Marriage and family are well known to have a ‘civilising’ influence on participants. We really noticed this impact in ourselves when we had our first child. All of a sudden we cared about local issues, like council decisions to remove trees or to upgrade playgrounds. We started taking more responsibility for maintaining the garden outside our home, even mowing the neglected neighbour’s lawn in a spirit of community cooperation.
This contrasted with our attitudes in our single years which we pretty much lived for ourselves. This civilising effect is a process of maturity and is closely linked to marriage and parenthood. Marriage signifies a person’s willingness to assume adult responsibilities in a very concrete way. Parenthood catapults them further into those responsibilities. Those responsibilities also bring a great deal of satisfaction and meaning.
Interestingly, social scientists have noted that this civilising effect occurs not just for the married, but also for singles who anticipate marriage in the near future. Singles have what they call a ‘Marriage Horizon’ that reflects their readiness to assume the responsibilities of adulthood.
Most teenagers have a long Marriage Horizon – they don’t expect to marry for quite a few years and so their behaviour tends to reflect a self-pleasing life-style. As they mature and start to think seriously about marriage (ie the Marriage Horizon shortens), they start to act in more mature and socially conscious ways. They cut back on their alcohol consumption, look after their health, get serious about their romantic relationships and become more active in community initiatives.
In other words, the anticipation of marriage is enough to cause a person to adopt a more mature perspective. In a culture that glorifies youth and freedom from responsibilities, is it any wonder that the ‘prolonged adolescence’ seen in many singles is so widespread? Add divorce to the mix and marriage becomes a danger zone rather than a state of life that is rich in meaning and purpose. But it isn’t too late to turn the culture around. Rediscover the joy of marriage and watch the Marriage Horizon shorten!