter who has fallen in love with a local, fighting against parents who have an arrangement with a nice young man or woman of their own culture. Often these arrangements have more to do with creating bonds between two families, or a financial exchange such as a dowry or brideprice, than the compatibility of the bride and groom.
You would think that the couple who are so deeply in love, who have freely chosen each other, believing that love will conquer all barriers of race and religion, would have better odds of a happily ever after marriage than the couple who see each other for the first time when the wedding veil is lifted, but the statistics don’t reflect this conviction.
The statistics are grim for marriage in the United States and Canada. According to NationMaster statistics for 2004, the U.S. had the highest divorce rate in the world, with 4.95 divorces per year for every 1000 people. Canadians did a little better, with 2.46 divorces per year per 1000 people. India had the lowest rate, with only 1.1% of first marriages ending in divorce. However, India is making progress in women’s rights, and as freedom grows, the divorce rate climbs.
So what can be done about the divorce rate? Should anything be done about it? Is it time for legally registered marriage to go the way of the dinosaur?
What would replace marriage as the foundation of the family unit? We seem to be in the process of replacing it with a lifelong series of supposedly monogamous cohabitations. In other words, adults in America are foregoing the traditional wedding vows in which a husband and wife would declare “before God and these witnesses” their commitment to stay together “for better or for worse, until death do us part.” For those who do tie a legal knot, it is no longer with the expectation of a lifelong commitment. Prenuptial agreements and easy no-fault divorce ensures that no one will be trapped in an outdated institution when a current partner no longer makes them happy, or when a more appealing partner is found.
We also seem to have redefined the word “monogamy” to refer only to sexual faithfulness to a current partner. Before and in between marriages or cohabitations, consenting adults are legally and morally free to indulge in whatever form of sexual activity feels “right” for them. Unfaithfulness to a current partner is still somewhat taboo, but adultery is no longer considered the scarlet letter it once was. It may result in the dissolution of the current relationship, but society expects those who have been hurt by an unfaithful partner to get over it and move on to another relationship with a more deserving partner. Thus the cycle of marriage, divorce, remarriage continues.
Are the statistics any better among Christian couples? That depends on the definition of “Christian” and on which of many conflicting research studies we think could be accurate.
Dr. Tom Ellis, chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Council on the Family said that for “…born-again Christian couples who marry…in the church after having received premarital counseling…and attend church regularly and pray daily together…” experience only 1 divorce out of nearly 39,000 marriages — or 0.00256 percent. (Religious Tolerance.org)
George Barna conducted a study which led him to conclude that Americans, including Christians, have grown comfortable with divorce as a natural part of life. He concludes: “There no longer seems to be much of a stigma attached to divorce; it is now seen as an unavoidable rite of passage. Interviews with young adults suggest that they want their initial marriage to last, but are not particularly optimistic about that possibility. There is also evidence that many young people are moving toward embracing the idea of serial marriage, in which a person gets married two or three times, seeking a different partner for each phase of their adult life.” (Barna.org)
I conducted my own small study of divorce in the church that I have attended for twenty-one years. I looked through a couple of old church directories, counted the number of couples who were members or regular attenders then, and added up the number of couples who have since divorced. In 1993, out of 106 couples, 4 have since divorced. In the year 2000, there were 152 couples, and again 4 divorces since then. Granted my study would be considered anecdotal by the scientific community, but it does represent a “slice of life” evidence. (I attend an Alliance church, which I would label as conservative Evangelical Christian.)
Would the divorce rate in North America plummet if everyone accepted Christ as their personal Saviour, adopted a Christian lifestyle, and started to attend church? I believe that it definitely would. Is this likely to happen anytime soon? I rather doubt it. Societal morality is a very slippery slope which is extremely difficult to climb back up. Freedom is intoxicating, and we tend to believe that our own personal behaviour and the choices that we make only affect ourselves.
We don’t have to conduct scientific studies to observe the moral landslide that has taken place in the western world since the counter culture movement of the 1960’s. It didn’t take long before the loose morality, self-centeredness, and abdication of responsibility which characterized the counter culture of the 60’s became the socially acceptable standard of morality today. In fact, it has become taboo to question anyone’s personal code of ethics. “Tolerance” is the word of the day, and the notion that morality cannot be legislated is widely accepted.
We now accept many behaviours and lifestyle choices that were taboo before the 60’s. What would have been called promiscuity then is considered normal behaviour now. Movies like “The Forty-year Old Virgin” lend credence to the concept that only nerds and unattractive people are virgins, and that abstinence as a choice is weird.
So far, I have discussed how our moral freedom has affected adults in our society. The impact on children has, in my opinion, been a travesty. We complain about “kids today” and we are quick to place the blame on one or more of the usual scapegoats: parents, teachers, movies and TV, violent video games – and I believe that all of these have a share in the blame. I think that our entire society is to blame. I mentioned earlier that freedom is intoxicating, and we each tend to believe that our own behaviour and the choices that we make only affect ourselves. This belief could only be true for individuals whose behaviour is very different from the norm. Unfortunately, freedom, tolerance, and the rejection of moral absolutes have permeated western culture.
The new creed for families is that it is better for children to have happy divorced parents than to have feuding parents who stay together for the sake of the children. This conviction has led to the phenomenal rise of single parent families and blended families. Children get bounced around, while parents spend exorbitant sums for court costs to fight for custody of the children. It is no longer unusual to see a family where all of the children have different last names.
Has this trend resulted in happy parents? I have never personally experienced divorce, but I think I can safely surmise that going through the marriage-divorce-remarriage cycle once or twice or more does not result in happy parents. The statistics of divorce rates for second, third, or subsequent marriages is a glaring indication that they do not. And as for children, I think that it is very safe to say that going through the blender of blended families several times has not resulted in happy, emotionally stable children.
Would we better off with less personal freedom? If we could reverse the changes that we thought were a sign of progress, and bring back the societal expectations that most adults get married, have children (in that order) and stay married until parted by death? If we went back to encouraging teenage moms to give their babies up for adoption so that infertile couples would not have to resort to expensive fertility clinics, how would that affect our society? If we stopped spreading the message that teenagers cannot control their sexual impulses so we can’t expect them to choose abstinence, would a majority of teenagers who are taught instead that sexual purity until marriage is not really that difficult choose this goal?
I understand that the opinions expressed in this article do not reflect public opinion. Those who disagree with me are not likely to have read this far. If you have read this far, please leave a comment whether you agree with me or not. Thank you.