Could Pregnancy be a Reason NOT to Get Married?

04.22.2013, 1:49 PM

In “Promises I Can Keep,”  Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas find that among the poor single mothers they interviewed,  “Nearly everyone has a morality tale to tell of two fools who rushed into marriage only to divorce.”

And, “The harshest condemnation is reserved for those who marry because of pregnancy. Such marriages, they believe, are almost certain to end in divorce, and thus benefit neither the couple nor the child.”

My wife, Amber, and I are finding the same thing in our research with white, high-school-educated young adults in one small Ohio town. The young adults we interviewed are generally very reluctant to give advice to others about relationships. But on this point they are not shy.

For instance, one mother, Erica, says she felt pressure from her grandma to get married to her high school sweetheart when she got pregnant with her second child, only to separate soon after getting married. She now advises people, “Don’t get married because you have a kid with somebody. I have a new thing: if you have a kid with somebody, don’t just keep trying to make the relationship work out…. Because it’s not healthy for the kid, it’s not healthy for anything.”

After hearing this sentiment repeatedly, Amber and I are beginning to wonder: For an unmarried couple, could the news of pregnancy act as a reason not to get married—even if the couple might be otherwise thinking about marriage?

Even if there is still a social expectation among one’s grandparents and great-aunts that an unmarried couple who gets pregnant should “do the right thing” and get married, might there be a social stigma among young adults—among one’s peers—about getting married because of the kids?

From our interviews, we have reasons to think that this may be true.

For instance, Myron, 23 (whom I wrote about previously at FamilyScholars.org), did get married to his high school sweetheart when he found that she was pregnant. Even though he says he had every intention of breaking off their engagement because of what he describes as her “mean” treatment of him, the news that she was pregnant with his child changed his mind.

“I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna marry her, and it’s my kid. That’s awesome. That’s my kid.’” However, a few months into marriage, she admitted that she was cheating on him, and he filed for divorce.

Looking back, he describes his first journey into marriage as “not the right way to do this.” Instead of marrying her because he loved her, he listened to people like his grandpa, who warned him that “you’ve gotta marry her or she’s gonna get you for child support the rest of your life.”

When I interviewed Myron, he was engaged to Christa, who was pregnant with their child. This time around, Myron was explicit that he was not getting married because they were having a child.

“We don’t wanna rush into anything,” he says. “I don’t want Christa to feel like we’re getting married because we’re having a baby.”

He then took pains to note that although he proposed after they found out they were having a baby, “I had already picked out the ring, had already taken her ring shopping. I already planned on getting married.” In fact, he says that his plan was to wait until after the baby was born to propose. But eventually, “I couldn’t hold it no longer.”

But, he is careful to say, “I want to be married to her, but I want her to have her wedding. I want her to have what she wants on her terms, not because of anything else.”

As the “Knot Yet” report points out, “Marriage has shifted from being the cornerstone to the capstone of adult life.” And the capstone model does not think about marriage and children as a package deal. Marriage is primarily about love between two adults. To the extent that it is about children, it’s the “glue” (as one working class woman whom we interviewed described it) that brings all the children from different parents together into one family.

This shift in the meaning of marriage may help to explain why some young adults are putting off marriage even as they are starting a family—traditionally one of the reasons to get married. If there are more stories like that of Myron, it would mean that some young adults may be delaying marriage—at least for a time—precisely because they want to avoid the appearance of getting married “just because” they are having a child.

Of course, the first time Myron got married, he did not delay marriage precisely because he was having a child. And just as his first failed marriage was a morality tale for him about how not to do things, now that we have had at least a couple generations of “shotgun-wedding-then-quick-divorce,” I wonder if we have reached a turning point where young adults coming of age today are adapting to the failed shotgun marriages they have seen and heard about: marriage is not about children; marriage and children are two completely separate things. And the “right” thing to do, they think, is to get married because you love the person—and for that reason only.

Although the dichotomy that many young adults erect in their minds about marriage between children and love is understandable—particularly because of the loveless shotgun marriages they have witnessed—I think it is unfortunate. Because it is true that one of the most important purposes of marriage is to unite a child to his mother and father. However, young adults are not entirely wrong, I think, in their moral intuition that a marriage must come into being for the sake of love. Without love, a marriage is just a prosaic institution, not a personal relationship. And who wants to live in a prosaic institution?

Building a thriving marriage culture that breaks through class lines will mean inviting young adults to appreciate that marriage is both/and: both about love and children. In fact, because marriage is about love, marriage is also about children: as a couple’s love and trust matures, so does their desire to share themselves completely with each other, to the point that they wish to have a mutual share in a new person, and to found a new family.

Now, there’s a good reason to get married!

Cross-posted at KnotYet.org


17 Responses to “Could Pregnancy be a Reason NOT to Get Married?”

  1. Terbreugghen says:

    The teen with a second child by her baby-daddy is hardly a place to go for advice about how to bring children into the world or what to do with them once they’re here. Her priorities (and the father’s) are so far down the road of “Entitled Self as Pantocrater” that our words don’t have the same meaning. “Making [the relationship] work out” isn’t “unhealthy for the kid,” it’s uncomfortable for the parents. There is nothing more healthy for the kid than to live in a place where mom and dad have “worked it out,” especially seeing as they have forced an innocent person into the lifelong position of having to “work it out” with both of them. This foundational dimension is so completely disregarded that bringing it in would seem to be speaking a martian dialect. Apparently an overarching duty to one’s children that extends to choosing their other parent carefully is simply no longer respected as an essential moral dimension of adulthood.

    How far we’ve progressed!

  2. Michael Worley says:

    . In fact, because marriage is about love, marriage is also about children: as a couple’s love and trust matures, so does their desire to share themselves completely with each other, to the point that they wish to have a mutual share in a new person, and to found a new family.

    Exactly, but our culture is so focused on sex, that we almost have to teach no sex until marriage to even have a shot at achieving this.

  3. La Lubu says:

    I think it’s important to remember that children bring issues to the front burner and have a way of dissolving denial quite like nothing else in a relationship—and that’s whether a couple is married or not. Disagreements never previously revealed and/or glossed over come to the forefront, cultural assumptions/differences get highlighted/amplified,and extended families bring their issues into the mix.

    It’s not that young people are particularly lacking in communication or conflict resolution skills (than at any time in the past); there are more arenas of conflict for the average couple than there were in the past.

  4. Diane M says:

    This makes sense to me, although the end result is terrible.

    We do know that couples who get pregnant before they get married are at a high risk for divorce. Probably some of that is because they felt forced into marriage or married someone they might have broken up with normally.

    It is also possible that part of the problem is that the couple has to deal with having a child and all the strains that puts on a couple before they have had time to build a marriage relationship together.

    In any case, I can understand why a pregnant couple might be afraid to go ahead and marry. If you feel forced into marriage, you may resent it and it may increase the chance that you will break up.

    I have read that children from divorced families actually do better than children from never-married couples. I suspect that this is because our divorce system provides some guidance to the parents that end up helping the child (i.e. divorcing parents are required to allow visitation and they have to split property and/or provide spousal support which may raise the child’s standard of living). However, I don’t think most people will get married because if they get divorced, it’s better for the children than if they never marry.

    Anyhow, it seems to me that some of the messages that might help would be:

    Having a child before you are actually married messes up your relationship. So be really, really careful and use birth control! (Guys, too!!!) (Hey, maybe if all men were required to use condoms before marriage, there would be a sudden increase in proposals.)

    Don’t wait until one of you is pregnant to break up from someone if you think the relationship is heading away from marriage.

    Be careful about who you live with or get engaged to – are they someone you would want to marry if you got pregnant? Would they make a good parent?

    Having a baby is generally stressful for a couple. You’re not going to be able to make it through that level of stress unless you are both ready to be committed enough to each other to marry.

    P.S. This is an interesting example to me of stigma/social pressure. We now have a society where the stigma/social pressure is against marrying because you are pregnant.

  5. Scott says:

    Can’t help but wonder what a culture that thinks highly of adoption would do to this issue. Assuming nothing can be done about casual sex (which seems to be a given when such issues are discussed), then what about challenging the defaults of abortion and keeping the baby? This would please so many couples waiting to adopt, would help avoid shotgun weddings, etc. I suspect that adoption is not an easy thing for birth parents. That is understandable. But the sex was real hot, right, so it should be worth it.

  6. Mont D. Law says:

    So the fact that this population has actual experience of couples that get married because they get pregnant and adjust their behaviour accordingly is to be discounted? Doesn’t that seem counter productive? If their lived experience proves to them that marrying because a child on the way is a disaster you’re not going to get far urging them to marry.

  7. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law: “If their lived experience proves to them that marrying because a child on the way is a disaster you’re not going to get far urging them to marry.”

    The disaster is having a child and breaking up.

    Living together instead of marrying does not keep the couple together.

    Are couples who live together and get married because one of them is pregnant more likely to stay together than couples who live together and just get pregnant?

    And if they divorce, is it better than having never married?

    Is it really better to have a social norm that you should not marry if you get pregnant?

    The traditional shotgun marriage involved a couple who had sex and were not living together. Is it different when a couple is living together and planning to get married before they make a baby?

    I am not sure what the best advice is to give a couple. I suppose it would depend more on the actual relationship.

    I would come down on the side of – if you’re planning to stay together, go ahead and get married because the commitment may help the baby.

    But if you’re not willing to get married, make a plan for how you will co-parent apart.

  8. Mont D. Law says:

    (Can’t help but wonder what a culture that thinks highly of adoption would do to this issue.)

    The problem with this is given a choice the majority of women don’t want to give away their children, they love them and want to raise them. As soon as it became possible to do that adoptions plummeted.

  9. Mont D. Law says:

    (The disaster is having a child and breaking up.

    Living together instead of marrying does not keep the couple together.)

    Then can someone explain to me why the endless discussion about marriage, because apparently the solution is for the couple to stay together married or not. It seems to me people should focus their time and energy on what the actual goal is. Stable family formation irrespective of marital status would be a lot easier to achieve and would include single parent families as well.

  10. La Lubu says:

    This is an interesting example to me of stigma/social pressure. We now have a society where the stigma/social pressure is against marrying because you are pregnant.

    I don’t think its correct to label this as “stigma”; no one is being stigmatized or told they are doing the (ethically) “wrong” thing by getting married. It’s more like—this is a risky decision that will probably not work out well for you, akin to driving on bald tires or dropping out of school to play guitar in a rock band. The cost/benefit ratio skews heavily towards “cost” and away from “benefit”. Moreover, it’s not incorrect.

    Is it really better to have a social norm that you should not marry if you get pregnant?

    Where the rubber meets the road: what would you tell your own daughter? Sure, you’d tell your daughter to avoid pregnancy until she finishes college and gets her life under way—that’s a given. But if she got pregnant before that happened, would you advise her to marry?

  11. mythago says:

    But the sex was real hot, right, so it should be worth it.

    Are you bored?

  12. Diane M says:

    @LaLubu – But I think you could say the same thing about a campaign aimed at telling people to get married before they get pregnant. It’s not stigma, it’s just good advice.

    “I don’t think its correct to label this as “stigma”; no one is being stigmatized or told they are doing the (ethically) “wrong” thing by getting married. It’s more like—this is a risky decision that will probably not work out well for you, akin to driving on bald tires or dropping out of school to play guitar in a rock band. The cost/benefit ratio skews heavily towards “cost” and away from “benefit”.”

    Whether someone should get married once they are pregnant depends a great deal on the particular case. As I’ve said before, my generic advice would be that if you are planning to stay together forever and raise the child together, you might as well get married. If you are not sure enough that you should stay together (or if your parents are jumping up and down and saying, he/she’s bad news), now is the time to negotiate the co-parenting break-up decree and get it signed.

    I would also advise people to be hard-hearted look into the legal effects marriage would have on them, not just love and will they stay together. A guy who wants to raise the child and be part of its life may be in a better legal position if he marries his child’s mother.

    We assume that you shouldn’t get married if you are going to end up divorced, but if you are living together and have a child together, I am not sure that getting divorced is worse than breaking up. And I think in some cases it could be better.

    However, if we want to avoid people getting pregnant with someone they shouldn’t marry, it makes sense to talk about how to do that, too.

  13. Mont D. Law says:

    (A guy who wants to raise the child and be part of its life may be in a better legal position if he marries his child’s mother.)

    On the other hand if a mother doesn’t want that her incentive to agree to marriage goes down.

    (We assume that you shouldn’t get married if you are going to end up divorced, but if you are living together and have a child together, I am not sure that getting divorced is worse than breaking up. And I think in some cases it could be better.)

    If it’s clear that any marriage will end in divorce before the actual marriage takes place, how could getting married make it better for anyone? Divorce costs money, about $1500 on average. The woman with the repo’ed car, who walked her and her children an hour + in the bitter cold or a free meal doesn’t have $1500 for a divorce. She will likely never see that much disposable cash in her entire life.

  14. La Lubu says:

    Divorce comes with bills that breaking up doesn’t; divorce has more of a negative financial impact. It is also stigmatized; having been divorced reflects badly on a person, whereas breaking up doesn’t (and can even reflect well on a person—having been smart enough to avoid a deeper entanglement with the wrong person).

    College educated people are having just as much premarital sex as the non-college-educated, but fewer premarital pregnancies. One factor is readily available effective birth control while in college, and healthcare coverage that includes BC afterwards. Another factor is that college men and women tend to have similar life trajectories and same timing for life goals. Another factor is significantly higher employment among the college-educated—they can plan for marriage along with their other life plans, since this is a population that typically gets to see their goals come to fruition (no one keeps planning—or waiting—for some unlikely future event; they just abandon unfruitful lines of thought). Being in college also affords a lot of contact with the “opposite” sex in nonsexual scenarios; many of the jobs held by non-college-educated people (for those fortunate enough to have them) are gender-segregated, which can lead to communication barriers based on myths. From what I’ve read and definitely what I can see, non-college educated people are just as likely to adhere to egalitarian standards of gender relations—but that isn’t often reinforced by our cultural backgrounds as it is among college-educated people (we have to “buck the system” in a way most college-educated people don’t).

  15. Diane M says:

    @Mont D Law – “(A guy who wants to raise the child and be part of its life may be in a better legal position if he marries his child’s mother.)

    On the other hand if a mother doesn’t want that her incentive to agree to marriage goes down.”

    This is true.

    I would add that if you don’t want a guy to be part of your child’s life, you should be doing everything you can to avoid making a child with him.

    I would advise any young woman who wants to have children to only live with a man she would be willing to have and raise a child with.

    @Mont D Law – “If it’s clear that any marriage will end in divorce before the actual marriage takes place, how could getting married make it better for anyone?”

    Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s ever 100% clear that the marriage will end in divorce. We’re talking about people who are living together and often engaged who get pregnant. Statistically, I think if you get pregnant before you get married you will probably get divorced, but there are still couples who make it.

    Anyhow – how could it make it better for anyone to marry even if you actually know you will divorce for certain-sure:

    1. For the child – children of divorce do better than children of never-married couples. We don’t know exactly why this is, so getting married might not help, but it’s something to think about.

    2. For the guy – husbands getting divorced get some kind of agreement about custody and visitation rights. It’s part of the process. Boyfriends breaking up have to sue for their custody rights, and they may not be able to get physical custody unless they can prove the mom is awful.

    3. For the woman – wives getting divorced have more property rights and may be able to get some spousal support. There are articles out there about women who lived with a guy for a long time and had kids with him and when they broke up were much worse off financially than if they’d been married.

    4. Back to the kids – I suspect that for many kids having two parents who are involved in their lives and more money for their custodial parent (often the mom) is helpful.

    For a particular couple, the above may not apply. However, it is something to consider.

  16. Terbreugghen says:

    In reading along, I stand by my first critique, but would like to add something not mentioned. In a conversation with a local social worker, it was lamented that the number of inbred, low-IQ citizens has been increasing in the central city, primarily because people no longer connect children with marriage. The result is women who have several children, each with different fathers. Time passes, and these children, who are only loosely connected with their genetic forebears, are having children, often with half-siblings they were unaware they had because marriage and record-keeping has gone by the wayside as non-essential. This is the ultimate and actual result of the dilution of marriage culture for the sake of personal liberty and “civil rights.” No one thinks anymore about the very real effects of our solipsistic demand for freedom from consequence. Anyone who raises the issue is branded a Luddite. The generations will blame US, and rightly so.

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