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Two Scholars Ask: What if Marriage Is Bad for Us?

What if everything you think you know about marriage is wrong?

People who dislike my writings are fond of calling me anti-marriage, but that's not quite accurate. What I really think is that marriage is not for everyone, and that people who want to stay single should not be targeted with singlism because of it. People who marry should refrain from becoming matrimaniacs, as should the rest of the society. I believe, based on a close reading of original scientific sources, that most of the demeaning claims about single people are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong. I also question the status of marriage as a criterion of eligibility for such basic human dignities as access to health care (as when marrieds can access health insurance through a spouse's plan but singles have no comparable option) or to a secure retirement (as when a widow can access their deceased spouse's Social Security benefits but singles can neither receive benefits from, say, a close friend or sibling, nor can they bequeath their benefits to any such peers).

Earlier this fall, two scholars posed a starker question than my own: "What if marriage is bad for us?" The essay by Middlebury College sociologists Laurie Essig and Lynn Owens was originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and later reprinted elsewhere. You can read their fully-developed argument here. In this post, I'll describe some of the main points, then leave it to all of you to post your reactions in the Comments section.

The scholars begin by reviewing the usual claims about all the ways in which marriage is supposed to be good for us. They also take us through some of the segments of society, from progressive advocacy groups to conservative (and not-at-all-conservative) political leaders who have tried so hard to advance those beliefs.

Then they pivot and take on the claims, one after another. For example:

1. In response to the pronouncement that "marriage makes you healthy," they note (as I often have) that "married and never-married Americans are similar; it's the divorced who seem to suffer." They then dare to add this: "The lesson might be to never divorce, but an even more obvious lesson to be drawn from the research might be to never marry."

2. About the myth that single people are isolated and alone, the authors point to research showing that actually, married couples are more often isolated. They note that "we are instructed by movies, pop songs, state policy, and sociology to get married because ‘love is all you need.' But actually we humans need more."

3. Does marriage make you rich? Not necessarily. And, "even when marriage does produce wealth, divorce often destroys it."

4. Surely we can all agree that marriage is traditional? No, even that well-worn assumption does not pass muster. As the authors (and others) have noted, "marriage has changed over time and exists differently in different cultures." But even if mate choices were once based on considerations such as who had the best fields and who would keep the goods in the right lineages, aren't contemporary marriages based on love? Here, Essig and Owens remind us of Laura Kipnis's decidedly unromantic notion of marriage as a "‘domestic gulag,' a forced-labor camp where the inmates have to spend all of their time outside of work working on their marriage."

A few other points worth pondering:

5. Noting that the rate of marriage has dropped, and that the levels of happiness among those who do marry have also slumped, the authors muse: "Maybe it's the decline in happiness that has caused an increasing number of Americans to say ‘I don't,' despite Hollywood's presenting us with happy ending after happy ending and a government bent on distributing civil rights on the basis of marital status. Apparently no amount of propaganda or coercion can force humans to participate in a family form so out of sync with what we actually need."

6. Finally, in response to those who would suggest that loneliness is the only alternative to a lifelong marriage, Essig and Owens have this to say: "Instead of ‘blaming the victims' for failing to adopt the formative lifestyles of the white and middle class, we should consider that those avoiding marriage might know exactly what they are doing. Marriage is not necessarily good for all of us, and it might even be bad for most of us. When there is broad, seemingly unanimous support for an institution, and when the institution is propped up by such disparate ideas as love, civil rights, and wealth creation, we should wonder why so many different players seem to agree so strongly. Perhaps it's because they are supporting not just marriage but also the status quo."

[Shameless suggestion: Books make great holiday gifts, for yourself and others! Of course, my favorite recommendations are Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, Single with Attitude: Not Your Typical Take on Health and Happiness, Love and Money, Marriage and Friendship, and Behind the Door of Deceit: Understanding the Biggest Liars in Our Lives. The links in the previous sentence are for the paperbacks; Single with Attitude and Door of Deceit are also available on Kindle. And, as of yesterday, Singled Out is now available in Chinese! I don't think you can get it in this country. However, I have some extra copies, so if anyone wants one, email me and I'll send it to you for the same price as the English version, plus shipping.]

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