Marriage and Family: Coming Back

Remember when social commentators were proclaiming the death of marriage and family a few short years ago?

ONLY A FEW short years ago, social commentators of all kinds were pro claiming the death of marriage and family as we know them today. Marriage was an "outmoded institution." The future was in "alternate life styles" of various kinds. Within the past few months, however, some significant events have taken place—events that seem to herald a cultural change. We believe that marriage and family life are "coming back" as recognizably important, popularly acceptable parts of our lives. Let us note the evidence in just three areas.

In print journalism, attention to marriage in the recent past has been focused in two areas. Proclamations of the "decline" in marriage and the "death" of the nuclear family have been carried widely in the news media, including such responsible sources as Time, Newsweek, and syndicated columns in newspapers across the country. The other major front has been the "women's magazines," which have continued to carry responsible, if sometimes superficial, articles on dimensions of being married, including "how-to's." On these two major fronts, two principles seemed to apply. First, what was sensational, was news. Certainly the decline of marriage and family was sensational. The second principle was that the only constituency seriously interested in creative marriage and family life was women.

Lately, some interesting changes have occurred. Articles advocating marriage and family life as significant and fulfilling life styles have appeared in such diverse sources as Harper's (Michael Novak, "The Family Out of Favor"), the Washington Post (Coleman McCarthy, "Carter's Family Policy"), and Esquire (Joseph B. Gumming, Jr., "The Perfect Union"). What is significant about these articles is not only their content, which is supportive, but their location. Responsible exploration of marriage and family life on newspaper pages other than the women's section and in magazines other than "women's" magazines, heralds the emergence of marriage and family into all of our society. (We do not in any sense intend to be disparaging of "women's magazines" or "the women's pages." Unfortunately, our society has tended to discount the significance of these sources on "the larger world." It now appears, however, that these sources have indeed been of major significance.)

In fact, the airline industry, with its emphasis on transience for its predominantly male clientele, has joined the stream. The February issue of Mainliner, published by United Air Lines and distributed to its airline passengers, features a series of interesting articles on improving marriage and family life.

The political realm is a second area where marriage and family life are "coming back." In the United States our new President and Vice-President are becoming symbols of commitment to family life. Vice-President Mondale, through long years in the Senate, remained a staunch advocate of families in many different ways. In particular, it was Mr. Mondale's 1973 Senate sub committee hearings that originated the concept of family impact statements. Such statements would assess the impact of all newly created legislation on the lives of families. The concept is currently being tested through Family Impact Seminars conducted at George Washington University under the direction of Mr. Sid Johnson.

Mr. Carter spoke out on behalf of American families often during the campaign. He is the only presidential candidate in our memory who had a special adviser on families (that person being Joseph Califano, who is now Secretary of HEW). But we believe the essence of Mr. Carter's commitment to family life is reflected in a handwritten memo sent to key members of his White House staff and repeated to members of his cabinet. The memo read in part: "I am concerned about the family lives of all of you. I want you to spend an adequate amount of time with your husbands, wives, and children, and also to involve them as much as possible in our White House life. We are going to be here a long time, and all of you will be more valuable to me and the country with rest and a stable home life.

(Signed:) "J. Carter"

The third area where we see progress is in the electronic media—notably television. Some of the smaller signs are the popularity of the new show Family, and the recognition in a recent NEC special on violence that the family is the key to solving the problem. But the ultimate symbol is the phenomenon of Roots. Not only was this the second-most-watched television show in history, it has had a profound impact on our culture. Suddenly people are recognizing the importance of knowing "where they've come from," and therefore, what they are a part of. In the response to Roots can be seen a previously repressed longing for the security of kinship.

What does this mean? That marriage and family are now safe and secure? That our commitment to work for better marriages is no longer needed? Certainly not. We believe that this new recognition of the central significance of marriage and family life means only that the time is right for us to do what we are doing, for the divorce rate is still climbing. One sixth of all the children in the United States are currently living in single-parent families. No, our task is just beginning. For as the culture stops and suddenly asks itself, "If marriage and family life are so important, how can we make them more satisfying?" we can respond by saying, "Join with us in our pilgrimage toward better marriages, better families, and a better society."


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November 1977

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