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Harris Sherline: Why Bother to Get Married Anymore?

Unmarried couples openly living together — even having children — has become commonplace. Is that a good thing?

During the past 50 years, I have watched the institution of marriage in America evolve to the point that I no longer recognize it and often wonder what our society has gained by the changes.

Fifty years ago, the idea of couples living together without benefit of marriage was not just frowned upon, it was actively opposed by most people and our institutions, and children born “out of wedlock” were often denigrated through no fault of their own.

As the years passed and the inevitable change in societal mores changed, the institution of marriage seems to have evolved to the point that today couples living together is not only “normal” but it’s common for them to have children.

A contestant on the Wheel of Fortune game show identified himself was a stay-at-home father, who had three children — and had been living with the mother for 15 years. However, he made it quite clear that he had no intention of getting married.

My question is, why?

What is there about not getting married and raising children that is the right thing to do? Does a man who is living with a woman and children he has fathered think he is still a good catch in case he changes his mind and decides to move on?

Perhaps it’s the last-man-on-Earth syndrome, but whatever the reason, my sense is that it’s a very immature attitude.

A Dec. 13 Washington Post article headlined, “Married Couples at a Record Low,” noted that “the proportion of adults who are married has plunged to record lows as more people decide to live together ... Only 51 percent of adults 18 and over are married today ... according to a Pew Research Center analysis.” The percentage of adults who are married has declined from 72 percent in 1960.

Today we see a constant parade of celebrities on television who proudly proclaim that they have children, sometimes three or four, who have been living with the father or mother for many years, and the parents have no intention of getting married.

Actress Susan Sarandon and actor Tim Robbins lived together for 23 years and had two sons before deciding to part. Did not being married make it easier to deal with property or other issues? I doubt it.

Another well-known personality, Kim Kardashian, typifies the unabashed sexual exhibitionism that frequently graces the television screen and the Internet these days, gaining notoriety and financial rewards for outlandish behavior.

Given the longevity of Americans today, which is about 76 years for men and 81 for women, perhaps it makes sense for people to have more than one spouse as they age — for a variety of reasons, such as declining health or death.

However, even that doesn’t account for the societal change in values that has brought us to the point that almost anything goes in personal relationships, including polygamy, same-sex partners and unmarried couples openly living together.

In the past, many such relationships were maintained on the QT, but the inevitable march of time has also brought openness, to the point that today there seems to be no limit to public discussion of one’s status in the media.

Some people see this as a sign of progress, others as an unwelcome decline in morality, or as an unwelcome form of exhibitionism.

Wherever you come down on this issue, there is no doubt that the institution of marriage has changed over the years. It is no longer considered sacrosanct by a large percentage of the population, and I’m not at all sure that’s a good thing.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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