July 9, 2004 | WebMemo on Family and Marriage

Interview with Dutch Scholars on Marriage

From Reformatorisch Dagblad, July 8, 2004 (original)

By Addy de Jong

THE HAGUE -- They fear it might be too late to turn things around. Nevertheless, five academics want to sound the alarm over the deteriorating state of marriage in the Netherlands, especially now that other countries are discussing the issue of gay marriage. "It would be a major step forward if people in our country would recognise that we have a serious problem on our hands."

Professor M. van Mourik, one of the signatories of an open letter on the future of marriage published in today's edition of this newspaper, sees examples of it in his legal practice every day. "The reputation of marriage as an institution is in serious decline." Apart from being a professor in contract law at Nijmegen University, he also runs a legal practice in private law contracts. "I see it all the time: people no longer understand what's so special about marriage. Everything has been reduced to the level of financial decisions. What options do we have? What are the advantages and drawbacks of unregistered cohabitation, a registered partnership, or marriage? Well, in that case we'll choose this option or that one."

It hurts van Mourik to think that fewer and fewer people realise that marriage is a publicly witnessed lifelong commitment. "It's more than just loving someone. But when it comes to relationships, people today just seem clueless. Most of them just don't understand that all this private stuff is really just an expression of the fear of permanent commitment to others." While van Mourik is talking from experience, Dr. J. van Loon, head of a research unit on culture and communication at Nottingham Trent University, is first of all a man of numbers. Says van Loon, co-signatory of the letter, "I'm a researcher, a statistician. One year ago I completed a piece of research in which I compared English and Dutch statistics on marriage and relationships. It showed that the Netherlands still scores better on marital fidelity and stable caring relationships, but that we are busy copying the bad British family habits. We're moving in their direction."

Van Loon points out that in 2003 there were 13,000 fewer marriages than in 1990. Even more remarkable is the fact that last year almost one in three children were born out of wedlock, whereas in 1989 it was only one in ten. "Those sort of figures are hugely important. There's been a lot of research carried out, especially in the United States, on the correlation between unstable, frequently changing relationships of parents and drug abuse, criminal behaviour, and sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers. There is an unmistakably strong connection between them." Hence Van Loon's conclusion: "Marriage is the best setting for the raising of children. And you don't even have to think in such serious terms as crime. A child who grows up out of wedlock will have a greater chance of problems in the development of his or her personality, physical health, school performance, and even the quality of future relationships."

The main question now is what can the Netherlands do to reverse this decline. "The first thing that should happen is that politicians, academics, and opinion leaders should recognise that we are faced with a serious problem," Van Mourik says. "Then we need a national debate about the question of how we can restore marriage to its original special, protected status." What should certainly never have happened was the legalization of gay marriage. "In my view that has been an important contributing factor to the decline in the reputation of marriage. It should never have happened. Just like in Germany and the Scandinavian countries, we should have limited ourselves to the creation of registered partnerships for same-sex couples. We should have had the guts to tell a relatively small group in our society to leave marriage alone."

Van Loon does not want to talk of a clear, causal connection between the introduction of same-sex marriage and the devaluation of marriage. "But I obviously do see a strong correlation. Both developments have a common source. It is no coincidence both take place at the same time. It's a consequence of the rejection of normative schemes that are based on eternal values -- whether they are connected to the natural law or to God -- and the adoption of a different approach, one that says we are quite capable of redesigning society based on our own fashionable preferences." Van Loon does think that the debate about gay marriage has contributed to the decline in the reputation of marriage. "Supporters of gay marriage often based their argument for legalisation on the separation of marriage and the raising of children. Those two things were supposed to be completely unconnected. It's difficult to imagine that an intensive media campaign based on the claims that marriage and parenthood are unrelated and that marriage is just one of a number of morally equivalent cohabiting relationships did not have any serious social consequences."

About the Author