Sunday, November 18, 2007

Things Fall Apart

Most marriages don't last forever. For better or for worse, there was a time not so long ago when most did, except those that ended prematurely because somebody died.

A recent Associated Press feature story called attention to rising levels of child abuse in America, and the corresponding rise in households where a parent and another adult -- the new spouse or boyfriend or girlfriend -- are living with children.

"(M)any scholars and front-line caseworkers interviewed by The Associated Press see the abusive-boyfriend syndrome as part of a broader trend that deeply worries them" writes AP's David Crary. "They note an ever-increasing share of America's children grow up in homes without both biological parents, and say the risk of child abuse is markedly higher in the nontraditional family structures.

"'This is the dark underbelly of cohabitation,' said Brad Wilcox, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia. 'Cohabitation has become quite common, and most people think, "What's the harm?" The harm is we're increasing a pattern of relationships that's not good for children.'"

Is there something wrong with people today that's keeping us from staying married? Or are marriage and the nuclear family institutions that we stubbornly and somewhat desperately cling to, insisting they will retain their old forms in spite of the changed social conditions that make family life as it once was immensely difficult if not impossible?

Most of us are conservative by nature, that is, conservative in our subconscious and instinctive selves, and we try to hang on to familiar and traditional social forms and functions for the security we expect them to provide. But when we look at marriage today, or typically fractured, cobbled-together families, or contemporary versions of an evangelical religion that once gave us workable codes of behavior and conduct, we're seeing the ghosts of those institutions that once provided social cohesion, but are now a source of social dysfunction; we see the shadows of forgotten ancestors in the hollowed out, lifeless conventions of a gone world.

It's the old meanings that are fading away, and the new ones are not yet in focus. But out of the struggle to save life on earth and end the universal reign of terror by the masters of war, we'll get new ways of organizing society, new tribes and clans, a new rubric for morality, and new meanings.

But only if we win the struggle.

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