By Bill Muehlenberg
Revised, January 2004
My thesis is simple. If you are concerned about the decline of fatherhood, you should be concerned about the decline of marriage. The two are closely related, and when we do damage to the one we do damage to the other. As sociologist David Popenoe succinctly puts it, “The decline of marriage is a disaster for fatherhood.” Or as Karl Zinmeister simply but effectively says, “no solid marriage, no good family man”.
Why is this so? The short answer is that marriage binds men to their wives and their children. Weaken marriage bonds and you weaken the father-child bond. When a man is loosened from his bonds with his wife, he will also tend to be loosened from his bonds with his children. The two go together. As one commentator explains, “All available evidence suggests that the most effective pathway to involved, committed, and responsible fatherhood is marriage.”
That is why the institution of marriage is so important. Nature has designed the mother-child bond to be quite strong. Social and cultural ties are not as necessary, given the strong biological connection. But with men it is different. “The biology was never enough to hold a father to the mother-child bond. That’s why every society has set up the institution of marriage – virtually every society – and they did it for this purpose of holding the father to the mother-child bond. They realized that the outcome for the children would be better.”
The connection between marriage and fatherhood is vital. Children need to be welded to their fathers, and fathers need to be welded to their children. The best way for this to happen is for the father to be welded to his children’s mother. In Blankenhon’s words, “marriage constitutes an irreplaceable life-support system for effective fatherhood. . . . To recover the fatherhood idea, we must recreate a marriage culture. The alternative is the continuing decline of fatherhood.”
Marriage is thus not just a private relationship: it is a public good. As Waite and Gallagher say, marriage “is a public act and a social institution”. It involves benefits and privileges. But it also involves duties and obligations. And because marriage has always been closely connected with procreation, the issue of third parties comes into play. Children make the institution of marriage necessary. They are the next generation and society has an inherent interest in making sure they have the best upbringing. And the biological family, cemented by marriage, has always been that best environment.
And marriage is important even if no children are born to a couple. Marriage holds two people together when there are so many pressures (not least of which, biological), to pull them apart. Marriage tells the world that a couple has made vows to each other. It sends a signal to others that this couple is off limits.
Societies benefit by stable and lasting marriages. And married couples benefit as well. All the parties benefit, but in many ways men especially benefit. The research on this is quite clear. All parties benefit, but men seem to benefit even more so. They live longer, healthier and happier lives than do men in any non-married state
There is another important reason why marriage is good for fathers. Wives and children help to domesticate men. It has long been known that while a mother will easily, naturally bond with her children, it takes cultural pressure to ensure that a dad does as well. Men are more likely to wander: from their marriage vows, from their wives, from their families, from their children.
Marriage, simply put, helps to civilise young men and refocus their energies into productive and committed relationships. This is a common understanding in the findings of anthropology. As Margaret Mead once said, “The central problem of every society is to define appropriate roles for the men”.
George Gilder makes the case in startling terms: “Biology, anthropology, and history all tell the same story. Every society, each generation, faces an invasion by barbarians. . . . These barbarians are young men and boys, in their teens and early twenties. If the truth be known, all too many of them are entirely unsuited for civilized life. Every society must figure out ways to bring them into the disciplines and duties of citizenship.”
And the way all human societies have managed this is to take aggressive and reckless young men and turn them into husbands and fathers. No other means has been devised to curb the wandering male, and to harness his energies into socially acceptable ends.
As one American political science professor puts it, while the institution of marriage is profoundly natural, it is also very fragile: “One of the reasons that marriage is fragile is that men’s commitment to the family is much less guaranteed by ‘merely natural urges’ than women’s is. Men need ‘civilizing’ or ‘taming’ to play their proper role within the family and society, and so we can say that marriage is natural in the sense that agriculture is: it requires cultivation. This cultivation occurs when society promotes the institution of marriage. The male sex drive is refined and civilized and ultimately rendered much more satisfying by being embedded within a permanent and exclusive personal relationship with one woman, a wife.”
Tying Men to Families
Thus marriage not only tames the male instinct to wander and stray, but it helps to tie men to their family. Marriage has always had at its core the provisions of permanence and fidelity. Marriage as a public institution tells all stakeholders that the married couple is off limits, and it also tells the couple that they have made a covenant to stay loyal and stop looking elsewhere.
The ethnographic and anthropological record bears this out. As one Boston anthropologist has argued, “Marriage channels the primary relations between the sexes and the generations, and it is the template for most other relations in society.” He continues:
The sexual privateers imagine a society in which adults can seek their pleasures without interference and somehow children will get born and properly raised. It is a sheer illusion. A society that doesn’t restrict human sexual relations in effective ways is a society that doesn’t have much interest in reproduction itself. People left to their own sexual whims will sometimes form stable families, but that is the exception, not the rule. The more we treat sex as merely recreational, the less important we make procreation. De-mystifying procreation – making it just another event that may or may not require heterosexual married persons in a long-term relationship – leads both to low procreation and badly raised children.
When societies affirm and support marriage, the ideal of one man and one woman for life can work quite well. But when societies no longer believe in marriage, no longer affirm marriage, it makes it very difficult for the husband and wife to honor their marriage vows. It is thus not only individual marriages that are struggling, but the very concept of marriage that is weakening as well. And when the idea of marriage begins to crumble, individual marriages have a much harder time lasting.
And that is just the problem we face in Australia and the West. We have a crisis in the idea of marriage, leading to more difficulties in individuals’ marriages. And this in turn has led to a crisis in the idea of fatherhood, likewise translating into more difficulties for fathers.
Thus the relationship between marriage breakdown and the absence of fathers works both ways. When marriages breakdown, fathers tend to disappear from the scene. But the decline in men wanting to become fathers also feeds in to the problem of declining marriage rates.
Concerning the latter, as the idea (and ideal) of marriage in a society diminishes, men see less reason for wanting to get married in the first place. When societies no longer consider marriage to be important, less men (and women) will consider marriage as an option for themselves.
As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead explains, “The evidence strongly suggests that the mass disengagement of fathers from their children is driven by the erosion of a social ecology that supports strong paternal obligation, and particularly the erosion of marriage as the primary social institution for child-rearing.”
But in some ways the former is the real villain. When a dad divorces, he tends to loose all contact with his children. This is the real problem of fatherlessness. The statistics are quite clear. A father’s involvement in the lives of his children decreases greatly after a divorce
Much of the men’s movement today is about trying to rectify this problem. It is seeking to restore some justice in post-divorce arrangements. Overwhelmingly women are the winners in custody cases. And men often have a hard time getting visitation rights, and so on. Thus one can understand the growth of the men’s movement, especially the single dads groups, the fathers’ rights movements, etc.
These men’s groups need to be supported as they have many genuine grievances that need to be addressed. However, one wonders whether they alone will come up with the answers to the problems of fatherlessness.
That is, we need to ask why we want to support fathers and fatherhood in the first place. Surely such support is not an end in itself. We want strong, committed, and faithful fathers because of the children. The wellbeing of children is the real concern.
Children may be better off materially and financially today than ever before. But psychologically, emotionally and socially, our children are suffering. Youth suicide rates, drug abuse and involvement in crime are all big and increasing problems for our young people. And the absence of fathers is a major reason for this, as I have documented elsewhere. As one expert summarises, “all the available evidence suggests that improving the well-being of children – and ultimately the nation – depends upon finding ways to bring fathers back into the home.”
In an important research article on “Responsible Fathering,” the authors summarise their findings this way:
A potentially controversial conclusion of this article is that a high quality marriage is the optimal context for promoting responsible fatherhood. . . . We believe that the research strongly indicates that substantial barriers exist for most men’s fathering outside a caring, committed, collaborative marriage and that the promotion of these kinds of enduring marriage partnerships may be the most important contribution to responsible fathering in our society.
That is why both fatherhood and the institution of marriage need to be restored. We can either tinker at the edges or deal with the real problem. As the Report on Marriage in America puts it, “Unless we reverse the decline in marriage, no other achievements – no tax cut, no new government program, no new idea – will be powerful enough to reverse the trend of declining child well-being.”
Dealings with matters of justice after marriage breaks down (e.g., better access rights, joint custody, etc.) are all important aims. But they are dealing with the consequences of divorce, not seeking to reduce the level of divorce. Unless we seriously affirm marriage and seek to discourage divorce, we will not really be doing much at all for our children. We will not really be tackling the problem of fatherlessness.
In this regard prevention is always better than cure. As the Marriage in America report says, “Our goal for the next generation should be to increase the proportion of children who grow up with their two married parents and decrease the proportion who do not.”
And as Wade Horn has said, “If we want to increase the number of children growing up with involved and committed fathers we will have to convince men to delay fathering children until after they have established a committed and enduring marriage.”
That is why I urge all those concerned about the problem of fatherlessness to be equally concerned about the problem of marriage breakdown. Unless we tackle the divorce problem, we will never really make a serious impact on the fatherlessness problem.
 David Popenoe, Life Without Father. New York: The Free Press, 1996, p. 25.
 Karl Zinmeister, “Marriage matters,” The American Enterprise, vol. 7, no. 3, May-June 1996, pp. 4-6, p. 5.
 Women on the other hand seem to have a more innate sense of the importance of the care of children, whether they are married or not.
 Wade Horn, “Fathers and welfare reform,” Public Interest, no. 129, Fall 1997, pp. 38-49.
 David Popenoe, in Katherine Anderson, Don Browning and Brian Boyer, eds., Marriage: Just a Piece of Paper? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002, p. 182.
 David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America. New York: Basic Books, 1995, pp. 223-224.
 Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage. New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 16.
 See my fully-referenced research paper, The Case for the Two-Parent Family. Melbourne: Australian Family Association, revised, 2003.
 For full documentation on this point, see my research paper, The Benefits of Marriage. Melbourne: Australian Family Association, revised, 2003.
 Margaret Mead, Male and Female, New York: Dell, 1949, 1968, p. 168.
 George Gilder, Men and Marriage. Gretna, La: Pelican Publishing, 1986, p. 39.
 Christopher Wolfe, “Homosexuality in American public life,” in Christopher Wolfe, ed., Same-Sex Matters. Dallas: Spence Publishing, 2000, pp. 3-25, p. 16.
 Peter Wood, “Sex and consequences,” The American Conservative, 28 July 2003, pp. 8-12, p. 12.
 Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, The Divorce Culture. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, p. 157.
 See my two research papers, The Facts of Fatherlessness and The Case for the Two-Parent Family, both published by the Australian Family Association, both revised, 2003.
 Wade Horn, “There is no substitute for parents,” USA Today Magazine, November 1998, p. 34.
 William Doherty, Edward Kouneski and Martha Erickson, “Responsible fathering: An overview and conceptual framework,” Journal of Marriage and the Family, vol. 60, May 1998, pp. 277-292, p. 290.
 Council on Families in America, Marriage in America: A Report to the Nation. New York: Institute for American Values, 1995, p. 4.
 Blankenhorn points out the irony of trying to make divorce settlements more fair, more cooperative, more equal for both partners: “The ‘better’ a divorce looks, the more it looks like, well, marriage.” Ibid., p. 169
 Marriage in America, p. 1.
 Wade Horn, “You’ve come a long way, daddy,” Policy Review, no. 84, July-August 1997, pp. 24-30, p. 30.