Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Does Marriage Civilize Men?

If it is civilized to ignore friends, I want to be a barbarian.

In the March issue of the Atlantic magazine, deputy editor Don Peck uncritically published a host of claims about how marriage civilizes men. (See p. 3 online of "Men and families in a jobless age" or p. 53 in the print version.) The person who made the claims was Brad Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project.

How, according to Wilcox, does marriage help to "civilize" men? Here are some of the ways:

1. Married men supposedly "work harder, longer, and more strategically" than single men.
2. Married men purportedly "spend less time in bars and more time in church."
3. Married men supposedly spend "less [time] with friends and more with kin."
4. Married men ostensibly are "happier and healthier" than single men.

A few months ago, I asked Living Single readers to critique these claims. You can read the full version of your critiques in the comments section of this post. Below I'll highlight short versions of a few of them, plus one that was sent to me by email. Then in the last section, I'll offer my own critique.

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Reader Critiques of the "Marriage Civilizes Men" Claims

Logic001 said this:
"Wilcox asserts that because men will work harder, longer, and more strategically, this is proof of becoming more civilized. Yet, if we look at a study of male scientists and their level of productivity and genius, data has shown that these scientists' productivity and contributions to science decline precipitously if these scientists get married, often in their 30s. However, those that avoided marriage stayed nicely productive well into their late 50s. This doesn't sound to me as if they are doing nobler and better work after marriage. A simpler and likelier explanation is that these fellows lost their spark and became drones. Work became a chore, not a joy."

Lauri poses a whole series of important questions, including this one:
"Why is spending more time with kin and less time with friends a positive or more ‘civilized' effect?"

Alan sees claims like these as a form of sexism:
"It would be just like saying that women need marriage to protect them from the world. Indeed, it's part of a pair of stereotypes: The brutish man and the civilized but frail woman.
Everyone here knows that these claims are nonsense. We know that the differences in health and happiness are slight. As are the differences in drinking...I believe 2.3% of married men have drinking problems vs 3.7% of single men, not a big difference."

Take a look at the others, too.

My Critiques of the "Marriage Civilizes Men" Claims

Brad Wilcox is making the case for what Katha Pollitt once called a "barbarian adoption program," whereby women are urged to marry men so as to domesticate and tame them.

In Singled Out, I took apart these claims about married men and single men. Here I'll just mention some highlights.

One of the Marriage Mafia's favorite sources of the claim that marriage civilizes men is a book by Steven Nock, Marriage in Men's Lives. The research described in that book does suggest that men spend more time in church groups after marrying. However, other statements that Nock makes (and others repeat) are not even supported by Nock's own data. Here's some of what I said in Singled Out about the claim that married men work harder:

Nock believes that marriage motivates men to work harder and more responsibly. As he notes in his chapter on adult achievement, "Marriage is also the engine that fuels greater effort and dedication to the goal of doing well." Workers who care about the good of their fellow workers and about their occupation or profession should put in the time to back up that dedication. Married men could, for example, evince their greater responsibility to the workplace by participating more often in groups such as farm organizations, unions, or professional societies. Only they don't. In fact, according to Nock's own reporting, men who marry spent less time at such work-related activities than they had when they were single. They do, though, work 2.2 weeks more per year than they had before. That's the kind of work that pays - them, but not anyone else. Even this one marriage incentive fizzles for men who remarry; they work 7.4 weeks less than they had when they were divorced. (You can read more online here.)

It is true that men who marry spend less time with friends than they did when they were single. They are also less generous with their friends after marrying. As a number of Living Single readers asked, though, how does this qualify as acting more civilized?

The drop in the time that married men spend in bars is part of an overall trend toward doing less of all sorts of other enjoyable activities after marrying, such as playing informal sports and pursuing personal hobbies (from pp. 95-96 of Nock's book). Time spent bowling, however, does not decrease when men marry. Insert your own conclusions here.

The claims about getting married and getting happier and healthier spread like kudzu. They just can't seem to be controlled no matter how often they are sprayed with actual science.

The truth about getting married and getting happy: As I explained in detail in Chapter 2 of Singled Out, the longest-running study of the implications of getting married for happiness does not support the matrimaniacal claim that getting married transforms miserable single people into blissfully and lastingly happy married people. Research by Richard Lucas shows that people who get married and stay married enjoy just a brief increase in happiness around the time of the wedding, then they go back to the level happiness they experienced when single (which is already quite high). Those who marry and then divorce do not even experience the brief honeymoon effect in happiness; instead, they are already becoming slightly less happy as their wedding day approaches. Lucas found the same pattern for men and women.

Finally, about getting married and getting healthy: There is no evidence that men (or women) become lastingly healthier when they marry (though they may become fatter). In fact, the transition into marriage is unlikely to make much of a difference in health. Getting married and then unmarried, though, can be a risk. (See reviews in Singled Out and Single with Attitude.)

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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