A couple of stories today keep the issue of the transformation of marriage in the media spot light. First, the Washington Post notices the relationship between marriage and social class:
As marriage with children becomes an exception rather than the norm, social scientists say it is also becoming the self-selected province of the college-educated and the affluent. The working class and the poor, meanwhile, increasingly steer away from marriage, while living together and bearing children out of wedlock.
"The culture is shifting, and marriage has almost become a luxury item, one that only the well educated and well paid are interested in," said Isabel V. Sawhill, an expert on marriage and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Marriage as a luxury item. Are the pressures for economic survival at the lower ends of the income spectrum so great that individuals feel that they cannot spare the time and attention marriage requires? Do people have to shape themselves to their work lives to such an extent that they increasingly resent the need to shape oneself to a spouse? Ecnomic forces are prevelant in this New York Times story, which briefly comments on the pressures that push women away from child-bearing - and thus dillute the purpose of marriage as a context for family-making:
To the dismay of pundits and politicians alike, women in industrialized countries and elsewhere have been bearing fewer and fewer children. More than 90 states have fertility rates below the replacement level of 2.1 children per woman, and the trend, which began in the early 1960s, is already leading to fewer workers, graying populations and dire predictions about vanishing peoples. While scholars blame several phenomena, including greater access to birth control, later marriage and a drop in what one researcher calls "hopefulness about the future,â" many researchers agree that at least part of the problem is due to the particular burdens women face in the work force. If becoming a mother requires a woman to take a huge financial and professional hit, the thinking goes, she will be far less likely do it.
My interest in all of this is how ancient Chinese philosophy might provide responses. Scroll a couple of posts down for my thoughts on Confucianism without marriage. Let's think for a moment here what a modern Taoist might make of all of this.
First, a Taoist might be saddened by the ways in which the pursuit of material comfort and wealth has come to dominate social life today. People are hemmed in by jobs and economic pressures, and women are driven away from having children because of the costs. Are we losing something of our "inevitable nature" - the human capacity for reproduction and family life - in all of this? Although Taoism tends to focus on individuals, I think it presumes a family context for those indivuduals. Chuang Tzu was married, we know. Our love for those closest to us, for parents and children and friends and neighbors, must certainly be an element in the "way of humankind." Those attachments may sometimes draw us away from Way - the natural unfolding of things - but they are also an inescapable element of our Way.
But there is a second point that Taoism would bring to the question of the decline of modern marriage: a skepticism about all social institutions. If we make too much of marriage, if we build up into an Absolute Necessity for Civilization As We Know It, we might then make it into something that keeps us from following Way. I suspect some part of the decrease in married couples has to do with the failure of many marriages as social arrangements within which both partners can develop their Integrity (Te) to its fullest. Taoists would have little patience for bad marriages, viewing them as destructive to one's true place in Way.
So, while many particular marriages might be natural and happy and good for Taoists, marriage in general, as a social institution suitable for all or most people, would not be something a Taoist would automatically defend. Unlike Confucians, who would be more supportive of marriage in general, Taoists would accept the change as indicative of how the paradox of humankind (it is both an expression of Way but also capable of transgressing Way) works itself out under modern conditions.
To the question, "should I get married?," a Taoist might respond, "yes, if it seems right to you personally, but don't do it because you think others think you should." And she might have the same response to the question: "should I get divorced?"
By the way, there might be a bit of a Taoist inflection in Gregory Corso's poem, "Marriage,", which begins with the line: "Should I get married? Should I be good?"