“Be good to your spouse.”
I’ll admit, that wasn’t the beginning to an Ash Wednesday homily I expected to hear yesterday. With food on my mind and ashes for my forehead, I was expecting something more Lenten.
But reading today a recent poll on the devaluation of “successful marriage," the homily's statement seemed timely in a very different way.
According to Pew Research, more Millennials (age 18-29) say being a good parent is "one of the most important things" in life, than those who who give precedence to having “a successful marriage” -- a 22-percentage-point gap. That’s a greater gap — and lower marriage popularity — than showed in 1997.
Love, marriage, baby in a carriage — I knew the traditional order of life and love events is less common than it once was. Granted, too, more Millennials are parents than are married -- accounting for some, but not all of the change.
But has their importance changed, too? And why?
Also unconvincing was the suggestion banking on Pew's earlier “shocker” that Millennials are the generation most likely to believe that "marriage is becoming obsolete." But 7 in 10 unmarried childless Millennials also say “they want to get married"--suggesting Millennials aren't entirely ambivalent. By almost identical percentages, unmarried childless Millennials also say they want children.
So if Millennials want to get married and be parents in equal measure, how come there is such a discrepancy when you talk about good parents and successful marriages?
A big difference between being a “good parent” and having a “successful marriage” is culpability.
Personal culpability is high in parenting. The sense is: if you are not a “good parent,” you are a “bad parent.” Being a good parent is synonymous with being a good person.
But personal culpability is not high for marriage. Since the introduction of “no-fault divorce,” an “unsuccessful marriage” is not considered the same thing as a “bad marriage,” in modern law. As one law blog wrote, "“Sometimes couples separate because their marriage was just not meant to succeed.”
Hand-in-hand with the difference of culpability is the matter of control. You can be in complete control over whether you are a good parent or not. It’s a pretty permanent relationship—even if it has a sort of natural "expiration date" of when the bulk of responsibility lifts.
By contrast, having a “successful marriage”—one that lasts, with personal fulfillment—is not a solo endeavor. And even if you are a “good spouse,” many divorces are initiated unilaterally, with one spouse filing without the other’s wish.
Legally, this is true. But is it healthy?
After all, if marriage is considered a matter of luck, then “working to save your marriage” is the equivalent of being the casino gambler who indulges in elaborate dice-blowing, luck-invoking rituals before making a roll.
For this reason, the positive truth about marriage is so important for Millennials to hear.
And in a country that—as of 2010 in New York—has no-fault divorce in every state, that's why programs like Marriage Encounter and Retrouvaille are countercultural in how they give a relevant, grounded hope. They don't do it by calculating odds, but by building up the couple’s joint ability to shape their own marriage. Retrouvaille—the course for tough-cases—also has an “success rate” of about 8 in 10 marriage or higher. There is real pride in the testimonies of those who attended and turned their marriages around.
So maybe the start of 40 days dedicated to spiritual growth and self-giving really was the best time to hear "be good" rather than "good luck."
It's nice every once in a while to hear the Church being the strong voice of reason that says that A good marriage is worth creating together, with God and A good marriage is something to be proud of—and not in a “wow, I won playing craps” kind of way.