The other day I posted about the scary report that only a bare majority of American adults are married. I argued that the alarm over this report is overblown. Marriage is not becoming a minority taste.
Another sociologist has argued that marriage could become a minority taste, but so what? Lisa Wade, at the always-interesting Sociological Images, defended her own unmarried pairing with a general critique of marriage. She distinguishes, rightly, between the idea that marriage is normative - that is, thought to be good and desirable - and the factual question of whether or not marriage is normal - that is, what most people actually do.
Marriage is normative. Most Americans favor marriage, and do marry. They think it is good for society, even if they are not married themselves. They think marriage is good for children, even if they are not married or parents themselves. Wade dances around this fact, but she does not (and cannot) actually deny it.
She does, though, make this claim: "In actual reality, though, the state of being married is not any more normal than the state of being unmarried."
This is not true, for reasons I outlined in my earlier post. The proportion of people who marry for life is closer to two-thirds than to one-half. We are dealing with estimates of what people will do in the future, so it is hard to be more precise than that.
My more important critique of Wade's position, though, is that the conception of marriage she defends is entirely about her relationship.
The greatest value of marriage to society as a whole, and to the members of most families, is that marriage is the best environment for raising children. Once you have kids, your life is not all about you any more. Since the great majority of adults do have children, we all have an interest - first-hand or second-hand - in the social arrangements that are best for children.
Marriage is both normal and normative primarily because it is best for children, and secondarily because, on the whole, most people are happier married than as cohabitors or as single parents.