When I went to the Czech Republic recently to attend the World
Congress of Families, I had a difficult time determining whether I
was in 1990s Prague or 1960s Liverpool.
On the morning I arrived, I picked up an international newspaper
and noticed that one of the main stories concerned an upcoming
auction of Beatles memorabilia. Then, when I checked into my hotel
room, I found that the TV had been set to the music channel which
was playing "Eleanor Rigby" when I turned it on.
Later, when I started looking into some special things that I
could do in Prague, I found a guidebook that encouraged tourists to
see the John Lennon mural. And then, when I called the Marionette
Theatre to inquire about upcoming performances, I was told that one
of the featured productions was Yellow Submarine.
Under ordinary circumstances. I probably wouldn’t have paid a
great deal of attention to these relics of Beatlemania. But one of
my main responsibilities at the World Congress was to deliver a
speech outlining several objectives for rebuilding a culture that
affirms and supports marriage.
And I am convinced that our first and arguably most important
objective in rebuilding a marriage culture is to do something the
Beatles clearly did very well—and that is to capture the
imagination of young people.
Now, I suppose that any movement seeking to influence cultural
change could give emphasis to reaching young people. Indeed, most
do. For example, I never cease to be amazed at the degree to which
environmentalists target young people with their message.
But I believe capturing the imagination of young people is of far
greater importance to the cause of strengthening marriage than it is
to other causes. For every day, young people all over the world make
decisions about love and marriage and sexuality. And the
trajectories of their personal lives—and the trajectories of the
cultures in which they live—are greatly affected by these
This generally isn’t the case with other causes. While it might
be nice for people to begin recycling at an early age, it is not
terribly critical to their personal well-being—or to the
well-being of the larger society—that they do so.
Indeed someone can start recycling at age 50 or 60 without having
to worry about the effects of personal baggage accumulated from
years and years of poor personal waste disposal management.
But long before they reach age 50 or 60, most people make
decisions—for good or ill—about love and marriage and sexuality.
And these decisions matter. They matter a great deal. In fact, if it
were possible to convince most young people to make wise decisions
in these areas. then so many of the domestic problems we see in
America would begin to take care of themselves.
Signs of Hope
I not only think it is possible to convince young people to make
wise decisions in these areas, but I believe the cultural climate
for capturing the imagination of the emerging generation is actually
improving in several important ways.
In the United States, for example, we are seeing a growing number
of young people who are openly challenging the central tenets of the
sexual revolution. Convinced that free love wasn’t exactly free
and that safe sex isn’t entirely safe, they are organizing
campaigns like "True Love Waits," in which young people
sign pledge cards vowing to save sex until marriage.
What is most interesting (and in some ways most encouraging)
about these campaigns is that they are largely youth driven. For
example, "True Love Waits" was initiated by a group of
young people who, after seeing the kind of heartache sex before
marriage can cause, became convinced that there must be a better
way, that there must be a higher love, that there must be great
wisdom in saving sex for the ultimate male-female relationship:
Part of the appeal of these youth-driven campaigns is that they
speak to the longings of the human heart, to the hopes and dreams
and aspirations of young people. In other words, they don’t just
seek to seize the moral high ground, but they seek to claim the
romantic high ground as well.
This, admittedly, isn’t terribly difficult to do in our day and
age. In a recent FRC poll conducted by the Voter/Consumer Research
firm, 61 percent of American adults say they believe male-female
relations in America today are "less romantic" than they
were 40 years ago. And young Americans are especially likely to
perceive a decline in romance. For every twentysomething who
believes male-female relations today are "more romantic"
than 40 years ago, there are four who think the exact opposite.
The decline in romance parallels the decline in marriage. That
may seem strange given that most people perceive the falling-in-love
stage of a relationship to be the most romantic. But it is important
to recognize that part of what makes this stage so exciting is the
hope or expectation that this newfound love will endure—that it
will blossom into a lifelong commitment in which two people share a
In her provocative movie The Mirror Has Two Faces, Barbara
Streisand plays a somewhat frumpy college professor who falls in
love with an attractive single guy who has found that typical
male-female sexual relationships are hollow and void of meaning.
Believing sex to be a hindrance to true intimacy, this never-married
man convinces Streisand’s character to become his platonic
soulmate for life.
But Streisand’s character understands—and spends the entire
movie trying to convince her devoted companion—that the ultimate
expression of love, affection, and intimacy between a man and a
woman is found in the marriage bed. It is there, within the
protection of a lifelong marital commitment, that a man and a woman
can experience not just the joining of their two bodies, but the
union of their two souls. It is there—and only there—that their
hearts can fully experience the Edenesque thrill of being
"naked and not ashamed"—of being "known"
completely and of "knowing" another fully, without fear of
That the human heart longs for this sort of union is something
Streisand’s character understands better than those in our day who
go around touting "safe sex." As Michael Foley of Boston
University observes: "We have witnessed a concerted effort to
sterilize our erotic attachments, to sap them of their danger but
also of their vigor. The flat, unerotic words we now use confirm
this. Instead of ‘lover’ and ‘beloved,’ we now have
‘significant other’ and ‘partner’(a term which lends to the
affairs of the heart all the excitement of filling out a tax
And lest one think that only women like Streisand’s character
desire romantic love and transcendent intimacy, consider the results
of a recent Men’s Health magazine survey which found that
many men wish they had known at the time of their first sexual
encounter just how profound the emotional side of lovemaking is.
Or listen to the words of Sheryl Crow’s recent Grammy
Award-winning song in which a young woman says to her boyfriend,
"If it makes you happy/It can’t be that bad/If it makes you
happy/Then why the hell are you so sad?" Apparently, many young
men recognize (or discover through experience) that it takes far
more than just physical gratification to be sexually fulfilled.
Sadly, most sex education programs give little attention to the
longings of the human heart. And, as a result, most have a difficult
time convincing young people to deny themselves any sexual pleasure.
I recently spoke at a teen pregnancy prevention conference at
which one speaker after another lamented the fact that many young
men and women today are resisting the "safe sex" message
and frequently engaging in "unprotected sex." According to
these leaders, resistance to condom usage is particularly strong
among young men.
When it came my turn to speak, I told the audience what I thought
was obvious to most people. "For most men, unprotected sex
isn’t the problem—it’s the goal," I said. "And,
personally, I think we ought to be making it easier for them to
reach their goal, provided they do so within the context of a
Regrettably, most of the teen pregnancy prevention crowd didn’t
care too much for my message that day. Indeed, most resisted the
idea of explicitly linking erotic love to marriage.
This is rather ironic given that a number of recent studies show
that monogamous married couples are the most sexually satisfied
people in America. And while most married couples do not experience
consummate intimacy the first time they consummate their love and
commitment, sex therapist Mary Ann Mayo says the couples most apt to
succeed in marriage are those who bring the least amount of sexual
baggage into the relationship.
Given how rarely information of this kind is presented to young
people, it is a wonder that any of them save sex for marriage. Yet,
a new government study shows that the percentage of sexually
experienced teens has declined in recent years—and many of those
who have had sexual intercourse are now interested in practicing
pre-marital sexual abstinence.
For example, a 1994 Roper Starch study found that 62 percent of
sexually experienced high school girls (and 54 percent of all
sexually experienced teens) say they "should have waited"
to have sex. Similarly, when an Emory University survey asked 1,000
sexually experienced teen girls what they would like to learn to
reduce teen pregnancy, approximately 85 percent said, "How to
say no without hurting the other person’s feelings."
Yearning for Stability
Not only is there reason to be encouraged by the growing number
of young people in our country who are signing "True Love
Waits" cards, but there is also reason to be encouraged by the
fact that many of today’s young people appreciate the importance
of marital stability in a way that some of their parents don’t.
For example, a number of recent surveys show that young adults under
the age of 30 are significantly more anti-divorce than folks in the
Baby Boom generation.
Sadly, some of this youthful appreciation for family stability
has been gained the hard way—by seeing (and often experiencing
firsthand) the pain family breakup can cause children. I am reminded
of the tragic story of Kurt Cobain, the 1990s rock music icon who
has often been called the "John Lennon of Generation X."
Cobain was so deeply affected by his parents’ divorce when he was
8 years old that many years later he held a gun to his head and told
his wife, "I’d rather die than divorce."
Some time later, he did just that. He ended his troubled life and
his mercurial marriage with a bullet to the head.
Cobain’s story serves to illustrate the fact that while the
pain associated with broken families can cause young people to yearn
for family stability, it can also lead them down self-destructive
paths. This is certainly reflected in Cobain’s often-nihilistic
music—and in the lyrics to many other songs popular with
Generation X listeners.
For example, Sheryl Crow’s debut album contains a best-selling
song in which a young woman offers this plea to her live-in
boyfriend: "Lie to me/I promise I’ll believe/Lie to me/But
please don’t leave." Apparently, the woman in this song is so
desperate for stability in her home life that she is willing to
tolerate all sorts of mistreatment so long as she isn’t abandoned.
It should be noted, of course, that the wounded women of
Generation X are not the first to seek domestic stability at any
cost. Indeed, Crow’s lyrics reminiscent of those found in country
music singer Crystal Gayle’s 1970s hit song "Don’t It Make
My Brown Eyes Blue."
Nevertheless, some important changes in youthful attitudes about
love and marriage have occurred over the last several decades.
Consider, for example, the issue of cohabitation.
In the 1960s and 1970s, most cohabiting couples in America could
be described fairly as "anti-marriage." That is, they were
deliberately seeking an alternative to traditional marriage, an
institution they viewed as "repressive" or
Today, however, many cohabiting couples have a different outlook.
Rather than being "anti-marriage," I think it is more
accurate to say that many (though certainly not all) of these young
couples are primarily "anti-divorce." That is, they are so
fearful of marital breakup that they are looking to cohabitation as
a "trial marriage" that will protect them from entering
into a marriage that is likely to end in divorce.
Yet, far from increasing the likelihood of marital success,
cohabitation is actually linked to significantly higher divorce
rates. For example, a 1991 study published in the Journal of
Marriage and the Family found that 40 percent of cohabiting
unions disintegrate before marriage and that cohabiting couples who
eventually marry have a 50 percent higher rate of divorce than
couples who do not live together prior to getting married.
Leon Kass of the University of Chicago is not surprised by such
findings. In a recent essay on the end of courtship, Kass says that
when cohabiting couples marry they start off disadvantaged because
their "new" life together hardly seems new. "The
formal rite of passage that is the wedding ceremony is, however
welcome and joyous, also something of a mockery," Kass writes.
"Everyone, not only the youngest child present, wonders, if
only in embarrassed silence, ‘Why is this night different from all
Not only do cohabiting relationships fail to deliver on their
promise of improving the chances of long-term marital success, but
they also fail to offer much in the way of short-term happiness. For
example, a recent study by Jan Stets at Washington State University
shows that cohabiting women are more than twice as likely to be the
victims of domestic violence than married women. And a study by the
National Institute for Mental Health shows that cohabiting women
have rates of depression that are three times higher than married
women and more than twice as high as other unmarried women.
At a certain level, I think most young people recognize that
cohabitation is a cubic zirconium lifestyle. It may look good at a
glance. But it doesn’t exactly inspire awe up close. Indeed, a
recent Details magazine survey of college students found that
only 3 percent perceive marriage to be "an outmoded
institution"—a sign that few young people today are looking
for cohabitation to replace marriage.
While most young people in America believe in the ideal of
lifelong marriage, many are quite skeptical about whether they can
actually attain it. Indeed, many young people—especially those who
have never seen a successful marriage lived out in front of
them—fear that enduring love may be a fantasy, a fairy tale.
Perhaps this explains why so few "silly love songs" are
heard today on radio stations popular with America’s youth. This
is, of course, a major change from 30 years ago today when Sgt.
Pepper taught the band to play. Back then, love songs weren’t just
sung by leading female artists (like Diana Ross) or by male singers
with a mostly female audience (like Bobby Sherman), but by male
artists with a sizeable young male following (like the Beatles).
But much of the music targeted specifically to today’s
youth—particularly today’s young men—is Wounded Hearts Club
Band music. It is at times despairing, at times angry. But perhaps
most of all, it is often cynical. Indeed, when it turns its
attention to the relations between men and women, it typically knows
not the schoolboy innocence of "I Want to Hold Your Hand,"
or the simple affection of "Michelle," or even the can-do
optimism of "We Can Work It Out."
There are, of course, some notable exceptions. For example, The
Wallflowers (an alternative rock group featuring Bob Dylan’s son,
Jakob) had a recent hit single, "One Headlight," which
spoke confidently of "Me and Cinderella/We can put it all
together/We can drive it home/With one headlight." But even
here, the song’s lyrics concede that "nothing lasts
forever." And, in many ways, a couple trying to navigate dark
streets at night with only one headlight is an apt metaphor for the
kind of challenges facing many young people from broken homes trying
to find lasting love in the 1990s.
The Importance of Telling Stories
How, then, do we convince young people that the deeper longings
of their heart can be fulfilled? That it is still possible to
achieve the romantic ideal of transcendent intimacy within the
context of a lifelong marriage?
I cannot pretend to have all the answers to this question, but I
do believe that one of the most important ways to help reverse the
retreat from lifelong marriage is for Americans to tell inspiring,
hardbitten love stories that celebrate enduring commitment.
There is a common misconception that couples who have successful
marriages do not face any of the conflicts and struggles that other
couples face. They do not go through rough times or encounter
serious relational turbulence.
The truth is, every marriage faces trials and hardships and
breakdowns in communication. Yes, some couples manage to limit
conflict better than others, but every marriage faces difficulties.
For example, Ruth Bell Graham was once asked by a reporter if, in
all her years of marriage to Billy Graham, she had ever considered
divorce. "No," Mrs. Graham replied, "but I have
If every marriage faces challenges, why is it that some survive
and others do not? According to John Gottman of the University of
Washington at Seattle, couples that succeed work hard at resolving
conflict. In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, Gottman
argues that many of the theories about why some couples
divorce—money problems, in-law tensions, sexual dysfunctions,
emotional incompatibility, etc.—fail to explain why other equally
dissatisfied couples confronting these very same issues do not split
up. The real issue, Gottman contends, is not money or sex or
compatibility. The real issue, instead, is whether couples are
willing and able to work through difficulties that arise in their
Research by social scientists Nick Stinnett and John DeFrain
shows that one of the seven characteristics commonly found in
strong, healthy families is the ability to deal effectively with
conflict and crisis. Like Gottman, Stinnett and DeFrain find that
couples who have to work through difficult problems often perceive
that the experience strengthens their marital commitment.
This is important, because most public discussion about divorce
revolves around whether divorce would be better than a marriage in
which spouses are fighting all the time. This framework assumes that
a marriage gone sour can never be made sweet again.
Yet the experience of many married couples contradicts this.
Indeed, David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values
argues that a broad spectrum of marriages exists in America today.
At one end are a small percentage that are almost effortlessly
blissful; at the other, a small percentage that are headed for
almost certain failure. Between these two extremes, Blankenhorn
says, are the overwhelming majority of marriages—unions that can,
with grit and perseverance, not only endure, but prosper.
Telling marital success stories is something journalists,
novelists, artists, public speakers, filmmakers, poets, preachers,
television producers, and—perhaps especially—songwriters need to
do. And while young people can certainly benefit from learning about
the triumphs of married couples they do not know, special attention
needs to be given to encouraging storytelling on a more personal
Indeed, many of the most successful marriage enrichment programs
cited by Mike McManus in his book, Marriage Savers, link
mature married couples with younger couples. These
"mentoring" relationships provide an
opportunity for young people to learn important principles and
strategies for achieving marital success from the personal stories
told by older, more experienced couples.
In addition, these mentoring relationships serve to enmesh
younger couples in a wider network of social support, a factor which
is believed to be extremely important to marital success. Indeed,
research by University of Texas sociologist Norval Glenn shows that
residential mobility (or, more precisely, the absence of social
rootedness) is highly correlated with divorce. And part of the
reason why frequent church attenders have lower divorce rates is
because their church participation not only exposes them to teaching
and instruction on marital success, but also because the church body
lends social support and accountability to the couple.
The role of churches in reversing the retreat from marriage is
potentially huge—and not at all unwelcome by today’s young
people. In fact, when a recent Gallup youth survey asked what modern
questions religion can answer, more young people (65 percent) cited
"problems of marriage and divorce" than any other option.
Interestingly, support for church involvement in addressing marital
problems was particularly strong (70 percent) among young men.
While it is no panacea for all of the problems surrounding love
and marriage and sexuality, telling inspiring stories of hardbitten
marital success can help to show young people that enduring love
still exists. And it can serve to keep appeals made to the longing
of the human heart grounded in reality. For there is little to be
gained by a syrupy romanticism that seems straight out of
Hallmarkardia. But there is much to be gained by an honest, sober
romanticism that acknowledges that building a happy home is on of
the most frustrating, one of the most difficult—yet one of the
most rewarding endeavors in all of life.
When it comes to divorce, many Americans are a lot like country
music singer Tammy Wynette. They have an easier time spelling
"D-I-V-O-R-C-E" than actually talking about it.
Indeed, in the three decades since Wynette’s song topped the
country charts, the number of divorces in America has more than
doubled, the volume of research showing negative consequences for
children has grown significantly, and the link between fatherless
families and a host of serious social problems has become
Yet few public meetings today are devoted to the topic of
divorce. Few news reports focus on the subject. And few national
leaders utter the "d" word from their bully pulpits.
In fact, several years ago when Dan Quayle returned to the San
Francisco club where he had given his 1992 "Murphy Brown"
speech, the former vice president went out of his way to make clear
that when he speaks of the problems surrounding fatherless families,
he’s "not referring to households where the father has died,
or even where he is separated by divorce."
Quayle’s troublesome sidestep raises a good question: Do we
want public officials to talk about divorce? Given the fact that
America’s divorce problem is rooted more in culture than in law,
do we really want lawmakers to wade into this area?
I think we do. A 1995 University of Oklahoma study shows that
no-fault divorce statutes have contributed to increases in divorce
rates. While larger cultural forces certainly have played a more
significant role in the divorce revolution of the last 30 years, the
University of Oklahoma research shows that permissive divorce
statutes contribute to higher divorce rates, while more restrictive
statutes discourage couples from hastily turning to divorce.
Here, then, are two modest proposals for reforming divorce law:
1. Promote Justice for "No-Fault" Spouses. Under
current law in most states, one spouse can obtain a divorce
unilaterally. While "mutual consent" is required for the
marital union to be consummated, one spouse can end the marriage
without the other’s consent—even if the spouse wanting out has
no evidence of "fault" on the part of the other spouse.
To remedy this problem, legislators in Michigan have proposed to
offer greater protection to the spouse interested in preserving the
marriage. Under this proposal, "no-fault" divorces would
be granted in cases where both spouses want to end the marriage. But
in cases where the couple does not agree, the law would view their
marital commitment as binding—much as it views business contracts
as binding unless one party violates the agreement.
Given the government’s role in providing justice, this is a
modest and appropriate attempt to ensure that people who have met
their legal commitments are not taken advantage of in divorce and
Another option along these same lines would be to alter existing
divorce law to make the filing for a divorce without grounds a
"breach of contract," which entitles the spouse left
behind to the custody of the children and a disproportionate share
of the couples’ property. In essence, this would permit the spouse
interested in leaving to go, but in doing so, he or she would
forfeit certain custody and property rights unless the spouse left
behind is shown to be at fault.
2. End "Divorce-on-Demand" by Lengthening Waiting
Periods. Several years ago, William Galston and Elaine Kamarck
of the Progressive Policy Institute called for "braking
mechanisms" that slow down the divorce process to give every
opportunity for a reconciliation to occur. Given that the average
waiting period for a divorce in the U.S. is less than one year, it
is hard to argue against at least some extension of current waiting
Longer waiting periods would no doubt foster reconciliation in
some cases, as couples have an opportunity to cool off and try to
work things out. Since research shows that many divorcees, looking
back, often perceive that they gave up on their marriage too soon,
longer waiting periods seem to make a great deal of sense.
Laws Tilted Against Jilted Dads Hurt Kids
Twenty-five years after America developed a soft spot for the two
divorced men that comprised Neil Simon’s "Odd Couple,"
the worst thing anyone can be today is a divorced man, a member of
the First Husbands Club, a certified deadbeat dad.
It’s easy to understand why deadbeat dads have become Public
Enemy #1. Who can respect a man who abandons his family, who trades
in his faithful wife of many years for a younger "trophy
wife," who fails to make regular visits and child support
But the problem is that some divorced men aren’t behaving
badly. They are trying to do right by their kids. They are trying to
make the most of a situation they never really wanted.
To be sure, men who get pushed out of their marriages are the
exception, not the rule. But lest we paint all divorced men with the
broad brush used to tar deadbeats, it is time to acknowledge that
dumped-on divorced fathers don’t just exist in Hollywood films
like Mrs. Doubtfire and Kramer v. Kramer. They live in
your town and mine.
The reason we need to acknowledge that men sometimes get shafted
in divorce proceedings is because children need involved fathers
just as they need nurturing mothers. And child custody policies
tilted against jilted fathers can have the effect of hindering
strong father-child ties.
Wade Horn of the National Fatherhood Initiative believes state
governments should guard against such
problems by requiring divorcing couples to develop a "joint
parenting plan" for how they will divide responsibilities post
divorce. Horn says requiring couples to develop such a plan can
serve to demilitarize the divorce process and to shift attention
away from spousal grievances and towards parental responsibilities.
In addition, Horn says "joint parenting plans" increase
the likelihood that divorced dads won’t become deadbeats.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 90 percent of men with joint
custody pay child support, 79 percent of men with "access"
or "visitation rights" pay child support, but only 45
percent of those who have no legally recognized access to then
children make child support payments. Clearly, the strength of
father-child ties is a key factor influencing child support
But the most intriguing argument Horn makes is this: requiring
joint parenting plans as a prerequisite for divorce might cause some
couples to rethink their decision to break up.
Several post-divorce surveys have found that, looking back, many
divorcees believe they pursued their divorce too hastily. In fact,
some say they failed to appreciate just how much interaction and
negotiation is required between divorced spouses seeking to
coordinate the rearing of their children.
No law, of course, can change the human heart. But new laws which
require "joint parenting plans" before a divorce is
granted may serve to encourage more couples in troubled marriages to
seek out programs which help spouses work through difficulties and
rediscover the love that initially brought them together.
While that is obviously easier said than done, it is important to
recognize that the oldest "joint parenting plan" ever
conceived is still the best. It’s called lifelong marriage
This article and the adjoining
sidebars are adapted from the speech given at the World Congress of
Families and published by the Family Research Counsel in their
magazine Family Policy. Family Policy.