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Journal Issue: Marriage and Child Wellbeing Volume 15 Number 2 Fall 2005

Marriage as a Public Issue
Steven L. Nock


Over the past fifty years, powerful cultural and social forces have made marriage less central to Americans' family lives. In reaction, the United States is now engaged in a wide-ranging debate about the place of marriage in contemporary society.

In this article, Steven Nock examines the national marriage debate. He begins by reviewing the social and demographic trends that have changed the role of marriage and the family: the weakening link between marriage and parenthood caused by the contraceptive revolution, the declining significance of marriage as an organizing principle of adult life, and the increasingly accepted view that marriage and parenthood are private matters, relevant only to the individuals directly involved. He then considers the abundant scientific evidence on the positive consequences of marriage for both the economic well-being and the health of American adults. He notes that based partly on the evidence that marriage is good for adults and children, numerous public and private groups, including religious activists, therapeutic professionals, family practitioners, educators, and federal and state government officials, have initiated programs to strengthen marriage, lower divorce rates, reduce out-of-wedlock births, and encourage responsible fatherhood. He then reviews some of those programs.

Nock observes that although large cultural and social forces are driving the decline in marriage, most of the new programs attempting to restore or strengthen marriage in the United States focus on changing individuals, not their culture or society. He argues that the problem cannot be addressed solely at the individual level and cautions that given how little researchers and professionals know about how to help couples get or stay married, expectations of policies in these areas should be modest. But despite the shortage of effective strategies to promote marriage, he notes, a political, cultural, and scientific consensus appears to be emerging that the best arrangement for children is to live in a family with two loving parents. He believes that the contemporary marriage debate is an acknowledgment of the cultural nature of the problem, and views it as a crucial national conversation among Americans struggling to interpret and make sense of the place of marriage and family in today's society.