This week’s TIME magazine cover story, Unfaithfully Yours, dramatically laments the collapse of marriage:

“There is no other single force causing as much measurable hardship and human misery in this country, as the collapse of marriage. It hurts children, it reduces mothers’ financial security, and it has landed with particular devastation on those who can bear it least: the nation’s underclass,” writes Caitlin Flanagan.

Flanagan’s clarion call is backed by demographic trends that have now reached a point where nearly four of every ten babies is born out of wedlock and only half of all teenagers live in intact families. Cause for alarm is also found in a bevy of academic studies revealing the impact of the dissolution of the nuclear family on the life prospects and well-being of adults and their children. Research has clearly shown the physical, emotional, and fiscal benefits that married couples experience, as well as the devastating impact that the decline of the intact family has for the next generation. Compared with peers living with both biological parents, children and youth in other family structures fare worse in terms of academic achievement, mental and emotional health, and problem behavior. A father’s presence and involvement can make a lasting difference in a child’s prospects for life.

A married father is more likely to be involved with his children–as Flanagan quotes our own Robert Rector– while unmarried fathers are “soon out the door” when the demands of family life inevitably occur.

Surveys have indicated that American adolescents’ attitudes toward marriage tend to be hopeful (76 percent said that the institution of marriage and family life are “extremely important” and 81 percent said that they expected to marry), but trends in their favorable attitudes toward cohabitation and premarital sexual activity belie that hope. Research indicates that cohabiting couples are more likely to experience divorce in a subsequent marriage and premarital sex is likewise related to an increased likelihood of divorce.

A study sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services, “Pathways to Adulthood and Marriage,” reveals that the quality of parents’ marriages has an impact on what youths anticipate for their own future, declaring that “Teens’ expectations of what a romantic relationship should be are undoubtedly influenced by the romantic relationships of their parents.” The downward spiral of the nuclear family is, thus, likely to continue, unless the concept of marriage is once again linked to personal responsibility, obligation, and a willingness to sacrifice. In Flanagan’s words,

“The fundamental question we must ask ourselves at the beginning of the century is this: What is the purpose of marriage? Is it—given the game-changing realities of birth control, female equality, and the fact that motherhood outside of marriage is no longer stigmatized—simply an institution that has the capacity to increase the pleasure of the adults who enter into it? If so, we might as well hold the wake now…The current generation of children [is]watching commitments between adults snap like dry twigs and observing parents who simply can’t be bothered to marry each other.”