Published December 21, 2011
As I have predicted in the past, a new Pew Foundation study of U.S. Census data confirms what I've been saying -- marriage in America is falling out of fashion.
Among those aged 18 to 29, only 20 percent are now married, compared to 59 percent in 1960. Just 51 percent of all those over the age of 18 are now married, compared with 72 percent in 1960.
The trend away from marriage is now accelerating, rather than slowing down, and I believe that by 2020, marriage will be a road taken by a minority of adults.
I believe the reasons for marriage falling out of favor with Americans are many, including my own clinical observations that the vast majority of married people consider their unions a source of pain, not pleasure, and that too few of them are equipped with the psychological and behavioral tools to achieve true intimacy or maintain real passion. When the architecture of a relationship is airless and seemingly without exit (without bankrupting your family by hiring lawyers and having your kids pack overnight bags every week), people will eventually learn to steer clear of it.
Perhaps no factor, however, is more responsible for the decline of marriage in America than government participation in it. The fact is that getting a marriage license means, essentially, signing a Draconian contract with the state to manage the division of your estate in the event of a divorce, without ever having read that contract.
The contract, if it included all the relevant laws pertaining to divorce, child custody, spousal support and other relevant matters, would probably run hundreds of pages. And what’s more, the contract, once signed, may be changed by the state legislature at any time, leaving the parties to it with no recourse.
This all means that getting married in America is—in the current scheme—an act of self-abandonment which subjugates one to government in a more infantilizing fashion than nearly any other voluntary action you could take.
Actions have consequences. So it is no surprise that volunteering to be lorded over by the state would result in feelings of confinement while married. Nor is it any surprise that signing over one’s rights to self-determination to the state in such dramatic fashion would result in the state over-using its power to dictate how married couples ought to conduct themselves in the event of a divorce—even if they have no children.
And it is also predictable that people would eventually find this distasteful, because human beings instinctively love liberty, especially in matters as personal as love and the raising of families.
The solution is obvious: Get the state entirely out of the marriage business. No more marriage licenses. No more special treatment of married couples by the IRS or any other facet of government. No state ever had a legitimate claim to issue marriage licenses, to begin with, since marriage is a spiritual commitment and quite often, a religious one. And it is, fundamentally, an intensely personal one based in autonomy—until city hall gets involved and messes everything up.
In the new paradigm I suggest, every couple wishing to get married would state that intention to their house of worship or their community of family and friends. They would take meaningful vows in front of gatherings of loved ones. Then they would—like knowledgeable and competent adults, rather than state-dependent, incompetent children—sign financial documents they generate together (while represented by attorneys or knowledgably waiving that right) which would govern how their assets should be pooled during the term of the contract and how they should be divided in the event they decide to end the contract. The state’s interest would be limited to enforcing laws about fair amounts of child support and fair visitation rights which must be included in such documents when children are born.
That’s it. The state would protect kids financially and emotionally from parents who fail to protect them. Otherwise, they would have no business getting involved in people’s marriages at all. They never had any business getting involved in them, to begin with.
Trust me, if marriage were thus structured as a union of heart and mind between competent adults making reasoned decisions, rather than abdicating their autonomy and infantilizing themselves, it would have a much better chance of surviving in our culture.
As currently conceived—with the state lording over anyone who decides to pull a marriage license—the institution is doomed and will barely exist in 75 years.
Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team. Dr. Ablow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book is "Inside the Mind of Casey Anthony: A Psychological Portrait" (St. Martin's Press)