Marriage is falling out of favor, and can hardly be relied upon to raise the upcoming generation of youngsters. Fully 40% of American children are born to single mothers, and over half of teenagers live with only one of their natural parents (usually the mother).
Individuals are no longer so eager to marry, for a variety of reasons. But it is not merely individuals who are changing. The nature of marriage is changing as well, so that fewer of us want what marriage has come to mean.
A new law in France will soon outlaw contemptuous comments within marriages, and illustrates the forefront of where marriage may be heading. Supported by the French Premier, the force of law will soon support those who allege that a spouse berates him or her or otherwise shows contempt. At first glance, the law treats husbands and wives equally. Yet there is more here than meets the eye.
As a marriage and family psychologist, I have been taken in more times than I would care to admit by angry individuals who allege malfeasance from their spouses. The individual who so alleges may be an innocent stating the truth; an equal participant stating only half of what happens, or perhaps even a major perpetrator showing contempt and causing pain and suffering by his or her allegations. In relationships, as in life generally, we must hear both sides to even begin to understand a controversy. It would require considerable insight and wisdom, and more hours than anyone seems willing to spend, to separate the various possibilities and adjudicate these cases properly.
So who will benefit most from these new statutes? On the one hand, we might expect men to benefit. Research by John Gottman at the University of Washington, among others, shows clearly that women tend to beÃ‚Â more argumentative while men are more highly stressed in arguments and tend to concede, placate, or withdraw. In those most lopsided clashes where only one argues and one is silent, by a ratio of six to one, it is the wife who continues to argue and the husband who bites his lip and searches for an escape.
On the other hand, women file complaints against their opposites considerably more often than do men. Men could accuse women and file charges , of course, but seldom do. Human nature is highly chivalrous, and we must look at who gains and loses in public accusations. We sympathize when women are mistreated and we naturally want to protect a woman and punish the offending man. But it does not work the other way around. We expect men to take care of themselves, and we have little inclination to support a man against a harsh women or to punish a woman who mistreats a man. And what sort of fool of a man would bring charges against his wife and turn her over to other men in authority, and chance losing her or sleeping on the couch until she gets over it.
The French law was sponsored by feminists, and we can see why. In spite of its balanced wording, such laws are generally used to support women against men and not the other way around. How can women be blessed and cursed by so many legal grievances against men, and continue to respect their opposites? In a recent survey 33% of women reported being “often or very often” resentful of men” while 14% of men were highly resentful of women. And men themselves see how it works, and are less inclined to work hard and try to gain the rare respect of women. Is it any wonder that the marriage arrangement is failing?
We now seem to have two forms of marriages. In traditional marriages, while husbands and wives might bicker, argue, scold, turn aloof or sullen, and show all manner of arrogance and contempt, men and women somehow managed to resolve conflict, shove it aside or bury it, and to get on with a life together (or bail out). A traditional marriage was an alliance in which two individuals stood together, supported one another, and made a mark on the world.
In our more contemporary marriages, which are becoming the norm, the alliance is giving way to an ideology of supposed oppression by men and government protectionism toward women. Either spouse (usually meaning the wife) is now more than welcome to make accusations against her mate, charging violence, assault, stalking, harassment, or causing her to be afraid, with or without any objective evidence.
I suggest a solution which should be acceptable to everyone (joke). Since we have two forms of marriages, we should provide a choice, and issue two forms of marriage certificates.
Those who choose a traditional marriage would be expected to work it out together or to get out of it, and assault provisions would apply only to intended injury (which is assault by any reasonable standard). In contrast, a contemporary marriage would allow either spouse to bring charges based on any actual or alleged mistreatment, and have the alleged perpetrator removed from the residence and handed over to the courts.
Traditionalists should approve, as the arrangement maintains the fundamentals of marriage and treats men and women as approximate equals, able to work out a relationship among themselves (or bail out). Ideological feminists should be pleased (but might not be) to see their programs set into law and fully implemented among those who choose to partake.
Maintaining more than a “single size fits all” marriage standard is not such an outlandish proposal. Indeed, many states now offer civil unions for gays, which have many of the legal provisions of ordinary marriage but without the official title. Great Britain and Canada have provisions for Sharia marriages among their Muslim populations, in which disputes are judged by Islamic arbitration courts with the full authority of the ruling government. The commonplace pre-nuptial agreement specifies conditions and so creates a variation of marriage tailored to particular participants.
Should the government choose for us, or should we be free to make our own choices? I suggest freedom of choice, of course, but we must be allowed meaningful alternatives to choose from. Traditional marriage and contemporary marriage should be allowed to compete freely, one against the other. Couples considering marriage would weigh the options, argue and persuade, and settle on something at least modestly acceptable to each.
Dr. D.Ã‚Â Ã‚Â (Richard Driscoll, Ph.D.)