Editor’s Note: This essay first appeared in the recent Center of the American Experiment symposium entitled, Specifically, What Must We Do to Repair Our Culture of Massive Family Fragmentation? and has been reprinted here with permission.
When we speak of culture, many times we think of powerful top-down institutions: film production companies in Hollywood, advertising agencies on Madison Avenue, television networks in Manhattan. Those institutions are, indeed, powerful, but influencing the culture need not always come from the top down: It can also come from the bottom up, through social movements that begin in the peripheries. This is important to keep in mind when thinking about how we can repair the culture that is fueling family fragmentation.
One example of a bottom-up effort to strengthen the marriage culture is the “I Believe in Love Project,” where we serve as contributing editors. The Project centers on a website, http://www.ibelieveinlove.com, and invites ordinary young adults to share their stories about the journey to find and keep lifelong love. A single mother writes about what she is doing to date more intentionally and meet a good man whom she could eventually marry. A new father in a cohabiting relationship writes about his journey to overcome drug addiction and about why he wants to get married. A woman writes about how she and her husband overcame infidelity to find healing and hope in their marriage.
On the ground, local coordinators (like us) meet regularly with writers to discuss posts, which become opportunities to build friendships and discuss mindsets that are important as one prepares for, enters into, and sustains a marriage. We recently started a small group in which writers gather to share ideas, swap stories, and eat s’mores around a backyard bonfire.
The Project includes three aspects that we believe could be adapted to other initiatives that seek to influence culture.
Personal empowerment. Among Americans ages 25 to 34, 51 percent have married and 61 percent of those never married say that they want to get married. Among the never-married, only 4 percent say that they don’t want to get married, while 34 percent are not sure if they want to get married.
It’s good news that most young Americans want to marry, and for the significant minority of those who are unsure, who is best suited to reach them? Someone preaching from on high about the virtues of marriage and touting its economic benefits? (In our experience, young adults very much dislike it when adults tell them that getting married is the “financially responsible thing to do”—they believe you should get married for love, not money.)
No, what might make the most difference are opportunities for Millennials to speak for themselves about marriage to their peers. The young man who had children outside of marriage but eventually married the mother of his daughters can make a more persuasive case about why marriage matters to an ambivalent peer than we can. The young woman who wants to get married but is confronting her anxieties about marriage can share her journey with her unmarried peers. Their stories of overcoming fears and difficulties and journeying toward marriage have the potential to play a small part in culture change from the bottom up.
Personal transformation. Our own interviews with working-class young adults revealed that many young people are suffering from the legacy of their own parents’ divorce and other childhood traumas, like abuse. Many also hold, to borrow from psychologist Carol Dweck’s terminology, a “fixed mindset” about love and happiness, rather than a “growth mindset.” Practically, this means that many young people believe that no longer feeling in love five years into a marriage is an indication that the couple should divorce, rather than seeing it as an opportunity for love to grow stronger.
Many young people are suffering from the legacy of their own parents’ divorce and other childhood traumas, like abuse.
That is why further education and healing are vital. With the “I Believe in Love Project,” we do this through inviting young people to reflect and write about big questions like, “What is love?” and “What is happiness?” and “What does dating with a purpose look like?” We also encourage writers to seek healing through professional help if they are struggling from trauma or mental health problems.
Intentional community. Bottom-up initiatives could take a cue from the research of psychologist Timothy Wilson: Sometimes the best way to address a social problem like family fragmentation is through indirection. He points out that some of the most effective teen pregnancy prevention programs are those in which volunteer service plays the main role and explicit sex education takes on a more minimal role.
Applying that insight to renewing a marriage culture, we could see how marriage education classes might be good—but so are gathering the neighbors for a bonfire, coming together to form a community garden, or creating a neighborhood childcare co-op so that working families who struggle to find reliable childcare can keep their jobs. These kinds of neighborly activities could be the organic outgrowth of people who gather around the common purpose of helping each other achieve their shared aspirations for thriving families.
In other words, efforts to renew a marriage culture need not only explicitly say something about marriage or mindsets, or remain in the abstract: When we babysit for a neighbor, or provide a meal for a new mother, or point an unemployed friend to a new job opening, we are doing what Peter Maurin described as building “a society where it is easier for people to be good.”