The new normal: births outside marriage — Part 2 of 2

In yesterday’s post, I wrote some commentary on a recent New York Times article. The story cited a study that says a baby’s birth to an unwed mom “used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.”

I don’t doubt the study’s results are legit. (In fact, I’m responsible for putting birth announcements in the newspaper for the county in which I work, and at least in that neck of the woods, babies with unwed parents far outnumber babies whose parents are married.) I don’t disagree that lots of people opt not to get married after conceiving a child or after giving birth. But, as I pointed out in Part 1, the story about this unintentionally implied that marriage and “a piece of paper” are one and the same when, in fact, they are not. Marriage is a miracle that helps us “to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving,*”

Which is awesome.

But as awesome as that is, few people our age are interested in it. Few currently-married couples exemplify it. And so I was compelled to ask a question:


Unfortunately, I can’t answer that. For one, I don’t know (at least not with any kind of exactness), and for two, I do know the answer is so complex that I couldn’t do it justice if I tried. What I can do is list some factors that, in my opinion, contribute to why few people our age are interested in marriage, and why few married couples exemplify what marriage actually is.

1. People don’t know what marriage actually is.

Refer to Part 1.

2. People don’t think enough (some can’t, some won’t).

Part of the story says the following:

A woman, “27, was in an on-and-off relationship with a clerk at Sears a few years ago when she found herself pregnant. A former nursing student who now tends bar, (she) said her boyfriend was so dependent that she had to buy his cigarettes. Marrying him never entered her mind. ‘It was like living with another kid,’ she said.

Another part says this:

“In Lorain as elsewhere, explanations for marital decline start with home economics: men are worth less than they used to be. Among men with some college but no degrees, earnings have fallen 8 percent in the past 30 years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the earnings of their female counterparts have risen by 8 percent.”

The point the story makes is that these women aren’t marrying the fathers of their children because to do so would be financially irresponsible and/or of no financial benefit. But if our focus is on deciding not to marry a man because marrying him is of no financial benefit, we miss a deeper point. The young woman in the story wouldn’t dare marry a man-child who can’t afford his own cigarettes, which is good, and I commend her, because she shouldn’t. But, then, I’m left wondering: if a dependent guy isn’t good enough to marry, why is he good enough to date? Why is he good enough to make a baby with? This points to the deeper point:

There are so many questions to ask before we promise exclusivity to someone and before we make babies with him or her — questions that few are asking.

Questions like is this person emotionally, socially, spiritually, financially fit to be my spouse? Would he or she make a good parent? Do I want kids to turn out like this person? Am I emotionally, socially, spiritually, financially fit to be a spouse? Would I make a good parent? Do I want kids to turn out like me?

We need to think about our answers to these questions, which implies we have to answer them. I think lots of humans are so generally horrified that the answer to any of them will be no that we neither ask nor answer them. But know that if an answer is no, it does not not mean it has to be no forever. It means somebody has some work to do — some growing to do. And that’s ok, and always will be.

Lots of other humans do think about their answers to the questions, but their thoughts backfire because they are are under the impression that if an answer is no, the act of entering into a marriage — or even just moving in together — will transform the non-marriageable half of the couple into a marriageable one. But that’s not how it works.

From the article:

Almost all of the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. While in some countries such relationships endure at rates that resemble marriages, in the United States they are more than twice as likely to dissolve than marriages. In a summary of research, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, reported that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.”

This is because when a relationship isn’t working, doing something that complicates it never makes it work. We’re better off taking something out of the equation (such as one of the people, or sex) and seeing what happens.

Which brings us to a third factor that contributes to why few people our age are interested in marriage, and why few married couples exemplify what marriage actually is.

3. People treat the sacred (sex, in this case) like it isn’t.

In our culture, you hit a certain age and the assumption is that if you’re dating someone, you’re having sex with them. And in an overwhelming majority of cases, that’s a safe assumption. It’s the norm. Which is one of several reasons we know what the norm isn’t: treating sex like it’s sacred.

Sex is not kept sacred when it’s something we do with every person we date. It’s not kept sacred when we participate in it selfishly. It is not sacred when we decide to have sex because we believe we can’t not have sex.

“It’s impossible to wait” is a lie. Humans, in my opinion and experience, are stronger than that — we can control our appetites. A couple of my favorite quotes about this are as follows:

“Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains healthy discretion.*”


“The virtue of chastity comes under the cardinal virtue of temperance, which seeks to permeate the passions and appetites of the senses with reason.*”

There are far fewer people who believe that than who simultaneously a) believe marriage is a piece of paper, and b) are currently unfit for a piece-of-paper-marriage, let alone for a real one, who c) are so unwilling or unable to acknowledge that they are currently (and probably temporarily!) unfit for marriage that they d) date while they e) are completely convinced they cannot date without having sex.

And that, over time, combined with a lot of other factors, results in new normals like the one in the article.

– – – –

To read Part 1 of this post, click here.

To read the New York Times story in full, click here.

*This quote comes from the Catechism of the Catholic Church.