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The Ironically-Married Class, and How They Got There

Charles Murray wrote a piece on economic inequality and cultural factors that contribute to it in the Wall Street Journal. He vividly describes inequalities between two groups of white Americans, and notes that the poor and working classes have turned away from institutions like marriage.


Murray’s description of marriage is accurate. There’s an unprecedented, and amply documented, class divide in marriage and divorce today. Affluent, middle-class and upper-middle class couples are staying and getting married more robustly than lower income and poor people.

In the 1970s, in contrast, the poor, rich, and middle classes married and divorced at roughly the same rate. There’s also a striking cultural gap (which may be an artifact of the economic one): The Bible Belt has a divorce rate nearly double the national average. Meanwhile, the liberal mother ship of Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate in the nation.

I’ve written about this marriage gap before. Evidently, the most pro-“traditional marriage” communities are doing it the least successfully, while more liberal, affluent cultures are doing it the most successfully. Cultural and ideological adherence to traditional “family values” doesn’t seem to be combating the divorce rate in lower-income communities.

Murray urges those of us, like me, in the successfully-marrying, prosperous classes to preach what we practice.

Unfortunately, I can’t do that—because what we practice is that we don’t preach. A second, related problem is that if my married cohort was inclined to preach anything on marriage’s behalf, then we’d most likely be preaching a sermon that many today would not want to hear. It would be a sermon about how we’re collectively succeeding more at marriage because we—both men and women—embraced feminism, women’s liberation and the dismantling of gender straitjackets in marriage that these movements initiated 50 years ago.

***

I know this petri dish of the successfully-marrying class well, because it’s my petri dish. I live in it. I also spent a lot of time observing it for my book.

I’ll choose one block at random, in my prosperous but not wealthy urban neighborhood. It’s a block dominated by married couples in the professional classes. On this block, this is what you’ll see: First, every permutation of breadwinning and childrearing imaginable. We have stay-at-home dads, stay-at-home-moms, dual-earning couples, and improvised arrangements in between.

We don’t preach about what marriage should look like. All variations are part of the mix, and so it’s a petri dish that encourages improvisation, tolerance, and latitude, which makes marriage seem more desirable, and doable. I’ve not heard a dad judged for carrying a diaper bag or packing a school lunch. Stay-at -home dads are embraced with remarkable nonchalance, given where we were just 50 years ago. True, we have playground skirmishes of the motherhood wars, but both wage-earning and non-wage-earning moms are part of the scene, and both are welcomed. You won’t go to a barbeque and not find some of every variety.

Culturally speaking, two things make this marriage-florescent petri dish possible: feminism, and the subversion of gender scripts and economic and educational inequalities that it promoted, and a tolerant, non-preachy attitude about how others should conduct their personal relations.

I’m hard-pressed to think of an example where a husband on this block doesn’t engage in parenting, and chore-sharing. I’m hard-pressed to think of a wife who hasn’t spent time in the workforce in a fairly well-paying job, even if she’s not currently working.

Many of us grew up with these post-liberation, and socially emancipated, values, as I did, and my parents have been married for over 60 years. We also didn’t grow up believing that our social identity depended on marriage, and this allowed us to become the kind of self-reliant, confident partners that are appealing to potential spouses, ironically.

These husbands don’t tacitly strike a bargain that they’ll be a responsible and involved husband or father only in exchange for patriarchal control over their family and marriage—a la the Promisekeepers. Instead, spouses think of themselves as co-parents.

Many of these marriages are pivoted on the children, and (perhaps overly) intensive childrearing. That has its upsides and downsides, but whatever the case, many spouses see co-parenting as the primary glue of the marriage—even more so than lifelong sexual monogamy, romantic fulfillment, or economic support.

Economically, getting married also allowed these spouses to create economies of scale early in their adult lives. When I got married 14 years ago, my husband and I both worked. Because (and only because) we were both working in good professions and good jobs (owing to feminism and equal opportunity), we could live vastly more cheaply, and well, as spouses than singles. We bought a house, by pooling our resources. If one of us wasn’t working, or if one of us wasn’t willing to be a stay-at-home caregiver after our child was born, then those economic benefits of marriage wouldn’t have applied. In the 1950s, as has been noted repeatedly, working-class men had access to jobs that could support a family. Getting married won’t conjure those jobs back.

My take is that if you want to support marriage, you need to support the habitat—the middle class, and its jobs—in which marriage has thrived historically and in which it benefits spouses, and worry less about the cultural facets.

We have three same-sex couples on this block, two of whom have children. Same-sex couples with children are a banal, accepted element of the social and school life in this pro-marriage world. The block has two non-monogamous marriages by mutual agreement—two that I know of. We have other marriages that have weathered infidelity, and broken up and then come back together, or stuck it out with some semblance of forgiveness, tolerance and patience. In these cases, husbands didn’t treat wives’ affairs as if they were symbolic castrations or intolerable breaches of their masculine pride; wives didn’t stomp off as if extramarital reduced their husband to the moral status of a serial killer.

We have a single mother with an adopted child. We have a divorced and re-married couple, with their own children.

If a marriage should end in divorce, we do our best to help make that transition seamless for the children and spouses, rather than exercising social censure.

Incidentally, the premise that getting and staying married is prima facie more positive than divorce is contestable, as well. Because amid these successfully-marrying couples, there are some who aren’t all that happy. Is that such a positive, either individually or in the class aggregate? I’m not so sure.

Preserving the old ways of marriage isn’t what my cohort—the ironically-married cohort--chose to do. I’ve said before that traditional marriage kills traditional marriage: The more rigid, inflexible, scripted, machismo or pre-feminist the views of marriage, the more conjugally unappealing, frail, and divorce-prone the community is likely to be. Japan has one of the most rigid, intransigent, and sex-prescribed views of marriage among our peer nations—and the lowest marriage rate in the world.

To defend the idea of marriage, if that’s your goal, it seems reasonable to draw lessons from the communities and cultures where marriage works.

And one of the glaring lessons you’d have to draw from the successfully-marrying classes is that women’s liberation worked.

It helped men and women find ways to modernize marriage, and to keep it flexible, mutually beneficial, and appealing.

It created marriage heterodoxy instead of orthodoxy.

It created a sense that there are many ways to “do” marriage, without social censure or shame attached to masculine or feminine “violations” of the norm, so these couples have felt emboldened to forge their own path, whether conventional (housewife-breadwinner) or not.

Now that the dust and upheaval of the 1970s social transition has settled, it looks like women’s liberation has proven to be the more pro-marriage value than family values, after all.

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