Saturday, April 22, 2006

CUT THE KIDS IN HALF

Instead of blogging this time, I wrote a school assignment. First instance in which I was completely into a paper (it had to only be 2-3 pages and I vomited out a 7-page monster). There was hardly any difference in the result, because it was nearly cathartic and my thoughts are now more sorted. Make do with it for this time, my friend, Oh, and soapbox, anyone?

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Sociologists and other researchers have all noted the decline of marriages that last in the United States over the past few decades. Interestingly enough, even though the divorce rates are higher today than 100 years ago, after a recent peak in the 80’s, it has been steadily decreasing ever since. Despite this nonlinear trend, the current statistics indicate that 1 in 2 marriages will end in divorce. As a result, many families are headed by single parents or are knit back together by remarriage or cohabitation, resulting in a myriad of alternative family forms, which include step-relatives, half-relatives, or a live-in parent. Appropriately, the US has been labeled as having a “high marriage, high divorce” culture. In instances when marriage is not the only option, the rate of couples that are cohabitating and children who are born out of wedlock are also steadily rising over the years.

There is little disagreement over these changes that have taken place pertaining to marriage and the family; what is hotly debated is whether they are beneficial, harmful or simply one of the many adaptations to our ever-changing culture. Conservatives strongly champion the model of the traditional family as the only and best way, howling that divorce wreaks havoc on families and their children, and denounce government welfare programs for facilitating the birth of children in single-parent homes. They feel that in current times, the moral fabric of American society has sizably unraveled and only by willfully restoring these lost values can society begin to function normally again.
Liberals criticize conservatives for having too narrow of a view; they assert that these trends have been a result of change in economics and “common sense,” that people are now more free than ever to make decisions for their own personal fulfillment and that gender roles, especially in marriages, are much more egalitarian. In this way, our society is being led by classic American ideals. They also validate newer, alternative forms of kinship, which have become more common. Because more and more women are getting degrees and entering the workforce, they are more able to support themselves and their children, allowing for less dependence on their husbands or other males. Both sides agree that divorce is disadvantageous for children, but both also propose different solutions to this problem. Conservatives push for legislation to further impede the process of getting a divorce, while liberals aim to attack the root of what they perceive to the be the underlying cause by setting up programs that would ultimately result in economic restructuring. In short, conservatives blame the marriage and family “crisis” on a collective loss of morals and liberals attribute the trends to economic reshaping, not necessarily viewing the situation as completely negative.

Growing up in an Asian and religious family (double conservatism!), I had only been exposed to one side of the debate. So upon actual examination of the other stances while researching for this paper, I was duly surprised (and a bit sheepish at myself) at how, once again, few things in the world are ever black and white. Even though I agree with the liberals that the conservative stance is much too narrow to propose viable national solutions, I still uphold the importance of family values and agree that our culture of tolerance has gone too far. However, I would not say that marriage and family in America is in a huge crisis, because the numbers clearly speak otherwise.

The institution of marriage and the family structure are extremely important. The family is the place of primary socialization, where children are in their most malleable stages. As Freud would say, early childhood experiences directly or indirectly affect one’s adulthood, to varying degrees. Although the deleterious effects of a traumatic home life are obvious, what is less acknowledged are the essential skills learned and emotional needs met through having both parents in the household. Without a strong father figure, who will teach a boy how to be a man? Or in sociological terms, how will this boy learn his proper gender role? Of course, as we have discussed in class, modern gender roles are still very much problematic, but that does not provide any substantial defense for the benignity of single-parent households. When two people have sex, they are supposedly engaging in the most intimate stage of their relationship, which should entail a high level of unselfish commitment. How does it make any rational sense for two people to bring a child into the world, but for only one to nurture and raise it? According to experts in the field of sociology and the body, there has been an increasing separation of the body from nature. Humans, intelligent and accomplished as we are, are still an animal species. I feel that this “divorce” of sex from childbirth dehumanizes us and drives us even further from nature and its intended functions. Even for animals, sex is performed primarily for reproduction, and as we as a society focus exclusively on the pleasures (and fantasies) of sex, we are losing touch with our humanity and offer to forgo one of the greatest joys of life: being a parent and raising a family.

A compelling argument promoted by liberals to dispel any cause for alarm is our culture’s unprecedented embracement of freedom and choice in relationships, which results in a loss of stigma for these non-traditional forms discussed above. As the occurrence of arranged marriages has died out, love has replaced economics as the primary motive for marriage. While these revised norms are largely preferred by individuals in modern society, myself included, the necessity of commitment inherent in arranged marriages in the previous ages was unwittingly jettisoned during this time of romantic fervor. American culture and media today is still saturated with fantasies about living happily ever after and the triumph of true love over all else. This starry-eyed notion that a marriage relationship functions mainly on romantic deeds and fluffy feelings cannot be farther from the truth. Regrettably, youths and adults alike are entering marriage and starting families with these foolish expectations, and nothing short of a paradigm shift will to expose them to reality- not even multiple, disastrous divorces. How is love a necessary, but not sufficient ingredient to a happy marriage? Actually, love prior to marital union may not even be necessary, as evidenced by the high success of arranged marriages practiced in cultures outside of the US, like in India. The most common reasons cited by couples with a long-term marital status are commitment and companionship. Feelings will always change and fluctuate, which make them an unreliable basis for anything long-term, but one’s will is completely self- controlled. So, rather than claiming that happy couples stay together because they never have difficulties, the decision of commitment implies that happy couples choose to stay together and stick it out, regardless of spells of loss of love and other negative feelings. In this regard I believe that a lack of stress on the fundamental importance of commitment in a marital relationship is a huge cause of divorce.

That is not to say that I feel that divorce should never occur in any situations, as there are exceptions to nearly every rule. The liberal claim that these trends are a result of economic change is a valid, but partial explanation. Even though I don’t intend to go so far into another topic of debate, I will say this: you cannot deny a conscience or morality in every human being that causes internal guilt when one commits a wrong deed, such as murder of an innocent person, or in general, strong feelings against injustice. And regardless of the societal pressures to conform, even when economics are at play, a person still has free will and can make blatantly countercultural decisions if they feel that it is best. Divorce is a problem whose ill effects cannot be totally blamed on structural forces outside one’s own power. We, as members of society, made collective choices that resulted in these trends; therefore, it is also an issue of lack of claiming responsibility.Thus, to totally ignore the moral aspect of our society results in an incomplete examination of a complex issue at best.

In reference to running wild with our freedoms, I’d like to address the issue of cohabitation, a lifestyle which increasing numbers young couples are choosing to adopt. Even though liberals are very hesitant to bring up the hard research that shows that cohabitation destabilizes relationships and is associated with increased risk of divorce, the facts cannot be denied. You cannot get something for nothing. In my mind, cohabitation assumes all the emotional and sexual benefits of marriage without ensuring the actual commitment. It cheapens the experience of love. Yes, you may be “test driving the car”, but you do not engage in sexual relations with the car, nor can you get into a heated argument with a car. Human beings are infinitely more complex than a hunk of metal with wheels. A vehicle will hardly be any different after a single test drive, but a person will be changed by the deep experience of living and sharing a life with another person. This impact is undeniable, as we are humans and not machines. Cohabitation is not a replacement for marriage; studies show that couples who cohabitate resemble singles more than they do married couples, because they experience lower levels of health and are generally more oriented towards their own personal autonomy at the expense of their partner’s wellbeing.

And, what incentives are there to marry once a couple is already used to living with one another, now that they are already sleeping together? There are scarcely any, especially for the male partner. One may question the worth of marriage, but once kids enter in the picture, their wellbeing is contingent upon parental commitment (and happiness). A recent study conducted by Dr. Glenn Norval, a professor in UT’s Department of Sociology, shows that even amicable divorces have lasting negative effects on children. Thus, the wellbeing of children- emotional, physical, social, sexual, and intellectual- may be the most powerful argument against cohabitation, divorce, single-parent families and other forms of non-traditional families.

Another facet of the sticky marriage debate is the statistic showing that families have declining rates of childbirth, meaning that the average number of children in a family has shrunk, with methods of contraception and abortion as direct culprits. Contrary to the outdated belief of the threat of overpopulation in the world, which first emerged in the 60’s, a more updated look suggests quite the opposite. Much of the undeveloped world is underpopulated and much of the world’s natural resources have yet to be exhausted. My parents’ generation, the Baby Boomers, garnered their nickname because of their own parents’ rates of reproduction; the trend to which I am referring indicates that Baby Boomers are having less children than were the previous generation. In a few decades, the current workforce will be completely retired and supported by a much smaller workforce, our generation. Countries like Germany and Japan have the greatest concern for economic harm because of the growing divergence of their worker to retiree ratio. The effects of underpopulation on the US economy have been thrown off thus far by our relatively high rates of immigration. However, this problem is already becoming apparent in the issue of the future collapse of the Social Security system. So in response to a proposed solution of discouraging childbirth or marriage to lower divorce rates, since both sides agree that children are harmed by divorce, the facts show that this option is not only impractical, but also exceedingly unwise when investigating the dire large-scale effects on the future national and world economy.

As you can see, in probing the nature of change in marriage and families, one must look closely at each reason without bias and with a broader time perspective. I feel like the future of the American family is in limbo and it depends on which side, liberal or conservative, will win in terms of policymaking and influence on the public. It will be difficult to slow down rates of divorce, since people whose parents divorced are more likely to divorce themselves. I hesitate to make any solid claims in predicting the future for American families and I hope to read up on research that is currently and will continue to be conducted alongside this fascinating trend, one in which we are all stakeholders.

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