Don’t Just Marry – Marry YOUNG! So Says the Op-Ed Page of the Washington Post

Matrimania for the young

Posted Apr 27, 2009

I'm used to seeing Americans nagged, coaxed, bribed, and shamed into marrying by the likes of relatives, parents, the Marriage Movement, and the Marriage Mafia. On Sunday, even the op-ed page of the Washington Post joined in the fun.

Mark Regnerus, the author of the op-ed, thinks we've been wrong all along in our concerns about marrying too young (unless you are still a teenager, but may not even then). His piece is titled, "Say yes. What are you waiting for?"

I don't so much mind the author's exhortation to us all to marry young, or even the Post's publishing of the essay. A good contrarian argument is often great fun. (Plus, I'm always ready to mock such matrimania, as I did here with the Atlantic magazine's urging of single women to settle, and now.) What I do mind is the singlism, the slippery science, and the flimsy reasoning.

For most of the essay, Regnerus makes what seem to be fair-minded arguments. (I'll debunk those next.) By the last paragraph, though, he just can't seem to help himself. He's worked up a full head of singlism. There, he slips us his view of "the usual ways" that single 20-somethings are spending their days: "by hitting the clubs, incessantly checking Facebook, Twittering their latest love interest and obsessing about their poor job prospects or how to get into graduate school." No surprise, then, that his own "applause goes out to" his 23-year old former student who is engaged. He notes, admiringly, that she has "decided that there was no point in barhopping through her 20s."

Now I don't doubt that some singles behave in the way that Regnerus suggests. I just don't think it is a fair summary of the lives of most 20-something single people. It is also not very even-handed. The author does not, for example, argue that the usual way that married people behave is by staring wordlessly across the kitchen table, incessantly checking porn sites, Twittering their latest purchase of laundry detergent and obsessing about their unfair boss or how to get out of car pool.

Nope, none of that. For you see, the author believes that by marrying, the erstwhile selfish and self-obsessed single people have been transformed into happy, wealthy couples who are carrying the economy, the community, and even the environment on their oh-so-noble backs.

Yes, married people have more money - they are subsidized by singles

Regnerus is right about one thing. Getting married does make you wealthier, though not for the reasons he claims. He says that married people "earn more, save more, and build more wealth." Married men get paid more than single men but they don't "earn" that pay. They get paid more even when their contributions, talents, and seniority are comparable to those of single men. In fact, in one study of identical twins, the married twin earned 26% more than the single twin. (See Singled Out for details and references.)

What about saving more? A 2006 study reported on the contributions to Individual Development Accounts of more than 2,000 low-income married and single people. The authors found that "there were no significant differences in savings between married and unmarried participants."

Even without saving more, married people can build wealth more readily than single people can because they are given more financial resources. The spouse of a married worker can often get in on the worker's health-care plan at a reduced rate; a single person has no comparable entrée to affordable insurance. When married people get discounted car insurance rates, health club memberships, professional subscriptions, travel packages, and all the rest just because they are married, they are building their wealth. That wealth, though, is in the form of subsidies provided by the single people who are paying full price. Tax breaks (and not just on income) favor married people, too.

Regnerus takes the honorable route by acknowledging that those who marry especially early are also especially likely to divorce. He does not, however, note something else: Those who marry and then divorce often end up even worse, economically, than if they had not married at all. (See, for example, here and here.)

Another pertinent point was also missing: an acknowledgment of what married people do with their money. A 5-year study of a nationally representative sample of Americans showed that men who got married did NOT give any more money to their relatives than they had when they were single, even though they often had two incomes to draw from and were making more money than single men. Once they married, though, men gave far less money to friends than they had when they were single. Men who divorced resumed giving more money to friends, and those who remarried returned to giving less.

So yes, many married couples are building wealth - their own.

Who is keeping our communities together?

Regnerus proclaims that getting married is good for the community. Maybe he has some evidence for that. Two national studies, though, suggest something quite different. It is single people, more than married ones, who provide practical help as well as emotional support to neighbors and friends. They maintain more of the social contacts that create and sustain communities. As the authors of those studies note, "Even good marriages can have some bad effects, taking people away from other social connections."

Is getting married good for the environment?

A tsunami of silliness was let loose by a 2007 press release titled, "Broken homes damage the environment." The argument was that two people who divorce and set up separate households use more energy, water, and other resources than if they stayed married in the same residence.


Remember, the op-ed author is trying to persuade single people to marry young, and the rest of us old farts to encourage them to do so. Although the number of 1-person households has been growing, most single people actually do not live alone. Some even live with several other people, such as friends, family, or roommates. So nudging two such single people to get married and move into a new place with only each another - well, it sort of undermines the going-green argument.

Also, if you are going to advocate for collective housing in the spirit of environmental consciousness, why stop at just one spouse? And what does marriage have to do with it anyway? The environment will be just as indulged by two friends, two siblings, or an unmarried couple living together (rather than apart) as it will by a married couple.

By the way, the same applies to the author's suggestion that getting married builds wealth because two people can live more economically than one - they share one rent or mortgage payment, one electric bill, and one water bill. So do any two (or more) people who live together.

Here we go again: Getting married and getting happy

The claim that getting married will make you happier is the Rod Blagojevich, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove of the Marriage Mafia. It just won't go away. No matter how often it is batted down, it just keeps popping back up like a demented jack-in-the-box.

As I explained in great detail in Chapter 2 of Singled Out (and in other posts on this blog), people who get married do not become lastingly happier. Those who marry and stay that way do experience a brief blip in happiness around the time of the wedding - then they go back to being as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single. Those who marry and then divorce do not even enjoy the fleeting honeymoon effect - they are already becoming less happy, not more so, as their wedding day draws nearer.

Today, as I was organizing this post, I looked over some of my previous correspondence on this topic. One of my e-mail exchanges was with a distinguished scholar who has been making the usual claims about marriage and happiness. I listed the longitudinal studies of marriage and happiness that I knew of, and asked him what I was missing. He replied that a great way of approaching the question is to look at what happens when a spouse dies. It is almost like an experiment with random assignment, he said, since people don't get to pick whether or when their spouse will die. Those who do become widowed usually become unhappy, often grievously so.

Not to repeat myself, but: Duh.

What I am saying is that getting married does not transform miserable single people into blissful couples. Most single people are already happy, and getting married typically does not change that. The happiness implications of having your spouse drop dead is a different matter entirely. I thought it was intriguing, though, that such a smart and accomplished scholar could offer the bereavement research, in all seriousness, as a counter-argument.

It is a mythology, an ideology - this belief that people could transform themselves into happy, healthy, long-living, environment-saving, community-building paragons of virtue, if only they would marry. It is not going to go quickly or quietly.

Note to readers: I'll return to the posts about friendship soon. I wanted to get to this Washington Post piece right away, before it, too, contributes uncontested to the mythology. Down, Blago, down!