“Avoid Marriage,” Advises Atlantic Writer

Divorce hurts, so should we skip marriage?

Posted Jun 26, 2009

The Atlantic magazine has peddled its share of misguided matrimania and scolding of singles - both mothers and others - but not this month. Just look at this tease for a story by Sandra Tsing Loh: "The author is ending her marriage. Isn't it time you did the same?"

Skipping straight to the conclusion, here is Loh's final piece of advice:

"avoid marriage - or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something so demonstrably fleeting as love."

Let us all pause for a moment of silence, the better to hear the sounds of the tectonic plates of contemporary American culture shifting beneath our feet.

True, the tease may have been a bit tongue-in-cheek, and Loh may at times be having a wisp of fun with her readers, but there is a serious message in the pages of this essay, and it is not the party line. Loh is floating the idea that maybe we should all just get over our love affair with marriage.

Loh embraces the traditionalists' view that divorce hurts, then turns it upside down. The moral of the story, she suggests, is not the old, boring, bedraggled one: Get married and stay that way - no divorcing! Instead, she says, just skip the marriage.

So what do the data say? Is she right that people who stay single are better off than those who marry and then divorce? That's a point I addressed in a previous Psychology Today post, "Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?" and of course in Singled Out.

I don't equate being married with being loved; my view of love is far broader and less hackneyed. So the question I actually do address is this: Who is happier, physically healthier, psychologically stronger, less lonely, more likely to live longer, and more engaged with neighbors, friends, and family - people who got married and then got unmarried, or people who stayed single? The answer, in just about every study I've ever reviewed, is people who have stayed single. Those who have studied individual lives over time (examples are here and here) have often found that crossing the threshold from singlehood into marriage is of little lasting consequence for health or well-being; it is the transition out of marriage that can be problematic, at least at first.

I'm not saying, though, that you should not get married if that's what you want to do. You may have your reasons. Those reasons, though, should not include the misperception that if only you marry, you will live happily ever after.

Unless you've managed to tune out the cultural altercations over marriage, you know the objection that will be raised next: But what about the children? Impressively, Loh resists the conventional wisdom even on that score, noting that "a single-parent household is almost as good" as having two biological parents. (And because she got so much right, I'll ignore the snippet of singlism in her article that made me cringe.)

The data on single-parent households are on Loh's side. As I've noted here and in Singled Out, there are even ways in which children from single-parent households do better than children of married parents. I'm not arguing that you should create a single-parent household for the good of your children, but let's also not pretend that the children of single parents are doomed.

It is possible, you know, to value two-parent families without denigrating other family forms. It is even possible to acknowledge the potential positive power of the experience of growing up in a single-parent home, without denying the good that can come with having two (or even more) adults at home. And maybe, at last, there is some cultural space for such claims.

Consider, for instance, what Melissa Harris-Lacewell (whom you may have seen on the Rachel Maddow Show) has said about Barack Obama in her thoughtful essay in the Nation:

"Had his father been present he might have had less adolescent angst, but then again that angst was part of what sent him into a world of books from which he emerged a formidable intellectual. Part of Barack Obama's greatness is his fatherlessness."

Her conclusion: "We can assert the value of fathers and still create government and community structures that more fully support families of all kinds."

My conclusion? Hurry up, please. It's time.

[Click here for more posts about Living Single. This essay is cross-posted from the Huffington Post.]