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The marriage strike

By Wendy McElroy
web posted August 18, 2003

Why do fewer people marry?

According to a 1999 National Vital Statistics Report from the CDC, 7.4 per 1,000 Americans married in 1998. From 1990 to 1995, the marriage rate dropped from 9.8 to 7.6. Different sources render other statistics but the trend remains sharply downward.

There is never a single or comprehensive explanation for complex phenomena that are rooted deeply in human psychology. Non-marriage is a particularly difficult issue to address because, as a recent paper from Rutgers University entitled "Why Men Won't Commit" explains, official sources are scarce. "The federal government issues thousands of reports on nearly every dimension of American life. ... But it provides no annual index or report on the state of marriage." Much of the discussion of the motives surrounding non-marriage must be anecdotal, therefore, relying on statistics to provide framework and perspective.

In examining reasons for the current decline of marriage, one question usually receives short shrift. Why are men reluctant to marry?

The Rutgers report — admittedly based on a small sample — found ten prevalent reasons. The first three:

— They can get sex without marriage;

— They can enjoy "a wife" through cohabitation; and,

— They want to avoid divorce and its financial risks.

As a critic of anti-male bias in the family courts, the reasons I hear most frequently from non-marrying men are fear of financial devastation in divorce and of losing meaningful contact with children afterward. (Such feedback is anecdotal evidence but, when you hear the same response over a period of years from several hundred different sources, it becomes prudent to listen.)

In a similar vein, the Rutgers report finds: "Many men also fear the financial consequences of divorce. They say that their financial assets are better protected if they cohabit rather than marry. They fear that an ex-wife will 'take you for all you’ve got' and that 'men have more to lose financially than women' from a divorce."

Increasingly, men are stating their reasons for not marrying on the Internet. In an article entitled "The Marriage Strike," Matthew Weeks expresses a sentiment common to such sites, "If we accept the old feminist argument that marriage is slavery for women, then it is undeniable that — given the current state of the nation's family courts — divorce is slavery for men."

Weeks provides the math. One in two marriages will fail with the wife being twice as likely to initiate the proceedings on grounds of "general discontent" — the minimum requirement of no-fault divorce. The odds of the woman receiving custody of children are overwhelming, with many fathers effectively being denied visitation. The wife usually keeps the "family" assets and, perhaps, receives alimony as well as child support. Many men confront continuing poverty to pay for the former marriage.

Weeks concludes: "Over five million divorced men in America are currently experiencing the situation I just outlined. Without a doubt, their stories and experiences are heard by unmarried men. Can anyone truly blame the men for having apprehension?"

He uses what has become a new term — at least in the mouths of men: "the marriage strike." Most of the men who go "on strike" undoubtedly do so quietly but others are making a loud political statement. For example, the Joint Parenting Association declares, "An international 'marriage strike' by men is set to continue indefinitely until Family Law is reformed to recognize that fathers love their children too."

The apprehension of men — along with other significant factors — is dramatically changing the face of marriage and the family. The best statistics we have indicate that, from 1960 to 2000:

— The number of marriages per 1,000 unmarried women age 15-plus has declined from 73.5 to 46.5.

— The number of divorces per 1,000 married women age 15-plus has risen from 9.2 to 18.9.

One impact: The presence of single women has increased remarkably — women who must choose either to remain childless or to raise children by themselves.

— The number of births per 1,000 women age 15-44 has declined from 118.0 to 67.5.

— The percentage of live births to unmarried women rose from 5.3 to 33.2.

— The percentage of children under 18 living with a single parent rose from 9 to 27.

Some point to the steep rise in cohabitation as causing the devastation of marriage and families. The number of unmarried adults cohabiting with the opposite sex has soared from 439,000 in 1960 to 4,736,000 in 2000. But blaming cohabitation misses the point. Why do people choose that alternative?

A significant number of men are loudly stating their reasons: anti-male bias in the current marriage law and in the family courts. Solving this piece of the "marriage crisis" is not difficult. Allow people to draw up their own private marriage contracts, without government law acting as a third party; have unbiased family courts adjudicate breaches of contracts.

If men participated equally in forging the terms of the most important commitment in their lives, perhaps they would cease to view marriage as a form of indentured servitude and divorce as slavery.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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