There’s a perception out there that the institution of marriage is in pretty poor shape these days, and probably has been since the liberalization of divorce laws back in the 60s and 70s. That definitely seems to be the perception of Chris Jones, who, as I mentioned last week, had a few things to say about my post Parting with “Til Death do Us Part” from February 14th.
He ended his response to my post with the following statement:
The last thing we need now is any further damage to the institution of marriage.
So before I go on, I want to talk a little about the autism explosion of the 1980s and 90s.
In a 2015 interview on NPR’s Fresh Air about his book NeuroTribes, author Steve Silberman talked about how the expansion, in the 1980s, of the medical definition of autism to match Dr Hans Asperger’s original work in Austria and not the later work of Leo Kanner in America (who never credited Asperger), led to more frequent diagnoses of it…enabling more families to get the services they deserved. But he also mentioned that because this change wasn’t explained to the public, it led to the perception that there was an “autism explosion”, leading people to look for “causes”, which, in turn, led to the bad science of the “vaccine connection.”
Basically, there were always more autistic people, and now we were counting them correctly.
What does this have to do with the state of marriage today? In her book Marriage: A History…, author Stephanie Coontz mentions how the liberalization of divorce laws in the 60s and 70s led to a drop in the number of murders. Hmm…seems like some people took that thing about “til death do us part” a little too seriously. It seems that back then, one of the only ways out of a bad marriage…and there were many of them…was for one person to kill the other.
So what’s going on here? It seems that the same thing happened with marriage that happened with autism. Marriage didn’t suddenly find itself in trouble after the liberalization of divorce laws, instead, the liberalization of divorce laws recognized that marriage had always “been in trouble”, and that there had always been people trapped in bad marriages, in unfulfilling marriages, in loveless marriages, in cruel marriages, and in virtual prisons of marriages, because our definition was marriage was wrong…or at least antiquated. We were still defining it as something to be endured for the sake of the institution, rather than something to enjoyed by both parties.
As I write this, I’m currently reading the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and she starts by telling how she started to become physically ill at the idea of remaining in her current marriage, and the expectations that the institution placed on her. And as I read that, I wondered how anyone could say, “Suck it up, sweetheart, you signed up for life!” for the sake of the institution. There are no alliances at stake here, just the lives of two people, who would be made miserable if they were forced to live up to the vow of “til death do us part.”
In any event, my point is that the institution of marriage is not in any kind of trouble at all. People still think that getting married is a good idea. We’re just finally recognizing that we’ve been forcing people to remain in the rotting shells of dead marriages, and giving them a merciful way out…that doesn’t involve either homicide or suicide. We’ve started putting the people before the institution.
And that seems like a pretty good thing to me!