Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

USA Today's Big New Story on Marriage Peddles Same Old Fallacies

USA Today features dubious claims about the implications of marrying.

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USA Today is very excited about marriage. Splashed across the front page of the Health and Behavior section, set off by a colorful illustration, was this pom-pom raising headline: "Federally funded ad campaign holds up value of marriage."

You read that right - federal funds are being used in an ad campaign to promote marriage. The initiative was spearheaded by (surprise!) the Bush administration back in 2005. (The Obama team has not yet made a decision about continuing the funding for the ads.)

Never mind the appropriateness - fiscally or morally - of using federal funds to cheerlead for marriage. That's too easy. I care about the supposed scientific basis for the campaign.

Reporter Sharon Jayson, in one key sentence, perpetrates all the usual myths (and one truth) about the implications of getting married: "Research suggests a bevy of benefits for those who marry, including better health, greater wealth and more happiness for the couple, and improved well-being for children."

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Actually, it doesn't, except for the wealth part. That claim is true. As I explained here and here and in Chapter 12 of Singled Out, there are 1,136 federal provisions that benefit and protect only those people who are officially married. So yes, getting married typically increases your take, since you get to tap into policies that financially favor married people at the expense of singles.

What are vastly overstated or just plain wrong are the claims that getting married makes you healthier and happier and rescues your children from doom.

In a moment, I'll give you just the Cliff Notes version of what's wrong with this conventional wisdom, because I've already gone into detail on these issues in previous posts:

Here is a guide to cracking the code of matrimaniacal media claims.
Here is a recent post debunking the claim that getting married results in a longer life.
Here and here are posts showing, on the basis of data, that the children of single parents typically do just fine, thank you.

Now for the Cliff Notes. Here are just a few of the pervasive methods and mistakes that result in the perpetuation of the myths that getting married makes you healthier and happier and saves your kids from doom. (Many more are in Singled Out.)

The cheater method. Claims that getting married makes people happier or healthier are sometimes based on comparisons between the currently married and the previously married - some of which favor the currently married. But the previously married people DID get married! Using the cheater method, you just pretend that people who are divorced or widowed never did get married.

The mistake an intro psych undergrad would not make. Pretend that if married people look better than single people when they are measured at one point in time, that means that married people did better BECAUSE they got married.

The cheat-some-more method. Include among the married people only those who have happy or healthy marriages; compare them to all single people (regardless of happiness or health).

The selective reporting method: Only mention those studies that support your favorite myths. Have you heard about the studies showing: That single parents are friendlier to their children than married parents? That the children of single parents spend more time with extended family members than the children of married parents? That children of single and married parents in the U.S. do not differ in grades or in the quality of their relationships with siblings and friends? That in some countries, the children of single parents are better readers than the children of married parents? Probably not (unless you are a reader of this blog). That's because the scientific findings that run counter to the stigmatizing of singles and their children do not get much play in the popular press (or in the SmartMarriages e-mail blasts or in the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center).

(For specific instances of how these methods are used to turn scientific "findings" into marriage-celebratory myths, see Living Single posts such as this and this, as well as many of the chapters in Singled Out.)

Predictably, the SmartMarriages listserv was delighted by the USA Today story, and equally predictably, they puffed up their piece with under-informed and misinformed claims. Strong marriages, the group declares, help single people because "it takes a lot of strong, stable, healthy marriages to create and sustain a village." Actually, if you base your statements on science (and not pseudoscience or ideology), the opposite may be true. As I explained here, often it takes single people to create a village - they are the ones doing more than their share of the work of maintaining family, community, and intergenerational ties. (That slippery sentence in the "Smart" Marriages e-mail about strong marriages helping single people was followed by a bit of underhanded bashing of the children of single parents. I've already debunked that.)

The USA Today story did not play entirely by the Marriage Mafia rules. Jayson included some voices of skeptics:

• Jeffrey Arnett, who provided a wonderful interview about emerging adulthood for Living Single readers, said that the adults he studies take their independent decisions very seriously. About the decision to marry, he adds: "I can't imagine they'd want the advice of a government agency."

• Nicky Grist, the very smart and savvy executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, said that two questions were paramount: "Should government tell people when to get married? And should government and society privilege marriage over all other relationships? Our answer to both of those questions is no."

Let that be the last word.

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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