Marriage rates in the United States have hit an all-time low — a reflection of adults waiting to marry until later in life or forgoing marriage altogether, according to a government report released this April. In 2018, the latest year on record, there were just 6.5 new marriages per 1,000 people, a 6% drop from the previous year, the report from the National Center for Health Statistics said.
While the causes for the steady decline are many, the current cultural climate for marriage poses a number of challenges and opportunities for the church: How can Christians properly celebrate singleness and support those who are single? How can we build stronger, healthier marriages? How do we pattern our relationships after biblical wisdom rather than cultural trends?
For answers to these and other questions, Biola Magazine reached out to marriage expert Karen Quek, director of the new master’s program in marriage and family therapy (MFT) at Biola’s Talbot School of Theology. As a therapist and professor, it’s Quek’s role to help make relationships work — and here she draws upon her extensive teaching, clinical and supervisory experiences in the United States and other parts of the world, including China, Singapore and the Philippines.
The marriage rate is declining as many are now either delaying or choosing to not get married. How do you think this trend impacts church and society?
Marriage is no longer viewed as the exclusive relational context for sexual intimacy and parenthood. The perceived high economic costs and emotional requirements of marriage also make more adults feel that marriage is out of their reach. Inevitably, more adults are having intimate relationships, even parenting, outside of a matrimonial relationship. Unfortunately, these societal shifts are also fueled by a parallel retreat of the religious participation of young adults. Young adults today are less likely to associate the rites of passage like marriage (or birth or death) with the church, a sacramental act. This development of the shedding of the sacredness of marriage inevitably means less marriage-preparation to bolster the foundations for healthy marriages. Combining with the decline in religious participation, the church — which has traditionally supplied couples and families with spiritual and moral guidance and family-friendly social networks — has less influence to reinforce the marriage norm and strengthen family life among this generation of young adults.
Marriage needs both spiritual and social capital to support enduring unions and build healthy families. We all suffer if it is weakened. Both the church and society are worse off as a result of this weakening and retreat of marriage as a bedrock social institution in this generation.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing Christian marriages and families today?
One challenge facing Christian marriages and families may be the myth of “marriages being made in heaven.” While we agree with the divine purpose of marriage, this subtle surrender to a mystical union often leads to a lack of investment in efforts and energy in building strong marriages. Within the Christian community, a challenge we face is an alarming absence of discipling and mentoring each other for marriages and families. Christian marriages and families are significant institutions by which a lost world can see Christianity in action. But without an authentic community that will support and nurture strong marriages and families, our witness may be weak. It not only takes a village to raise a kid, but also a community to nurture and protect a marriage. The fear of sharing our vulnerability often leaves couples and families with no “safe room” to work through their struggles.
What’s the biggest myth we’ve fallen for about marriage and relationships?
From the fairy tales of happily-ever-afters to the ease of falling in and out of love, mainstream media and popular culture have certainly shaped the expectations many have about romantic relationships. It creates a toxic narrative on relationships, sexualizing it and glamorizing the “hookup” culture of one-night stands. Sex is portrayed as the “fast food” of romantic relationships, a warped view of sex as the shortcut to intimacy.
The biggest myth we’ve fallen for about marriage and relationships is that there is a quick fix to everything, a shortcut to a make-believe ideal, or a quick escape into fantasy. Just like a horrible crime that is solved in 45 minutes on TV, it convinces an instant-gratification generation to expect instant love. The curated reality or “the la-la land” of romantic love and family is opposed to being truly engaged in building healthy relationships for marriage and family, and in maintaining sexual purity and marital fidelity.
Do you have any advice for singles who are currently navigating today’s dating scene?
Know that singleness is a stage of life that everyone will experience. It is a gift from God to be enjoyed. For some, it may be a life-long gift of being called to be single, while for most it is a temporal gift. In fact, Paul spoke positively about singleness (1 Cor. 7:7, 32–35), counseling those who are single again to remain so (1 Cor. 7:8) if they are able to. Being single enables one to experience “undistracted devotion” (1 Cor. 7:35). So singleness is not a status we rush to change. We must avoid the pressure to date because of the embarrassment or stigma of being single. Single life can be beautiful. It is a season of life given for us to flourish and practice self-care. This, in fact, is one of the best preparations for marriage.
Remember that you are complete in Christ. Your wholeness is found in him alone. No other person can complete you. The creation narrative of Eve in Genesis 2 stems from Adam’s need for community, not completion. When Adam was created, God declared that it was good. It is the void of human loneliness that God is addressing. We are not made to exist in loneliness. Companionship can be found by investing in godly relationships. All of our emotional needs cannot be met in one person, even in the most intimate of relationships.
What are some differences in how Christians approach the field of marriage and family therapy?
As Christians, we are called to care about the things God cares about, that is to mend relational wounds and not ignore the pain being felt by fellow members of the body and the community. The discipline of MFT is close to God’s heartbeat, so the MFT trajectory is aligned with God’s agenda on recreating and renewing broken communities and familial relationships. Christians who work in the field of MFT view this profession as a vocational call from God to serve those in faith communities and also the vulnerable, voiceless and powerless. They see themselves as agents of change, renewal and reconciliation in the community. God’s call to service is to meet every kind of human need — physical, psychological, social and spiritual — and that’s what MFTs do.
One of your research interests is “gender construction in a couple’s relationship.” Can you explain what that is and a lesson you’ve learned from your research?
I have a strong background in qualitative research and have published works with data from dual-career couples, newlywed couples, couples from Asian descent, couples transitioning to parenthood, as well as international couples from the Philippines, Singapore, Greece and the United States. My research revealed that in the face of dual-career demands, many dual-earner couples began to demonstrate egalitarian practices for pragmatic reasons. Collectivist cultural expectations are not all-encompassing or universally applied within a given society; rather it is situational, flexible and responsive to the pressing needs of the world that individuals confront. My work showed that couples can feel fulfilled in their careers and relationships when they can openly negotiate and mutually attend to each other’s personal hopes and concerns. An implication of my work is that changing economic pressures may also push couples from diverse cultures toward more equality in their relationships, even when their gender and cultural ideology remains traditional.
Interested in Studying Marriage and Family Therapy?
Biola’s Talbot School of Theology launched a new master’s program in marriage and family therapy this fall. Look for more information at biola.edu/mft.
Karen Quek (M.A. ’90), professor of marriage and family therapy at Talbot School of Theology, is a dual licensed couple and family therapist and professional clinical counselor with a Ph.D. from Loma Linda University. She previously worked as the program director of the master’s program in marital and family therapy at Bethel Seminary.