In this space of declining or delayed matrimony, a lot of women, especially, are left waiting. In fact, “I’m tired of waiting” might be the most common lament that I hear in this domain. In most congregations, there are simply more women than men interested in marriage. Sociologists are often eager to use economics as an explanation for this trend. But unfortunately, it’s not merely a numbers game. Those who have more options—men—by definition have more power than those who have fewer, and that power translates into the ability to demand whatever you want, including sex.
For many Christian women, this dynamic puts them in a familiar double bind: Do I prematurely sleep with a man who shows considerable promise, or do I say no and risk the probability that he may leave me for someone who will?
Farah lives with her parents, as do most unmarried adult children in Lebanon. Her father, a married priest, cares a great deal about matrimony and has counseled many couples in the apartment they share together. (It’s a small place, so she overhears the conversations.) She feels prepared to be married, but there are no suitors on the horizon. She’s not too concerned, though. Lots of devout Lebanese women wait. When they do marry, they seem to work more, not less, since the cost of living in Beirut outpaces salaries. Spare time is swamped with domestic responsibilities.
“When both spouses are working, they come home tired,” said Farah. “Even before they have kids, the couple doesn’t have the time to sit together, so they delay their discussion time. They delay things to Saturday, usually, so Saturdays or weekends become overloaded, which becomes very tiring.”
This dynamic is hardly limited to Lebanon. Increasingly, spouses are expected to sacrifice across a host of domains by supporting each other’s careers, co-parenting with equality, listening with understanding, and becoming best friends. Some of these conditions are externally imposed, as with economic strain, but many others are internally generated and elective. In this context, the quest for an ideal mate may yield what social psychologist Eli Finkel has dubbed the “suffocation model” of marriage. Tim Keller, author of The Meaning of Marriage, is also skeptical of this turn. “Simply put,” he writes, “people are asking far too much in the marriage partner.”
As we wring our hands over the flight from marriage, one insight that hasn’t received attention is that fewer and fewer people are interested in participating in what marriage actually is. While most people marry with affection—as they should—marriage, when you observe it across time and place, still concerns the mutual provision and transfer of resources within a formalized sexual union. That may sound unsexy and old-fashioned, but it’s not untrue. Matrimony has long depended on an exchange based on inequalities between the spouses: He needs what she has, and vice versa.
Many balk at this notion. “If the basis of marriage is specialization and exchange,” wrote the late UCLA demographer Valerie Oppenheimer, “then marriage seems an increasingly anachronistic social form.”
She’s right—and declining marriage rates appear to reinforce her point. But marriage is what it is. Demand too much from it, and you will be disappointed. All of our social, cultural, and legal efforts have not fundamentally altered the nature of the union. Marriage isn’t changing. It’s receding. In an era of increasing options, technology, gender equality, “cheap” sex, and secularization, fewer people—including fewer practicing Christians—actually want what marriage is. That’s the bottom line.
As a researcher, studying the demise of marriage has been like watching an invasive fungus slowly destroy a stately old oak tree. Despite all this bad news, though, there is reason for hope. The oak will not perish. In fact, marriage will increasingly become “a Christian thing,” which means the church will bear increasing responsibility for an institution with an uncertain future.
As my research assistants and I talked with interview subjects around the globe, we heard many of them describe marriage in sacramental terms. Some—like Rachel—spoke of a covenant. Others described marriage as a domestic church, a procreative union, or a unity blessed by God.
Augustine would be pleased by these answers. In his book On the Good of Marriage, he affirms matrimony as the first natural bond of human society. Many of our interviewees defined marriage with reference to some version of Augustine’s “three goods”—fidelity, children, and a sacred bond.
While these three goods are not uniquely Christian, whenever or wherever these practices are disregarded or undermined, marriage recedes. And since Christians on average tend to be more committed to these goods than their secular peers, it’s no surprise that marriage will slowly become more of “a Christian thing,” even while Christianity continues to wrestle with its own marital recession.
The World Values Survey numbers for several Western nations make this picture fairly clear [see charts on pp. 38 and 39]. Even a modest gap in marriage patterns between the more and less devout will amount to a far more significant difference over several decades. For the foreseeable future, then, matrimony will increasingly come to be associated with the world’s most religious citizens—Muslims, orthodox Jews, and conservative Christians.
These survey numbers contain both upsides and downsides. The bad news: Although conservative Christians on the whole are notably more apt to be married, that means they have further to fall when signs of decline appear, as they have. The good news: Christians of all stripes still express significant social support for marriage and a strong desire to problem-solve.