Marriage Needs Legs

January 14, 2013 Comments Off on Marriage Needs Legs
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Marriage Needs Legs

Kent Olney, Ph.D.

Co-Director of Marriage, Inc.


Marriage is teetering on one leg. That leg is personal happiness.

Next year the U.S. Supreme Court will determine whether marriage continues to teeter or gets reinforced. The nation’s highest court has agreed to hear challenges to laws that define marriage as the union of a man and a woman. Why does this matter?

Marriage has long stood on three pillars, or legs: spiritual significance, social benefits, and personal needs. However, over the past half century these foundations have been crumbling to the point where only a single leg remains strong. Marriage has largely been reduced to a private relationship that meets my personal needs and contributes to my personal happiness.

We should not be surprised. This is not a new trend. As early as 1969, no-fault divorce laws began changing the marriage landscape one state at a time. Soon people were elevating their own happiness above all other relationship concerns. It’s as if marriage was transformed into a “happy meal,” intended to entertain us and make us smile while we eat – or in this case, while we attend to the duties of daily life. We made marriage adapt to our needs, rather than adapting to it. We entered and exited at will, we made it optional for starting a family, and we declared the right to marry whomever (or whatever) we wish.

Such thinking is based on the singular idea that personal happiness trumps all else.  The tragedy, of course, is that the two other legs that have historically supported marriage have been knocked off the marriage stool. Social benefits and spiritual significance have been marginalized.

For example, the social benefits of male-female marriage are rarely emphasized in national discussions on marriage. Let’s consider one such benefit of this leg. Mountains of research indicate that children do best with their married biological parents. Though it is currently popular to argue that any two loving adults will do, that is simply not supported by reliable social research. Children are most likely to thrive when they are raised by their married biological parents. On average, these children do better academically, behaviorally, economically, and in terms of physical safety (i.e., they are less likely to suffer abuse). Married biological parents provide the optimal environment for a child’s healthy development. Marriage is a public good in that it builds and nurtures the next generation.

The spiritual significance of marriage is also eroding. Though the overwhelming majority of weddings are led by the clergy, though the Catholic Church considers marriage a sacrament, and though Judeo-Christian teaching has long held that God created the male-female-union to reflect His image, the spiritual leg of marriage is at risk. This is particularly odd considering a 2012 Pew Research Center poll indicates that over 90% of Americans believe in God, over 70% claim to be Christians, and nearly 60% note that religion is very important in their lives.  Clearly, most Americans still value religious faith. If U.S. marriage laws are overturned, basic religious liberties will be in jeopardy. The right to practice and teach one’s faith as it pertains to the holy institution of marriage could present a serious legal conflict.

When all is said and done, the issue before the Supreme Court in 2013 is far bigger than whether same-sex couples will be granted the right to marry. The issue is whether we will fundamentally change the definition and purpose of marriage. Will children’s needs and religious liberties be ignored to the exclusion of personal happiness?  For the sake of society, both present and future, one can only hope not.  Marriage needs all its legs.


Originally printed as a “Guest Viewpoint” in The Daily Journal, Kankakee, IL, December 22, 2012, page E2.

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