After Sabrina Tavernise wrote in the New York Times that “the number of Americans who have children and live together without marrying has increased twelvefold since 1970,” the Times launched a conversation about all-things-marriage over at Room for Debate.

For the past two weeks, university professors have been offering thoughts on the importance (or unimportance) of marriage; the effects of cohabitation on raising children, and the changing face of the American family. Amy Wax, a professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, wrote one of the more interesting posts, “Humans Haven’t Changed. Society Has.“, in which she explains that in the years before cohabitating became widely accepted, and marriage was the norm, “people were more law-abiding, men were more responsible, male-female bonds were more enduring, and many fewer children were born out of wedlock or raised by one parent.”

She adds, “Human nature hasn’t changed since then. But societal mores have.” Wax is onto something. But what’s been left out of these brief contributions is a deeper discussion as to what those “societal mores” are and why so many couples are choosing not to marry. 

Certainly women’s educational and professional achievements, coupled with a new found financial independence has made marriage less necessary for women than in previous times. Add to this the sexual revolution, major advancements in birth control, and changing divorce laws and marriage is no longer seemingly as crucial as before. But there’s something more. 

This is the role that the modern feminist movement has played in devaluing the importance of marriage. As Carrie describes in her book The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism, many feminists of the 1960s viewed marriage as inherently inequitable – without undermining the institution of marriage, women would be forever oppressed. 

While this is a particularly radical view of marriage, there is often still too much emphasis placed on the costs of marriage rather than the benefits. In fact, last October census data revealed that during the current economic recession more Americans are putting off marriage.  But Justin Wolfers, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, has pointed out that in economics, “you don’t just look at the cost” – you also have to consider the benefits of a cultural norm like marriage. 

And those benefits have to be considered both at the individual level as well as the societal level. There is a tendency – at least over at the New York Times – not to be too critical of our more modern institution of cohabitation. (And I’m not interested in offering any kind of self-righteous, moral judgment.) But in our effort to be accepting we too often overlook how the institution of marriage plays a vital, stabilizing role in society and that these changes in “societal mores” can have serious implications.

At the end of the day, the elimination of marriage does not get rid of the function marriage serves: providing stability for child rearing, uninterrupted companionship and support, and a financial safety net. When marriage becomes obsolete, the most important question is who – or what – will step in to fill it’s place?

(Interested in hearing more about marriage? Tune into Women’s Roundtable tonight at 5pm to hear more.)