When I was a young man, the “Counterculture” informed me and all of my cohorts, both male and female, that marriage was “just a piece of paper” and that no such piece of paper could improve one’s relationship with the opposite sex. Marriage was an absurd irrelevancy, the product of an uncomprehending and pitifully unhip Past. Like so much about the Counterculture, that proved to be false. The notion was more about sending a message to straight society than getting facts right.
For whatever reason, that message has persisted in this culture. Marriage rates are either declining or people are getting married later, so data on marriage among those under the age of, say, 35, are far below what they used to be. In any case, young adults are postponing marriage till much later than previously and to some extent, aren’t marrying at all.
We’ve known for decades that the Counterculture message was false and nothing has intervened to suggest otherwise. So this reportfrom the Institute for Family Studies comes as no surprise (IFS, 2/7/19). Put simply, what married and cohabiting adults report is that marital relationships tend strongly to be happier, more stable and more strongly committed than cohabiting ones. A recent study of 2,000 American adults supports those conclusions.
As to happiness,
In the survey, married adults were more likely to report being “very happy” in their relationship, even after controlling for education, relationship duration, and age.1 In fact, after adjusting for these variables, the married women had a 54% likelihood of being in the highest relationship satisfaction group and married men had a 49% likelihood. For cohabiting women and men, those likelihoods were 40% and 35%, respectively. These group disparities are statistically different.(My guess is that that last word should be “significant.”)
And married couples reported greater levels of commitment to their relationship.
Overall, 46% of married adults were in the top relationship commitment group, compared to slightly over 30% of cohabiting adults (commitment was defined using three items that measured the extent to which individuals valued their relationship and wanted it to continue). Figure 3 below shows that even after adjusting for different life circumstances, married women and men were more likely to report the highest levels of commitment compared to cohabiting individuals. Again, these are statistically significant differences.Finally, marriages tend to outlast cohabitative relationships.
Overall, 54% of married adults in the survey were in the top perceived relationship stability group, vs. 28% of cohabiting adults (this top category was defined as how likely respondents were to say they thought their relationship would continue). Figure 4 shows the differences after adjusting for age, education, and relationship duration. The differences that remain are statistically significant.Of course some part of the differences between married and cohabiting couples may be a product of selection bias. People more capable of commitment, happiness in relationships, etc. may tend to marry while those less so tend to live together without that piece of paper. But the fact that these and similar findings have arisen time and again in study after study, plus the fact that they hold true across all lines of race, class, education, etc. strongly suggest that selection bias accounts for only a small part of the differences between married and unmarried couples.
All of this of course militates in favor of a cultural/societal commitment to marriage. If we were smart, we’d promote marriage at every opportunity. We’d point out the facts the research has always demonstrated. But we don’t. Indeed, we do the opposite; we discourage marriage and encourage divorce. How smart is that?
We announce loudly and clearly to men that marriage is a minefield. Any man who knows the facts knows that his wife can chuck him aside at any time for any reason or no reason. When she does, she gets over half of what he’s worked to accumulate and a significant stream of income called child and spousal support often for decades into the future. Did he commit strongly to his children? Did he enthusiastically embrace his role as Dad? Did he find his most powerful sense of self-worth in that role? Too bad. The court handed the children to her and he’s lucky if he gets to see them 25% of the time.
Why would a man marry under such circumstances?
Once married, if a woman finds her husband not to her liking, we offer her cash rewards for leaving him, plus the promise that, if she does so, she won’t lose her relationship with her children.
So why remain married when divorce is in many ways preferable?
Married relationships are best for the individuals in them and for society generally. So you’d think we’d reform our laws, practices and public messages to promote marriage. Instead we do much to destroy the institution that’s the backbone of any healthy society.
Such is public policy – self-destructive and contrary to known science. Make sense?