The Case for Marriage is a Sham

Getting married won’t make you lastingly happier or healthier.

Posted Feb 06, 2010

It is so heartening to see someone acknowledge that many people do not want to be married and that marriage isn't for everyone, and even point to data to underscore those claims. So thank you, Aaron Ben-Zeev, for doing so. But oh, you broke my heart with that beginning paragraph, highlighted in the "Essential Reads" box, that repeats the conventional wisdom about how marriage confers great benefits. That supposed wisdom is unfounded and unwise.

The statement that bothers me is this one: "Some studies indicate that married people live longer, enjoy better health, earn more money, accumulate more wealth, feel happier, enjoy more satisfying sexual relationships, and have happier and more successful children than those who remain single, cohabit, or get divorced (see here)." The myth being peddled here is that if you marry, you will enjoy all those benefits, too.

I. Here's what's true: Getting married improves your financial bottom line - if you don't get divorced - but it is not because married people "earn" their economic advantages

First, the part that's true: If you get married, you will probably end up better off financially, unless you get divorced, in which case you will end up worse off than if you had never married in the first place. (This is especially true for women.) It is not so much that you "earn" more when you marry, as that you are paid more than your single coworkers, even when they are at the same level of seniority and accomplishments. (This is true for men.) That's not "earning" - that's marital status discrimination, one of the components of singlism. Plus, for both men and women, getting married unlocks a treasure trove of federal benefits and perks, such as access to health insurance under a spouse's plan, access to Social Security benefits, and all the rest that are denied to the unmarried (thereby adding to the intensity of the efforts to advocate for same-sex marriage).

I wrote about these issues in Chapter 12 of Singled Out, as well as in these previous posts to this Living Single blog:

The economy: A single person's vulnerability that is real
The Marriage-Promotion Claim that Is Right - for All the Wrong Reasons

II. Here's what's exaggerated, misstated, misrepresented, or just plain wrong: If you get married, you will be happier, healthier, live longer, and have more successful children.

That little parenthetical comment at the end of the statement I am questioning - i.e., "(see here)" - says it all. The "here" that Ben-Zeev is referencing, as have far too many others (including, most tragically, other academics who should know better), is a book by Waite and Gallagher called The Case for Marriage. (Maggie Gallagher was paid federal money under the George W. Bush administration to help promote that president's marriage initiative, all the while writing pro-marriage polemics as a syndicated columnist and not revealing the conflict.)

In doing the research for my book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, I read The Case for Marriage very carefully. I didn't just take the authors' word for what the studies they cited supposedly said; I went to the original studies in the professional journals and read them carefully.

I was stunned and appalled by the exaggerations and misrepresentations in Waite and Gallagher's book. In Chapter 2 of Singled Out, "Science and the Single Person," I explain what the studies really do show, and call out Waite and Gallagher on their misrepresentations. I've kept up with claims about marriage and the relevant studies published since Singled Out in Single with Attitude and on this Living Single blog.

So is it true, as Ben-Zeev claims (citing Waite and Gallagher) that "marriage offers great benefits"? Here's what the research really does show:

Most of the research cited by Waite and Gallagher comes from studies based on comparisons of currently married people to other people at one point in time. So, they might claim that currently married people are better in some way or another (or, according to them, in just about all ways) than the people who are divorced, widowed, or have always been single. But the people who are currently married are less than 60% of all of the people who ever got married. So what these studies show is that people who get married and stay married (and sometimes, of those, only the ones who are happy in their marriages) differ from others. But that does not mean that if you get married, you will become better off too, because you may be among the 40+ percent who get married and then get divorced. Or you could become widowed. Once you are previously married, your health, happiness, and so forth are likely to dip below any level experienced by people who stay single.

The real difference in happiness, health, etc., is not between those who are currently married and those who have always been single, but between the currently married and the previously married. What's hazardous is not staying single, but having previously been married. (Even for the divorced and widowed, their well-being often improves as the end of the marriage fades into the past.) It is remarkable, in a way, that people who have always been single often look so similar to the group of currently married people. Focusing on the currently married group and using their health or happiness as a way to argue for the benefits of getting married is a cheater strategy. You are setting aside the people who got married, hated it, and got divorced. The always-single group, in contrast, includes everyone who is single, whether they want to be or not. And yet, that approach that so blatantly and unscientifically favors married people, still can't seem to make married people look all that different from people who stay single.

Ben-Zeev was right to describe the much better scientific approach to understanding the implications of getting married - longitudinal research. He correctly notes that in the study he is describing (by Lucas and his colleagues, also reviewed in detail in Chapter 2 of Singled Out), "people who get married and stay married...get only a very small boost from marriage; most people are no more satisfied after marriage than they were before it." Even that small initial boost is fleeting.

Notice again, though, whom we are talking about: The people who got that small initial increase in happiness (fleeting though it was) did not include ALL of the people who got married, but only those who married and stayed married during the course of the study. The people who married and then divorced were already becoming slightly less happy, not happier, as their wedding day approached.

Ben-Zeev correctly points out that the people who got married started out a bit happier than those who did not - so any subsequent difference in happiness between them and people who stay single cannot be attributed completely to the act of getting married - they were already happier to begin with. (Singles are still very clearly on the happy end of the scale - as they are in every study I have ever examined.) But it does not necessarily follow, as Ben-Zeev also suggests, that marriage is a suitable way of maintaining happiness for those who are happier, and not suitable for those who are less happy. The only way we could know for sure whether getting married has different implications for people who differ in happiness is to separate people into a happier and less happy group, and randomly assign half the people in each to get married and the others to stay single. That study can never be done.

I've written many times before about the implications of single parenting for children's outcomes. Again, the bottom line is that the claimed differences (between children of single parents and married parents) are often exaggerated, misrepresented, or just plain false. See Chapter 9 of Singled Out, the "Love, Sex, and Family" section of Single with Attitude, and these posts to this Living Single blog:

It Takes a Single Person to Create a Village
Children of Single Mothers: How Do They Really Fare?
TIME's Misleading Cover Story on Marriage

III. Do married people have more and better sex than singles?

I'm posting a section of Singled Out, "Getting Married and Getting Sex," on this blog so you can see an example of exactly how Waite and Gallagher misrepresent some studies that actually were carefully conducted, and fluff up their work with claims from marriage advocacy groups. For example, the pronouncement that married people with more traditional views of sex outside of marriage are more likely to be sexually satisfied is based on "research" by the Family Research Council, self-described as "an organization dedicated to the promotion of marriage." (Think Tony Perkins. It is closer to Focus on the Family than to the Journal of Marriage and Family.)

IV. Something else I like about Ben-Zeev's post

In the next-to-last paragraph of his post, Ben-Zeev makes the important point that marriage is no longer the gateway that it once was to sex, child-rearing, or financial security. With all of those big things often available outside of marriage, the fate of marriage is likely to turn on whether it fulfills emotional functions. That, I believe, is why there is currently so much matrimania (the over-the-top hyping of marriage and weddings). You can no longer persuade people that they need to marry in order to have sex, kids, a house, or money. So you have to persuade them that only by marrying can they ever know true happiness, or experience a complete and meaningful life. That's one of the reasons why so many ads feature blissful brides and ebullient wedding themes, why there are so many mate-bait manuals on the market, and why so many contemporary television shows build up to a wedding episode, but Mary Tyler Moore did not. Matrimania is not a symptom of how secure we are about the place of marriage in our lives, but how insecure. The case for marriage has come tumbling down.