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The Privilege of Marriage

by Amber Lapp & W. Bradford Wilcox

Working-class women are saying no, to their detriment

After Kelly married her high-school sweetheart, Jake, she encouraged everyone she knew to get married. She and Jake bought a trailer in Maytown, Ohio. (Maytown is a pseudonym to protect the identities of the people described. All their names have also been changed.) Jake became a manager at Jiffy Lube, and Kelly mostly stayed at home to take care of their two babies. Their marriage was great, she says. But one day, while Kelly was at her part-time job snapping eighth-grade yearbook photos for Olan Mills and Jake was at home with the kids, he slept with Kelly’s best friend, a move that threw their marriage into turmoil.

For the next year Kelly and Jake were on again, off again, until Kelly fell in love with someone else, named Ty, and decided to move in with him. A year into this relationship, she discovered (via a police officer checking up on Ty) that her new man was a registered sex offender who had molested a four-year-old. Kelly broke up with him and spiraled into depression and drugs, losing custody of her kids along the way. Kelly’s grandparents, who had raised Kelly after her mother began struggling with depression, partying, and men, are today raising Kelly’s children, their great-grandchildren.

Kelly, now 26, wonders how she arrived at this point. “I always said to myself, I wasn’t going to do that, I wasn’t going to be like my mom. . . . And [now] I watch myself walk in the same footsteps as my mom.”

In search of a new start, Kelly moved to Kentucky to live with her aunt. While shopping at Walmart, Kelly met Randall — a factory worker with blond chin scruff and muscled arms bulging from his T-shirt’s ripped sleeves. Randall offered to “teach me the country roads,” Kelly says. They drove fast in his dusty brown Chevy pickup, spinning its tires and laughing loudly; they fished and swam and made out at Pike’s Lake; she got up in the middle of the night when his two-year-old son, Fisher, needed soothing, and washed Fisher’s favorite Woody the Cowboy doll when it got dirty on the playground. Kelly felt her depression lifting.

Randall proposed to Kelly in bed one night, and she said yes — on the condition that he buy her a ring and ask again. About five months into their relationship, Kelly got pregnant.

It was then that Kelly found out something important about Randall: He was still married. And despite his proposal, he was torn between Kelly and his wife.

Randall didn’t come to the hospital when Kelly gave birth to their daughter, nor did he return Kelly’s frantic calls when Ella Jane, only a few hours old, had to be flown to another hospital to get treatment for a serious heart defect. Two weeks later, Ella Jane was home, a tiny bundle wrapped in a pink John Deere blanket, but Randall still hadn’t seen her and was claiming she wasn’t his child.

So what does Kelly think about marriage now? “Honestly, it’s just a piece of paper,” she says. Now she tries to dissuade her friends from marriage, and her Facebook wall is full of posts saying things like “F*** men!”

Kelly’s experience suggests why a growing number of working-class Americans are losing faith in marriage. Infidelity, divorce, having children out of wedlock, and the difficulties all these things engender are markedly more common among Americans with only high-school diplomas than among those who have college degrees, according to recent research by the National Marriage Project. Forty-three percent of high-school-educated young adults say marriage has “not worked out for most people [they] know,” compared with just 17 percent of college-educated young adults. Whereas a flourishing marriage culture once existed for both high-school-educated and college-educated Americans, a growing marriage gap now divides the two groups.

Kelly exemplifies these trends. She is a single mom with three kids and no college degree who loudly proclaims her independence from men and her skepticism about marriage. But Kelly’s views on marriage — and those of other moderately educated women — are more nuanced than they might seem.

Amber and David Lapp, research fellows at the Institute for Family Studies, have spent the past three years interviewing young adults like Kelly. Of their high-school-educated interviewees, two-thirds expressed some negative views about marriage — but they almost always had positive things to say about marriage as well and hoped to marry someday. This agrees with national survey data showing that 76 percent of high-school-educated Americans report that marriage is either “very important” or “one of the most important things” to them.

Most of the young adults the Lapps interviewed are not so much opposed to marriage as conflicted about it. Marriage may be only a piece of paper, but it’s a piece of paper they want. As one single mom explained, “People like the idea of marriage.” They still believe in the love, fidelity, trust, commitment, and companionship that marriage is supposed to be.

Kelly would like to get married again someday. It’s a “dream” that “everybody wants,” she says. “But is it reality these days?”

In Kelly’s view, the main problem keeping her and her peers from marriage is that men and women can’t trust each other.

“I have a lot of trust issues,” she says. “I don’t trust men in general.” Her wariness started when she was young and saw men abuse and cheat on her mother. Sometimes, she says, she gets to the point where she’ll trust a guy a little, but never “enough to let everything go and completely be attached.” She’ll tell boyfriends: “I care about you, I love you . . . I don’t trust you. It’s not just you. It’s guys in general.”

Kelly is ambivalent about marriage “because . . . you have to trust the person you’re going to marry,” and she’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to trust a man enough to marry him. “I tell people . . . ‘I’ll never do it again,’ or, ‘Don’t ever do it.’ But that’s just me saying, ‘I’ll never get married because I don’t want to get hurt. I don’t want to be cheated on.’”

Instead, Kelly moves in with each new boyfriend and procrastinates about filing for divorce, even though she and Jake have been separated for years. It’s a convenient excuse: She tells a boyfriend that she can’t get married until her divorce papers are finalized. It buys her more time to test whether she can trust him. Kelly says that she and Jake both use their marriage papers “as a crutch, because neither one of us wants to get married for a really long time.”

For most working-class people, marriage remains an integral part of the American dream. The question is whether or not it will be part of their American reality. 

Part of the problem, as Charles Murray noted in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, is that the country is increasingly separated by class. In Maytown, the trailer park where Jake and Kelly lived is just minutes from a subdivision full of $1.5 million homes. Though they have the same ZIP code, the people in the expensive neighborhoods on the hill and those in the modest ranch homes and trailers in the valley live in two worlds that almost never meet. Young adults such as Kelly and Jake are ghettoized, rarely seeing marriages where spouses manage to make it through the thick and thin of married life, as do most upper-middle-class couples today.

What can be done about this? We need a new generation of religiously inspired Americans who, like Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, will move into the neighborhood to stay, deliberately choosing to live in poor and working-class communities. We also need public policies — such as set-asides in real-estate developments that enable lower-income families to live amid more affluent families, and geater school choice — that will help reverse the tide of economic and cultural segregation in our nation’s communities.

Bridging the class divide, as challenging as that may prove, might be easier than bridging the gender gap that now exists within the working class. How do we renew a culture of trust between the sexes in working-class communities where men and women increasingly view one another as opponents rather than partners? This daunting task will require a range of economic and cultural solutions: better vocational education for middle-skill jobs, in hopes that economic stability will enhance relationship stability; relationship-education classes, like those that Marriage Works! Ohio teaches in public high schools; reform of divorce laws (e.g., ending unilateral divorce), in hopes that a lower divorce rate will increase confidence in marriage; and Web-based efforts, such as IBelieveInLove.com, that seek to shore up loving marriages amid the ruins of family life in working-class America.

Confidence in marriage and in men cannot be built on Hollywood-style dreams of romantic love or a naïve faith that marriage will fix a troubled relationship. Confidence, to be deep-rooted, must be based in reality. For working-class women, it must come from seeing successful marriages up close, with all their flaws and glories,  from believing that they and the men in their lives have an economically sound future, and from knowing they can trust themselves — and their boyfriends — to stay faithful.

That confidence is what working-class women like Kelly want.

– Amber Lapp is a research fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and an affiliate scholar at the Institute for American Values. W. Bradford Wilcox is a senior fellow at the Institute for Family Studies and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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