This is first of what I hope will be many reflections on marriage and its place in our society, in part due to the experience I had at the Ruth Institute Student Conference.
Sociology of Marriage
I’ve been working on this post for a couple days, but I had a new inspiration for how to introduce this information last night. See, just yesterday I met someone who had that strong aversion to “the institution of marriage”. You know, the person who says “I’m hell-bent against ever getting married” or “Marriage doesn’t really matter since its basically the same as dating”. I’m always intrigued when I meet these people because for 1) at one point in my life I didn’t see myself married either so I can relate on some level, but also because 2) I can’t figure out someone would hate marriage itself and in its entirety or can’t see its value/difference from dating. Maybe they didn’t have the best experience with it growing up. Maybe they saw their parents duke it out their whole life and that has made them cautious about getting into a relationship for life. But does that mean that a rational conclusion is that marriage itself is the problem? Why not blame the individuals? Or the situation? But to blame marriage, that ‘institution’ that been around longer than any of us? It’s an interesting take to me.
So instead I find myself trying to understand the person and their experiences which usually lead to their feelings, because although marriage exists in virtually every known human society, it can be difficult to formulate an exact response for why its good for society and many times this is ineffective since people cling so tightly to their experiences they know to be true. Also, I do believe that for a marriage to be healthy, the people entering the marriage have to understand themselves and the point of their actions first, otherwise it can almost be a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Fortunately we have people like Dr. Brad Wilcox compiling social science data based on many studies (summarized in Why Marriage Matters, 2nd Edition, Institute for American Values from which I get almost all this data) which concretely conclude that marriage:
1) is an important social good, associated with positive outcomes for children and adults alike;
2) is an important public good, associated with rage of economic health, educational, and safety benefits that help all governments serve the common good; and
3) has benefits that extend to the poor and minority communities, even though it is more fragile in those communities.
Before I go into the specific results, I first want to point out the common issue in social science of “selection effects” – i.e. the idea that there are pre-existing differences between people who choose to marry, cohabit, divorce, etc. As was stated in this summary,
“Good social science attempts to distinguish between causal relationship and mere correlations in a variety of ways. The studies cited here are for the most part based on large, nationally representative samples that control for race, education, income, and other confounding factors….have been able to use longitudinal data to track individuals as they marry, divorce, or stay single, increasing our confidence that marriage itself matters. Where the evidence is, in our view, overwhelming that marriage causes increases in well-being, we say so. Where the causal pathways are not as well understood, we are more cautious. …Despite its inherent limitations, good social science is a better guide to social policy than uninformed opinion or prejudice.”
The 26 following conclusions are taken directly from the document Why Marriage Matters, headed by Dr. Bradford Wilcox, cited earlier. I expand on a few of the points I thought were particularly interesting based on reasons the paper. Some of these may seem like no-brainers and at parts during his presentation I definitely thought to myself, “Wow, isn’t it kind of sad that someone has to do research to prove this? Shouldn’t these results be obvious?” But the fact is that they are needed to define and quantify, as much as possible, the benefits/side effects of marriage in order to help the Ben Affleck types who have an aversion to marriage, maybe from bad past experiences (maybe fear of #3?). I believe that understanding that marriage is indeed a good thing in and of itself on many levels is crucial to our generation’s future well-being and happiness, regardless of how personal experiences have tainted your perceptions of it.
*Also, please note that these are based on averages and statistics, so outliers are always possible/present. The author himself came from a single-parent home so I find it interesting how he removed his own bias-ness. The fact is that many people grow up in single/divorced parents homes and do not face these consequences, but you can’t argue with the trends that the numbers show. Also, keep in mind that social science data is better at showing THAT something is happening rather than determining the CAUSE of why its happening.
Effects on Family
1. Marriage increases the likelihood that fathers and mothers have good relationships with their children.
2. Cohabitation is not the functional equivalent of marriage. – Although it looks like marriage at a first glance, studies show that children of cohabiting couples have outcomes more similar to single parents than married ones. Also, cohabiting relationship are not surprisingly less stable (50% of children from cohabiting couples see this relationship end by age 5, compared with 15% of children from married couples). This is mostly due to selection differences since cohabiting couples generally have lower income and education, and also report relationships of lower quality, lower satisfaction, and higher conflict than married couples. Cohabitation is different than marriage in part because Americans who choose to live together are generally less committed to each other as partners than married couples (see 2 below for more references).
3. Growing up outside an intact marriage increases the likelihood that children will themselves divorce or become unwed parents. – Daughters raised outside intact marriages are approx. 3 times more likely to become young, unwed mothers than daughters raised in intact marriages. Remarriage is also shown to hurt even further, with emphasis to child well-being based on stability of the family home.
4. Marriage is a virtually universal human institution.
5. Marriage, and a normative commitment to marriage, foster high-quality relationships between adults, as well as between parents and children. – A new belief that all family structures are created equal as long as there is love in the relationship is all that matters is gaining popularity recently. But by offering legal and normative support to direct a relationship, providing an expectation of sexual fidelity and lifelong commitment, and by furnishing a unique social status as “spouses” marriage typically fosters better romantic and parental relationships than do alternatives. Interestingly, just valuing the institution of marriage for its own sake, makes your marriage better. Individuals who embrace a conditional ethic to marriage are shown to be less happy in those marriages. Its like believing is living.
6. Marriage has important bio-social consequences for adults and children. – I thought these were some of the most interesting findings. Marriage reduces men’s testosterone levels (associated with aggression, sensation seeking, and other antisocial behaviors (selection factors may play a role – i.e. men with lower testosterone may get married, cohabiting also lowers it, but marriage definitely plays a causal role in driving down testosterone). Also, girls who grow up apart from an intact married family are significantly more likely to have early menstruation and premature sexual activity. Girls with close, engaged relationships with their fathers have menstruation at a later age than those who lose their bio father at a young age. Also, girls who live with an unrelated male have even earlier menstruation than those living with only their mother. Speculations is that development is influenced by male pheromones.
7. Divorce and unmarried childbearing increase poverty for both children and mothers. – Even after controlling for race. Between 1/5 and 1/3 of divorcing women end up in poverty following their divorce.
8. Married couples seem to build more wealth on average than singles or cohabiting couples. – Partnerships are generally more economically efficient. Norms that encourage healthy, productive behavior and wealth accumulations (such as buying a home) also appear to play a role. Help from grandparents is also present, while not necessarily so for cohabiting couples.
9. Marriage reduces poverty and material hardship for disadvantaged women and their children. – In one study, mothers with low academic abilities who married saw their living standards rise about 65% higher than similar single mothers with no other adult, over 50% higher than single moths with another adult, and 20% higher than mothers cohabiting.
10. Minorities benefit economically from marriage. – These economic benefits are not limited to whites. Not only materially but African Americans and Latinos who are married also enjoy significantly higher levels of household equity, compared to their peers who are not married.
11. Married men earn more money than do single men with similar education and job histories. – Marriage increases earning power of men by 24% (selection effects possible factor). Reasons not entirely clear but married men appear to have greater work commitment, more strategic approaches to job searches, healthier and more stable personal routines (including sleep, diet, and alcohol consumption). Also, one study found that married men were more likely to quit a job only after having lined up the next, which was not as true with unmarried men. Husbands also benefit from the work effort and emotional support of their wives. Interestingly enough, I looked into this to see the effect on women and generally when they get married, the woman earns less on average, mostly due to the differences caused by raising children. I will go into this topic in another post :)
12. Parental divorce (or failure to marry) appears to increase children’s risk of school failure. – These kids are more likely to have lower grades, more likely to be held back, and more likely to drop out of high school. The absence of a father actually affects African American children’s performance in school more than whites.
13. Parental divorce reduces the likelihood that children will graduate from college and achieve high-status jobs. – Children of divorced parents have lower occupational status and earnings and have increased rates of unemployment and economic hardship. Less likely to attend and graduate from college, even after controlling from family background and academic achievements.
Effects on Physical Health and Longevity
14. Children who live with their own two married parents enjoy better physical health, on average, than do children in other family forms. – Studies show that children of married parents live longer (4 years longer) even after controlling for childhood health status and family background, as well as personality characteristics such as impulsiveness and emotional instability.
15. Parental marriage is associated with a sharply lower risk of infant mortality. – On average, having an unmarried mother is associated with an approx. 50% increased in the risk of infant mortality.
16. Marriage is associated with reduced rates of alcohol and substance abuse for both adults and teens. –Not only that but teens who parents stay married are also the least likely to experiment with tobacco or alcohol. Pathways involved that lead to this are likely increased family stress, reduced parental monitoring, and weakened attachment to parents.
17. Married people, especially married men, have longer life expectancies than do otherwise similar singles. – Marriage can increase you life expectancy by about as much as not smoking can. Where are those public service announcements?
18. Marriage is associated with better health and lower rates of injury, illness, and disability for both men and women. -Married people manage illness better, monitor each other’s health, have higher incomes and wealth, and adopt healthier lifestyles that do otherwise similar singles. These health effects of marriage vary by martial quality, especially for women (not so much for men). Marriages need to be of high-quality in order to get the health benefits.
19. Marriage seems to be associated with better health among minorities and the poor.
Effects on Mental Health and Emotional Well-Being
20. Children whose parents divorce have higher rates of psychological distress and mental illness. – “Divorce typically causes children considerable emotional distress and doubles the risk that they will experience psychological problems later in life.” Seeing your parents break up can be nothing short of traumatic and foundation shaking, so this is understandable. Children of divorce are at a higher risk for depression. This however did not appear to be correlated to a consequence of some underlying genetic predisposition towards psychological difficulty that the parents and kids share, its situational. Twin studies to prove this. High-conflict marriages were conflict is high and sustained, children were shown to benefit from divorce, but not from “low-conflict” (2/3 of divorces in America are low conflict).
21. Divorce appears to increase significantly the risk of suicide. – Both men and women are twice as likely as their married counterparts to attempt suicide. Sad :(
22. Married mothers have lower rates of depression than do single or cohabiting mothers. – Single mothers can be depressed due to burdens of child rearing alone, whereas cohabiting mothers have less confidence that their relationship will last. [41% of single white 18-19yr old single mothers reported depressive symptoms compared to 28% of their married counterparts.] Longitudinal studies also shows that marriage boosts mental and emotional well-being for both men and women. Focus on maternal depressions here because it is a mental health issue and risk for the children.
23. Boys raised in single-parents families are more likely to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior. – Even after controlling for factors such as race, mom’s education, neighborhood quality, etc, one study found that boys raised in single parents homes are twice as likely to commit a crime that leads to incarceration by their 30’s.
24. Marriage appears to reduce the risk that adults will be either perpetrators or victims of crime. – Single and divorced women are 4 to 5 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than married women, are TEN TIMES more likely to be raped, and 3 times more likely to be victims of aggravated assault. Marriage also reduced male criminality.
25. Married women appear to have a lower risk of experiencing domestic violence than do cohabiting or dating women. –Does NOT mean marriage can reform men. Selection effects are big here since women are less likely to marry and more likely to divorce violent men.
26. A child who is not living with his or her own two married parents is at a great risk for child abuse. – You see this repeatedly in studies, mostly because these children have contact with people who are not their biological parents and do not have their best interests at heart. “One study shows that although boyfriends contribute less than 2% of non-parental childcare, they commit half of all reported child abuse by non-parents.” Also, “young children in step-families are more than 50 times more likely to be murdered by a stepparent than by a bio parent, 40 times more likely to be sexually abused.”
Ok, so there is SO much more to this topic but I had to condense it and leave some stuff out since this post is getting ridiculously long. Please ask for clarification where you think I could have put more and let me know if you would like any topics expanded!
2. S.M Stanley, H.J. Markman, and S. Whitton, 2004. “Maybe I Do: Interpersonal Commitment Levels and Premarital or Non-Marital Cohabitation.”
Susan L. Brown, 2005. “How Cohabitation is Reshaping American Families,” Contexts 4 (3): 33-37
Wendy D. Manning and Pamela J. Smock, 2002. “First Comes Cohabitation, Then Comes Marriage?” Journal of Family Issues 23: 1065-1087.
….I got lazy and stopped referencing too. Let me know if you’d like to look something up!