'DEFINING DOWN' MARRIAGE
When Marriage Becomes a Market Transaction

November 1994By Kalynne Hackney Pudner

Kalynne Hackney Pudner is writing her doctoral dis­sertation in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Virginia. She and her husband are ex­pecting their fifth child this month.

Daniel P. Moynihan's phrase, "defining down deviancy," has been much quoted lately. The basic idea is this: Behavior deteriorates, ex­pectations (in order to be "realistic") are lowered, and the standard definition of the behavior in question is revised to reflect lowered expectations. But "defining down" is not restricted to deviancy. It is happening to morality in general, notably to intimacy, and specifically to marriage.

The process of defining down marriage begins by pointing to the statistics. Currently, there is one divorce for every two marriages, with divorce pro­jected to replace death as the primary cause of mari­tal dissolution by the end of this decade. Social re­search indicates that a majority of men and a sub­stantial minority of women have engaged in extra­marital affairs. The prevalence of unwed cohabitation, hetero-, homo-, and multi-sexual, among some sec­tors of society approaches or even surpasses that of legal marriage.

Since these statistics reflect "social reality," those who cling to the ideal of lifelong, monogamous union are chided for their naïveté. Lawrence Kubie has concluded that "the human race has never been mature enough for enduring marriage, a fact which used to be obscured by early death." If divorce, infidelity, and "alternative lifestyle" unions are inevitable, we must be more accepting toward them. And so we are. Couples considering marriage are repeatedly con­fronted with the observation that "one out of every two marriages ends in divorce," usually accompanied by the counsel to prepare for the possibility. After all, their marriage has only a 50-50 chance of survival! The analogy seems to be with disease: "If you choose to smoke, you are likely to get lung cancer" runs par­allel with "If you choose to get married, you are likely to get divorced." This fallacious reasoning has be­come so prevalent that it appears in the very places where it ought to be belied: At a recent pre-Cana weekend in a Virginia diocese, for example, participat­ing couples were reportedly told that half of their group would be divorced within 10 years. Given this defeatist attitude, the couples probably wondered why they were bothering with the weekend.

Commensurate with our acceptance of divorce as a heads-or-tails outcome is our changed perspective on its survivors. Divorced people are no longer stigmatized, as they were a few decades ago. I don't wish to suggest that they should be, of course; there are bad situations (such as abuse or abandonment) from which divorce is the only prudent means of es­cape, and in any event, stigmatization is generally an uncharitable response to another's past. But the re­ception given to divorcées has swung to the other extreme: They are said to be more interesting and at­tractive for having been divorced. (Given the even higher divorce rate for second and subsequent mar­riages, however, we might infer that this interest and attractiveness does not last long.)


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