Eschewing marriage

Add Catholics and older folks to those who are choosing to be single

By MARIE ROHDE | April 30, 2018

Father Timothy Kitzke is a busy man. The 57-year-old Catholic priest is co-pastor of four parishes on the east and north sides of Milwaukee and the vicar for urban ministry. He also officiated at 60 weddings last year.

That’s stunning considering the Official Catholic Directory reported that the number of Catholic weddings dropped by 40 percent between 2000 and 2012.

Kitzke is acutely aware that millennials are shying away from marriage. 

Photo by Jeffrey Phelps“Millennials are good at making short-term commitments,” he says. “But too often, they’re keeping their eye on the door. They want the security of a relationship, but they also fear losing personal control.”

It’s not just younger people who are eschewing marriage, however.

While roughly half of the unmarried couples living together are under age 35, cohabitation among people over 50 increased by 75 percent between 2007 and 2016, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center.

Many baby boomers are choosing not to be married for a practical reason: Those who collect Social Security based on a former or deceased spouse’s income could lose it.

Pew reported that the increase of cohabitating seniors coincided with rising divorce rates in that group.    

Linda Vanden Heuvel, a Milwaukee-area lawyer who specializes in divorce law, agrees that one of the biggest trends is couples who have been married 30, 40 or 50 years are calling it quits.

“One client I had was a man who was 86,” she says. “He had been married 60-plus years. Everyone tried to talk him out of it — the judge, the lawyers. His only response was that he didn’t have many years left and he didn’t want to spend it with that woman.”

Another reason for divorce among seniors is one partner needs long-term care. “Instead of splitting their assets 50-50, they split it 90-10 or whatever the judge will allow,” Vanden Heuvel says. “That way, the incapacitated partner gets the care they need without depleting a lifetime’s savings.”

But for most couples, living together is a relatively short-term arrangement that more often than not does not lead to marriage, according to studies.

Milwaukee County Clerk George Christenson, the head of the office that issues marriage licenses, says he understands that from a personal point.

“I was married and am divorced,” he says. “I think that a lot of people who have been married and divorced are taking relationships a lot more carefully the second time around. I’m living with a woman, and we’ve decided to put off a decision about marriage until my son graduates from high school. I guess it’s a trial marriage.”

Steep decline since 1950

Most Americans know that marriage is not as common as it used to be but are likely unaware of how precipitous the decline is in some areas and even among the religious and elderly.

Overall, the U.S. Census Bureau reported, only 48 percent of American households included married couples in 2010, according to The New York Times. In 1950, 78 percent of households included married couples.

Meanwhile, cohabitation has lost its stigma. There were 18 million cohabitating U.S. couples in 2016, a 29 percent jump since 2007, according to Pew. To a lesser degree, having a child out of wedlock has also lost its stigma. Nearly 40 percent of all babies are born to unmarried women.

Eloise Anderson, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families, is acutely aware of the statistics that point to a retreat from marriage, particularly among the poor and the less-educated.

“It began in the 1960s when the middle class were promoting free love,” she says. “It was the middle class that set the cultural standard that led to the decline in marriage.”

Programs to help the poor — chiefly the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children — are biased against intact families and, more specifically, men.

“Women could come into the program with no work history,” Anderson says. “That’s not so for men.”

“I believe the best thing we could do is put our resources on the fathers,” she says. “We need to train them in basic skills — algebra, geometry and trigonometry. If they have that, they can get any job they want.”

There’s a need for workers in the trades, electricians and carpenters and the like, she says. “This is where I’d like to see those men go.”

Until that happens, Anderson says, those men are not good marriage material. “Poor men just are not attractive in that sense.”

Trends in the black community

Only 32 percent of African-Americans are wed, far less than other racial and ethnic groups, according to the Scholars Strategy Network, but doesn’t mean they don’t value marriage.

In a 2016 Rutgers University study using data from 21 cities, sociologist Belinda Tucker found no racial or ethnic difference between values related to marriage such as the importance of marrying one day and the view that it is important in rearing children.

Charles D. Watkins, pastor of King Solomon Missionary Baptist Church in Milwaukee, agrees that the black community values marriage but adds that there are many social issues that contribute to fewer marriages.

In addition to the lack of good-paying jobs, the incarceration rate of black men is a factor. Watkins’ church is just blocks outside of the 53206 ZIP code, an area that is 95 percent black and has the highest incarceration rate for any ZIP code in the country. A University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee study found that about half the men in their 30s and 40s who live there had been incarcerated at some point in their lives.

“A felony conviction stays on your record forever,” Watkins says. “You can’t get a driver’s license, and that means you usually can’t get to Brookfield and Menomonee Falls, where the jobs are at.”

There is both growing concern and attempts to reintroduce the importance of marriage.

The popularity of programs to strengthen marriages is growing, says Andrew Hopgood, who leads the marriage enrichment ministry at the New Testament Church on Milwaukee’s northwest side.

The church adopted a program created by the Wisconsin Family Life Council some years back. Like most churches, New Testament long counseled couples, but this program is designed to help couples, married or not, assess their relationship and avoid the problems that can devastate a relationship.

“It’s about communication, conflict resolution, financial management, spiritual beliefs,” Hopgood says. “Lack of communication is the biggest problem.”

The church frowns on cohabitation, or “shacking” as it is known, Hopgood says, adding that sometimes church leaders are not aware that a couple is unwed.

“That’s dishonoring God,” he says. “Marriage is a covenant ordained by God.”

Marriage also strengthens the community, he says. Living without a father can have a devastating effect on children, especially boys. “I know some wonderful women who have raised children alone, but boys especially need fathers as role models to become men,” Hopgood says.

The church has “adopted” nearby Vincent High School, where men from the church serve as mentors for boys.

Cedric Hoard, 27, is a New Testament member and a mental health counselor. Every day, he sees the impact of children being raised without fathers in their lives, often in poverty.

“They see that others have fathers, and they think, ‘I must have something wrong with me or my father would be around,’ ” Hoard says. “They feel they are not good enough, and that leads to making decisions and choices that are detrimental.”

On May 5, Hoard will marry Tierra Brown in the church after a courtship of over three years. Chastity before marriage was important for both of them, he says.

“We are modeling in the community what the church teaches,” he says. “People need to realize that when they have a child, they are creating a legacy, a person who will carry on that legacy. As a couple, we are on a mission together.”

Finances play a big role

Bishop Walter Harvey of Parklawn Assembly of God Church in Milwaukee agrees that couples are still marrying within the church but that they are waiting longer.

“They may well be dealing with the reality of student loan debts,” he says.

The Institute For College Access & Success reports that the average debt for four-year higher education institutions in Wisconsin is $28,810 and that 70 percent owe money for their educations.

That’s an important part of his church’s marriage counseling program that also includes family, sexual and criminal history, Harvey says.

“It’s so important to discuss finances — salaries, what’s in savings, what’s in debt,” he says. “When you marry, that becomes part of your life as well.”

David Seemuth, a former associate pastor at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield and couples counselor, says finances are important for another demographic: couples 50 or older who are remarrying.

“What about the widow getting a pension based on her deceased spouse’s income?” he asks. “There still are women who did not work outside the home or had far lower incomes. Sometimes getting married again can mean losing $3,000 a month in Social Security benefits. Maybe we need to update our laws.”

Faith remains meaningful

Meanwhile, religion can still be an important draw.  

Kitzke says, this generation’s values are much the same as those of Catholics from previous eras. For example: “They may be going away to an exotic destination to marry, but they still want to do something in the church because it’s a part of their history, part of their family.”

So entrenched is religion in the concept of marriage that even in courthouse ceremonies, the standard vows borrow religious language — referring to joining the couple in holy matrimony and saying, “there are no other vows more sacred than these.”

Kitzke says he welcomes all couples, even those cohabitating. However, when couples who are not parish members ask him to officiate at their weddings, he makes it clear that he expects to see them in the pews on Sundays — both before and after the wedding.

“I use it as an evangelization tool,” he says.

Does it work?

Last Easter, Constance Metscher was confirmed as a Catholic. She was married two years ago in a civil ceremony. Now she and her husband take part in a program through their parish that helps prepare other couples for marriage. “We are also involved in the process of getting our marriage blessed,” she says.

Marie Rohde is a freelance journalist who wrote for many years for The Milwaukee Journal and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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