The War Over Marriage Is Raging; Single People Are Winning

Once again, the claim that marriage is greedy has people riled up

Posted Jul 11, 2019

To everyone who has been rooting for, and working on, the telling of a more accurate and affirming story about single people, and the shattering of myths about married people, there is good news: We are winning.

The latest victory comes from a most unlikely place – the National Review, that conservative bastion of pro-marriage ideology. The article just published there is framed as just the opposite of what I have suggested. “What you lose when you diss the public good of marriage,” by Alan J. Hawkins, is a response to Mandy Len Catron’s important and attention-generating article in The Atlantic, “What you lose when you gain a spouse.” It is intended as a critique of Catron. As such, it gets a lot wrong – very wrong – as I will explain later.

First, though, the victory. Here is what I never expected to read in the National Review. It is a huge concession to what the advocates for accuracy and fairness have been working on for decades:

“The unmarried, on average, are socially engaged, not isolated and alone. And the fragility (and quality) of marital unions these days certainly is no guarantee of escaping social poverty. Not everyone can or should fit comfortably in the institution of marriage. There is and must be room for all good people — single or married — in a pluralistic society.”

The context is this. Catron argued that “marriage is not the social good that so many believe and want it to be.” Among the plentiful evidence she assembles is research by sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian showing that single people do more to maintain their ties to friends, siblings, parents, neighbors, and coworkers than married people do.

Hawkins complains that the Sarkisian and Gerstel research is just “a single study.” It isn’t. Even looking just at the one key publication both Catron and Hawkins cite, the findings are from two, large and respected surveys – the General Social Survey and the National Survey of Families and Households. Moreover, that’s just one of their publications. Take a look at all of their work, as I did in How We Live Now, and you will find even more.

The work of those two sociologists is just one program of research in what is now a vast body of evidence documenting the social connections of people who are single. I reviewed dozens of such studies in “The social lives of single people,” including research based on hundreds of thousands of people from more than 30 nations. My review includes cross-sectional research but also goes beyond it to point to the even more compelling longitudinal studies. Those investigations show that couples who move in together or get married become more insular than they were when they were single.

Hawkins poo-poos that research, dismissing it as focused only on “immediate social ties.” He thinks that married people are better integrated into civic life and other social institutions. For evidence, he cites Bowling Alone, an influential book that is now 18 years old. We’ve learned quite a lot since then. We know, for example, that in some ways, single people are even more involved in the civic and social institutions of the places where they live. They also volunteer as much or more than married people for every type of organization documented by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with one big exception, one that Hawkins mentions: married people, much more than single people, volunteer to help religious organizations. (Reviews are here and here.)

A persuasive piece of evidence, Hawkins believes, is a book showing that low-income cohabiting couples do not have rich social networks. It doesn’t persuade me. Research such as Sarkisian and Gerstel’s shows that the more married-like people are, the more insular they are. People who are divorced, for example, are typically not as connected to friends and family as people who have always been single. The cohabitation findings are entirely consistent with that.

The National Review article includes some eyebrow-raising ways of thinking. For example, Hawkins notes that Utah “has the highest rates of marriage and of children raised in a two-parent household.” He then adds that research has shown that “Utah also has the highest rate of upward mobility.” It is possible that the two are related, but these state-level links constitute very weak evidence for a connection, and no evidence at all for a causal connection.

The crux of Hawkins argument may be the very first line of the article: “If ‘marriage’ were eliminated today, society would still value loyalty, sexual fidelity, partnerships of reciprocal support, and stable parenting – which are best produced by … marriage.” Considering the high rates of divorce, it seems odd to tout the success of marriage in promoting loyalty and partnerships of reciprocal support. Surely, American society has done more to promote marriage as a space for all of these characteristics that Hawkins admires than any other kind of relationship, starting with the 1,000+ federal laws that benefit and protect only people who are legally married. Married people, who are the beneficiaries of all those legal advantages as well as the respect, celebration, and admiration of our matrimaniacal culture, should be doing better in all those ways.

But are they really? Maybe Hawkins should take a look at another feature in The Atlantic, “The Friendship Files.” What if we looked at the closest of friends – I wonder whether they would show more loyalty and more reciprocity than married couples, even though they are legally unprotected and culturally marginalized. Friends are even coming together to parent these days; as a documented phenomenon, it is too new to know how stable these parenting relationships may be. Without the incendiary potential of sexual infidelity, maybe they will turn out to be more stable than married-couple parenting.

The efforts of Alan Hawkins and the National Review to prop up marriage are part of the broader agenda of the marriage fundamentalists, described so powerfully in a recent report from The Family Story think tank. But Americans are never going to flock to marriage the way they once did. It just isn’t necessary to our lives the way it once was. The old version of marriage, that just about everyone signed on to -- regardless of their interest, suitability, or sexual orientation -- is over and it is not coming back. Individuals are pursuing the kinds of relationships and the kinds of lives that work best for them. That’s a good thing and it should be fully supported. Once we value and protect all of the relationships and life paths that give us meaning, then let’s see where we find the greatest loyalty, reciprocity, and stability.