Maggie Gallagher's newest book, The Abolition of Marriage, is a tough, passionate account of the thirty-year dismemberment of what she calls our most heroic human institution, marriage. In often heartbreaking detail, she tours America since the 1960s, exploring the collapse of marriage and the "culture of divorce."
"From a formal, legal standpoint, marriage is no longer an enforcable commitment," she observes. "The legal, social, and economic supports that sustained marriage over centuries have been dispatched with astonishing speed, and marriage has been reconceived as a purely private act, not a social institution. . . . Thanks to no-fault divorce and the attitudes, norms, and policies that support it, getting married now more closely resembles taking a concubine than taking a wife."
The collapse of marriage, Gallagher shows, is not a natural and inevitable disaster, but rather the result of systematic dismantling by "divorce advocates"-the winners in the sexual revolution, lawyers, therapists, and social scientists. Armed with a barrage of statistics and case studies, she convincingly demonstrates that marriage is an indispensable public institution, the best and safest environment for raising children. Single parenthood, whether brought about by divorce or illegitimacy, is no substitute for the intact family with a mother and a father. The raising of our nation's children is the driving force behind this book.
Exploding the optimistic myth of the "good divorce," Gallagher demonstrates that children of divorce have higher than average levels of youth suicide, lower intellectual and educational performance, more mental illness, violence, and drug use. But even for those families who seem to have weathered divorce, there is "the first and most enduring loss . . . the one that is almost never mentioned, the loss that affects children, parents, and spouses equally: the loss of the family story." Such observations-simple, true, and heartbreaking-are what make this book so compelling.
The author's insistence on this "family story," or what she elsewhere calls the "erotic narrative," is perhaps the most interesting and necessary (because so rarely addressed in contemporary culture) part of the book. Again and again, Gallagher reminds us that, contrary to what we have been told by therapists and social scientists, marriage and parenting are not job labels that can be transferred from one employee to the next, but are, rather, "imperatives of eros." By way of illustration, she tells us the story of ten-year-old Melissa, who now lives in a treatment center for disturbed children. She was removed from her parents because, although they had plenty of food, they did not feed her. "My parents used to lock me in a closet," says Melissa. "I miss them."
One of the myths routinely used to justify divorce is the fear of child abuse. Indeed, a group of female legislators recently introduced a bill to attach domestic violence warnings to marriage licenses. In fact, notes the author, physical child abuse is most likely to come from a single mother, and the most likely person to commit sexual abuse is the mother's boyfriend or second husband.
It used to be that couples stayed married "for the sake of the children." In the last thirty years, however, we have come to divorce "for the sake of the children." We conveniently assume that our children cannot be happy if we are unhappy, but never that we can't be happy if our children are unhappy. American society has expended enormous amounts of time, energy, and money attempting to justify and manage the effects of divorce. Wouldn't it be wonderful, asks Gallagher, if that same energy, time, and money were to go towards making better marriages rather than better divorces.
If I have any complaint with this book, it is the author's excessive reliance on statistics (often repeating the same ones several times in different chapters). Surely, these are the products of those very social scientists she has wisely taught us to distrust. Far more persuasive is her own fierce prose when she allows herself free rein. "Nasty, poor, brutish, and short is how Hobbes described life in his imagined state of nature," she writes. "The therapeutic gurus don't speak Hobbes' language. Quite the reverse, they are the sultans of schmaltz, the heroes of the hug. . . . But by nurturing a moral code that effectively turns abandonment into a virtue and self-interest into the highest virtue, they create something like Hobbes' hell on earth, in which, lacking any common good to appeal to in dealing with one another, we are driven instead to use selfishness as the currency of all exchange."
Clearly, Ms. Gallagher feels strongly about her subject, and one may wonder if some of her intensity comes from her own experience as an unwed mother. At least, that is what I think I understood from a few easily missable, oddly casual references to her own past. I confess I found these one-sentence personal revelations interesting but jarring. It might have been better to say much more-use her own experience as a sample case study, perhaps-or nothing at all.
Toward the end of her book, the author makes several suggestions for reinvigorating marriage: she advocates ending no-fault divorce, thus returning official support to the partner who wants to preserve the union; once again permitting landlords to discriminate between married and unmarried couples; making marriage a requirement for adoption and foster care; reducing the tax burden on married couples (by tripling dependent exemptions); ending welfare for unmarried minors; and enabling couples to sign prenuptial agreements declaring their marriage permanent. This last, well-intended as it might be, strikes me as a bit bizarre, and potentially another legal and emotional nail in our language about and understanding of marriage. But right or wrong, the specificity and practicality of her ideas deserves commendation.
Maggie Gallagher is politically nonpartisan (indeed she has complaints about both parties) but she is unabashedly Christian. Here she is on love: "To attempt to love just one other person the way God loves everyone. That is the seal, the aim, the substance of the marriage contract. Marriage is the incarnation of eros, the body of love. It is the psalms and the Song of Songs and it is the Crucifixion, or at least it is our aspiration to all of these things." Statistics, case studies, and thoughtful reasoning all point to the sort of world we are now creating. Could it be that only a fundamentally Christian understanding of love as sacrifice will be able to reverse the destructive course of American society?