“If policy makers are concerned about poverty, crime, child well-being, rising economic inequality, and the fiscal limits of the contemporary welfare state, they should recognize that the nation’s retreat from marriage is closely connected to all of these issues.”

“Talking about family is sort of like talking about the weather … . Today it is beautiful, but sometimes it hurts,” quips Dr. John Cox. As a psychologist in Jackson, Miss., Cox, who is a deacon at First Presbyterian Church, sees the best and worst of family scenarios in his clinical practice. God has given all of us a desire to belong, he says. For many, that craving is satisfied by family. But when it’s not, some can reject the idea of family entirely. “The family as God intended it was perfect, but in its fallen state, the family [or lack thereof] can be a source of pain for many people,” explains Cox. As Christians, how do we make sense of what family should be? As fractured as families are in America, is there still hope for the nuclear family?

A Family Picture

The American family picture looks dramatically different than it did 50 years ago, says a 2010 Pew Research Center report. “Decades of demographic, economic, and social change have transformed the structure and composition of the American family.The preeminent family unit of the mid-20th century—mom, dad, and the kids—no longer has the stage to itself. A variety of new arrangements have emerged, giving rise to a broader and evolving definition of what constitutes a family … .”

The report continues, “At the center of this transformation is the shrinking institution of marriage. In 1960, 72 percent of American adults were married. By 2008, that figure had fallen to 52 percent.”

Despite this decline in marriage, Americans are still overwhelmingly positive toward the idea of family. The report shows that 76 percent of all adults say their family is the most important element of their life; 75 percent say they are very satisfied with their family life. While many Americans are ambivalent about marriage as an institution, most still want to get married. Pew reports that the youngest generation has the strongest desire to marry: “Nearly seven in 10 unmarried 18- to 29-year-olds say they want to get married.” And among those under 30, 76 percent of those who do not have children hope to have them in the future.

According to these statistics, Americans seem to value the family, and embrace the idea of marriage and children. Yet, another snapshot reveals a less idyllic scene.

A Dangerous Alternative

As marriages become less frequent and occur later in life, there’s been an increase in cohabitation, or “living together,” reports a study by the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. In fact, cohabitation has increased 14-fold since 1970. Today’s children are much more likely to spend time in a cohabiting household than to see their parents divorce, the study reports. W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project, told National Review, “This is bad news because children in cohabitating relationships are more likely to do poorly in school, to use drugs, to have emotional problems, and to be abused, compared with children in intact, married families.”

Rich Lowry of National Review, citing the study, summarizes: “There is simply no substitute for marriage, for the relative stability and commitment it provides, and for the environment it creates for children … . Cohabiting couples with a child are more than twice as likely to break up as married parents. Only 24 percent of children of married parents experience a change in the relationship status of their mothers by age 12. The figure for the children of cohabiting couples is 65 percent.”

God’s Design for the Family

The Rev. Ray Cortese, senior pastor of Seven Rivers Presbyterian Church in Citrus County, Fla., suggests there’s a reason that cohabitation is not good for families—God created marriage to be the foundation of all human life and flourishing. He describes the origins of this foundational relationship in a recent sermon:

“The Bible is startling in Genesis chapter two … . In the first words of the Bible, we have benediction seven times—it was good, and it was good, and it was very good. All of a sudden, it was not good … . If something’s not  good in paradise, it’s startling. Not only is it in paradise that something is declared not good, but Adam has everything. Adam has God. Even with God, He made us for human relationship; He made us to connect with each other. Something is absent in us if it is not met in friendship, or marriage, or human relationship … .”

FAMILY IN FLUX

A report from the Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project assembled family-related scholarship to focus attention on changes in contemporary life that impact marriage, families, and children. The report summarized five new themes to illustrate current trends:

1. Children are less likely to thrive in cohabitating households, compared to intact, married families.
“Children in cohabitating households are markedly more likely to be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused than children in both intact, married families, and [in] single-parent families.”

2. Family instability is generally bad for children.

“Children who are born to married parents are least likely to be exposed to family instability, and to the risks instability poses to the emotional, social, and educational welfare of children.”

3. American family life is becoming increasingly unstable for children. 

“One of the major reasons that children’s lives are increasingly turbulent is that more and more children are being born into or raised in cohabitating households that are much more fragile than married families.”

4. The growing instability of American family life also means that contemporary adults and children are more likely to live in what scholars call “complex households.”

Particularly troublesome is “multiple-partner fertility,” where parents have children with more than one partner. “Children who come from these relationships are more likely to report poor relationships with their parents, to have behavioral and health problems, and to fail in school … .”

5. The nation’s retreat from marriage has hit poor and working-class communities with particular force.
“The stratified character of family trends means that the United States is ‘devolving into a separate-and-unequal family regime,’ where the highly educated and affluent enjoy strong and [stable] families, and everyone else is consigned to increasingly unstable, unhappy, and unworkable ones.’”

“We have this amazing drama that plays out. Creation is paraded before Adam—the greatest parade ever. Yet, you almost get the sense that there is a growing sense of sadness as each beast is paraded before him. No
helper suitable was found … .”

“The next thing we know, there’s a woman. And the Father brings her to be wedded to her groom. When he sees her, Adam says, literally, ‘At last!’ It’s like he’s saying, ‘I’ve been waiting for this my whole life!’”

The way God designed it, says Cortese, “Men and women are not able to do life without each other. Both have significant voids that cannot be fulfilled without each other.”

Dr. Dan Zink, who teaches on marriage and family at Covenant Seminary in St. Louis, Mo., says, “Marriage, when it’s working right, is a place where both spouses become better people. In marriage, we answer the questions of how we put our two worlds together and work through conflict, and begin to think about  what is good for the other person and for the relationship instead of about just what is good for me.”

Delighting in God’s affection and acceptance in Christ will enable Christians to cultivate homes that are a beautiful foretaste of the ultimate home waiting for us.

In Genesis 2, we see that God made people for human relationship. In families, we learn how to “do” relationship, explains Zink. “The education we receive in our families is what we carry out into the world and into our relationships.” Some people have to work hard to overcome what they’ve learned, Zink said. They come from families where the teaching wasn’t healthy. Nevertheless, “for good or bad, that school of relationship is so influential.”

Cox says family creates a context for children to learn about reality from the moment they are born. Over time, family also provides a context to learn about God. “A family creates a covenant context where children are introduced to the character of God,” explains Cox. “Here, they learn what it looks like and feels like to experience the image of God: they are loved, they are forgiven, they are guided, they are taught, they are disciplined … .” Just as we can receive insufficient teaching on relationships from our families, we can receive insufficient or just plain bad teaching on God’s character from our families.

A Broken Image

I  see many people in counseling who are struggling with their relationship with God because their parents displayed a skewed image of God,” says Zink. “Their parents were so harsh or so distant that it’s hard for them not to assume God is harsh or distant. It’s not top-level kind of thinking—it just happens.” Zink acknowledges that it’s hard to talk about the importance of family without admitting that for many of us, family doesn’t look like what we thought it would. He says, “We were intended to live in families where we would have the sense of human connection that we long for. For most of us, that ideal is not complete.”

“What we have here are only shadows of our ultimate home,” agrees Cox. “God knows that we come out of our families incomplete at best and wounded at worst. He’s given us the relational context of the ‘each others’ of the New Testament as another way we can grow. In the covenant body of the Church, we have more opportunities to learn how to love, to encourage, to forgive … . We help each other fill in the gaps.” For those who remain single, the body of Christ is the primary way that God fulfills that longing for connection that He hard-wired into us, adds Zink.

“The best definition I’ve heard for connection is: to feel heard, seen, and valued. Family is our best opportunity to experience connection—to feel heard, seen, and valued,” explains Zink. But the brokenness of families is all too evident in our culture, he says. “Being valued is primary, but it is hard to feel valued when we don’t feel seen and heard. So what happens,” he explains, “is that lots of people are out there trying to be seen and heard in order to be valued. They never experienced that sense of value because of the deficiencies of their family life. But sadly, when you have to try so hard to be seen and heard, even when it happens, it’s still not fulfilling.”

Looking for Love

Zink suggests that although many from broken families long for connection, that longing is accompanied by a paralyzing fear of commitment. “For young people today, a high divorce rate is all they’ve known. They ask me, ‘Is marriage really that important? Why would I give that much power to my husband or wife?’” Zink says, “I encounter lots of frustration among singles with the whole challenge of dating and marriage.”

Zink credits Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s landmark 1993 article, “Dan Quayle was Right,” with foreshadowing the tragic effects of a “culture of divorce.” At that time, she wrote: “… The long-term effects of divorce emerge at a time when young adults are trying to make their own decisions about love, marriage, and family … . This is the first generation in the nation’s history to do worse psychologically, socially, and economically than its parents. Most poignantly, in survey after survey, the children of broken families confess deep longings for an intact family.”

If the consequences of broken families were beginning to make noise in 1993, they are deafening in 2011. Wilcox observes in the conclusion of his study: “Marriage is more than a private emotional relationship. It is also a social good … . Marriage is not a panacea that will solve all of our social problems. But marriage matters … . If policy makers are concerned about issues as varied as poverty, crime, child well-being, rising economic inequality, and the fiscal limits of the contemporary welfare state, they should recognize that the nation’s retreat from marriage is closely connected to all of these issues.”

A Perfect Family

Cortese communicates hope for those hurt personally by the brokenness of families: “Who doesn’t want to come from a great family? Nobody lays in bed and longs for a dysfunctional family,” he jokes. In a sermon on family from Ephesians 6, Cortese reminds believers of their family heritage: “Because God is our ultimate Father, we don’t despair, even though we had parents who may have torn our homes with their lust, their selfishness, with their fighting, with their anger, with their own issues, their divorce, their adultery… we submit to God’s authority in giving us the parents that He gave us … .

“The Bible says that God often strips from us earthly comforts and pleasures in order that we might find our rest in Him and Him alone.” In other words, rotten parents are often the reason people get converted. We find ourselves running for our heavenly Father, according to Cortese.

“The Bible says that God often strips from us earthly comforts and pleasures in order that we might find our rest in Him and Him alone.” In other words, rotten parents are often the reason people get converted. We find ourselves running for our heavenly Father, according to Cortese.

“You have a Father who is greater than any father you’ve ever dreamed of, who satisfies the deepest longing of your heart,” continues Cortese. “The starved soul that you may have for the affirmation and affection that was denied you by your mother or father, you will find more than compensated for by your heavenly Father … .”

As Christians embrace the love of a perfect heavenly Father, perhaps marriages and families will begin to look more like He intended—places of belonging and connection and rich human relationship. Delighting in God’s affection and acceptance in Christ will enable Christians to cultivate homes that are a beautiful foretaste of the ultimate home awaiting us. Only then can we hope to experience that idealized and elusive goal: the perfect family.

Susan Fikse is a freelance writer who lives in Atlanta, Ga., with her husband and three children.