Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2002 / 10 Kislev 5763
Marriage vs. 'player' impulse
Jennifer Lopez must love weddings. She has so many of them.
Having just shed her latest marriage, lo and behold, it's time for J. Lo's friends to start buying gifts for her next one.
Lopez has confirmed in an interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer that the big pink diamond ring on her finger does indeed mean that she and her latest sweetie, film star Ben Affleck, plan to tie the knot.
This will be a first marriage for Ben, 30, and the third for J. Lo, 32, in the past four years. She and husband-choreographer Cris Judd filed for divorce in July after 10 months of marriage. J. Lo divorced model Ojani Noa in 1998, one year after marrying him.
If Lopez loves weddings, she's hardly alone. For all the grim statistics and anxious obituaries we hear these days about the decline and fall of marriage, we Americans seem to be no less fascinated by it than we ever were.
Wedding magazines still fill magazine racks. Shows like "The Bachelor" still gain mammoth TV ratings. The marriage of any popular fictional character on a prime-time show still brings an audience boost.
Yet, while our cultural values continue to elevate marriage, our behavior drifts away from it. Our national divorce rates are soaring, particularly in the Bible Belt states, ironically enough, where people tend to marry earlier and more often. In places where couples people marry less, out-of-wedlock birth rates are soaring, along with our national anxiety.
"We're a nation obsessed with marriage," says Chicago author-journalist Alex Kotlowitz, who explores the topic in "Let's Get Married," a disturbing documentary, that debuts on PBS's "Frontline." "The problem is that we may not know how to make marriage work," says Kotlowitz.
Indeed, almost 40 years after a controversial 1965 report on black family breakdown by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, later a Democratic senator from New York, the numbers that seemed so devastating about black families then now apply to all families in the country. A third of all children now live with only one parent.
The dire consequences of that shift are revealed by columnist Mike McManus, a co-founder of Marriage Savers, a national counseling ministry, in dire statistics:
"Children of divorce or children of never-married parents are twice as likely to drop out of school; they're three times as likely to get pregnant themselves as teenagers, 12 times as likely to be incarcerated if they're children of divorce, 22 times more likely to be incarcerated if they're children of never-married parents. So we're creating the next generation of monsters."
That's why states like Oklahoma, where the divorce rate is the second highest in the country, have initiated state-sponsored marriage counseling programs. President Bush's new welfare reform bill would allocate anti-poverty money to help similar marriage-saving programs nationwide.
Yet, liberal and conservative experts alike voice skepticism about the success of such public efforts.
As conservative sociologist James Q. Wilson, author of the new "The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families," recently wrote, "the right and best way for a culture to restore itself is for it to be rebuilt, not from the top down by government policies, but from the bottom up by personal decisions."
Which brings it back to us guys, doesn't it, guys?
I suspect that marriage will not be restored to its earlier perch until us guys begin to love it as women usually do.
Unfortunately, despite the benefits of getting hitched that we guys voice, for too many of us, "marriage is at best a long-term benefit, while sex is an immediate preoccupation," as Wilson writes in the latest edition of City, a quarterly publication of the Manhattan Institute. "As a result, the sexual revolution -- one that began nearly a century ago but was greatly hastened by the 1960s -- was supposed to help make men and women equal. Instead, it has helped men, while leaving many women unmarried spectators watching 'Sex and the City' on HBO."
Indeed, of the many theories that try to explain the sharp decline in two-parent households since the 1960s, one can hardly overestimate the impact of the "player" impulse, especially among men. It encourages us guys to "score" more than we date, spawn offspring more than we "parent" and promise more than we deliver.
No, there are no easy answers to questions as complicated as marriage and child-rearing. Marriage is not always essential to the raising of healthy children. But, it usually helps a lot more than it hurts.
Tying the knot also offers tangible evidence of an ingredient that is essential to healthy family life: commitment. I hope J. Lo and Ben have it for each other. The rest of us need it, too.
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