Stronger Marriage

5 Marriage Myths, 6 Marriage Benefits

by Linda J. Waite

 

Linda Waite is a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. This is an edited version of her remarks delivered on 14 November 2000 at Brigham Young University. Dr. Waite had recently published a book titled The Case for Marriage (Doubleday, 2000) with co-author Dr. Maggie Gallagher of the Institute for American Values.

. . . The book [The Case for Marriage] began more than five years ago as a study that I was doing for the National Institutes of Health with Lee Lillard, an economist now at the University of Michigan. We studied the relationship between marital status and mortality-the chance that someone will die. We used a large national survey and followed people over eighteen years. Some started out unmarried, and got married, and then got divorced. We could look at how the risk of dying changed for that same person when he or she was became married or unmarried.

What we found was dramatic. We found, to summarize briefly, that married men and married women are much less likely to die than otherwise comparable unmarried men and women. Our results implied that in a group of one hundred 48-year-old men, about sixty-five of them would be alive at age 65 if they were unmarried. In the same group of one hundred men, almost ninety would be alive at age 65 if they were married. For married women, we found the same gap, but smaller. So for unmarried women about eighty of one hundred would be alive, and for married women about ninety of one hundred would be alive at age 65. For both men and women, there were large, consistent effects after taking into account all the other characteristics of the individual.

This being an academic project, I had to figure out what was going on-why married people were less likely to die. I found a lot of literature on health and health behaviors suggesting that married people were less likely to die in part because married people live healthier lives. At about that time I gave a presidential address for the American Population Association in which I looked at some of my own and others' work about marriage. I think scholars working in many areas knew, in the little areas they worked on, that married people were better off, but nobody had put it together. I stepped back and had one of those "Voila!" moments; you know, where the bell rings and says, "Look, there's something big here." It's much bigger than the little things that we scholars tend to focus on, and I wanted to take these often obscure research results to the general public. The federal government had funded almost all of our research, and I think that taxpayers almost never get anything back directly. Therefore, this was a story that I felt obligated to tell.

I also knew, because I've been trained as an academic, that my writing skills, if they'd ever been fabulous, had been distorted and perverted by my graduate training. I could only speak in jargon, so I probably wasn't the person to do all the writing. I joined forces with a writer, a nationally syndicated columnist, Maggie Gallagher, and together we wrote The Case for Marriage, which brings these research results and our interpretation of them to the general public.

What I want to do now is to tell you about five myths concerning marriage that are common in American culture and to tell you why they're all wrong. First I'll just run through the myths and then I'll demolish them.

The first myth is that divorce is usually the best answer for children when their parents' marriage becomes unhappy. When you ask people in attitude surveys like the General Social Survey, "How much do you agree with the following statement: When a couple is unhappy, divorce is often the best solution even if they have young children," about 70 percent of the American public says they agree or strongly agree with that statement. It's become almost a moral imperative to divorce if you're unhappy, and as we'll see, there's something wrong with this picture.

The second myth is that marriage is mostly about children-if you don't have kids it doesn't matter if you marry, stay single, or cohabit.

The third myth, which I hear all the time, is, "Isn't marriage good for men and bad for women?" I'll tell you where that myth arose and why it probably never was right, and why it certainly isn't true now.

The fourth myth is that promoting marriage and marital obligation puts women at risk for domestic violence. In fact, the first objection I heard to the Population Association talk was "What about domestic violence?" In the book I did analyses on domestic violence and I can show you that this myth is wrong, too.

The fifth myth is that marriage is essentially a private matter-just between the two people involved; that it's an affair of the heart between two adults and that no outsider, not even the children of the marriage, should be allowed to affect or interfere with it.

Some of the research I did for The Case for Marriage shows that in many cases, staying together is the best solution if the marriage becomes unhappy. I used the National Survey of Families and Households to gather data. Thirteen thousand adults were interviewed in late 1980s and again five years later.

At the first interview, one of the questions asked was how they would rate their marriage on a scale of one to seven, "one" being just awful and "seven" being fabulous. I analyzed the people who had rated their marriages as bad in a couple of different ways. First, I looked at those who said, "On a one-to-seven scale, my marriage is a one." I then found the data for almost all those who had said their marriages were awful and looked at the same question when they were interviewed again, five years later. I found that only about 10 percent of the people who had said that their marriages were terrible had divorced. The vast majority had stayed together. Of those who said in 1987 that their marriages were awful, 87 percent said five years later that their marriages were either pretty good or very good, either a "six" or "seven."

I did the same analysis looking at people who said "one," "two," or "three"-anything bad-in 1987, and five years later, three-fifths of them were in the top two categories in marital satisfaction. We don't know if they got therapy, but most of them probably didn't. Most of the marriages that were bad became much better. I think in a lot of cases when marriages are unhappy it's sort of a bad patch, and it doesn't last. One reason divorce is relatively high in our society is because now either person can leave, and we are more willing to leave than we used to be if we hit a bad patch. We're less likely to work it through. But there's evidence that dramatic turnarounds are commonplace. They're the typical experience.

Even in 1972 she found, as everyone else had, that married women were happier than single women. She reported the findings for men in the text of the book and reported the findings for women in the appendix. She discounted the positive results for married women with reasoning that, "Well, women are happy only because they are meeting a socially valued goal [marriage]. So, they're just doing what they're told. And that's why they're saying they're happy. But in fact, their psychiatric symptoms are at such a high level that we have to think they are just deluding themselves." She asserts in the book that some societies bind girls' feet, but in our society, we bind girls' psyches, and marriage actually makes women crazy.

She did no original research for the book and there were critiques when it was published, but the book and her message that marriage was bad for women came at a time when the women's movement was just beginning. Politically it caught a wave and entered the general culture as accepted wisdom. You still see her ideas in marriage textbooks, as if they were established fact-the earth is round and marriage is bad for women. I don't think the case for that conclusion was ever good.

In the meantime we've developed much better measures of psychological well-being and much better analytic measures. The world has changed in ways that have made marriage different for women than it used to be. The most recent research, which again uses the National Survey of Families and Households, looks at measures of emotional well-being when people were interviewed in the late 1980s. It follows them over the next five years and uses the same measures of emotional well-being again. During that period some of the people stayed married, some got married, some got divorced, some stayed divorced, some got married, divorced, and remarried, some became widowed-you can compare changes in emotional well-being, because you have the same measures for people in these different groups.

This research shows that if you take people who were married the whole time as the comparison group-the baseline-then all the others basically do worse on almost all nine measures of emotional well-being. The sole exception is people who got married for the first time-they did better. What is really interesting is they found no differences between men and women on any of the measures. For both men and women, the married did the best and everyone else did worse, except those who got married for the first time.

What's also interesting is there's an argument in the literature that divorced people are often upset, unhappy, and emotionally troubled because divorce is a strain. But, according to this argument, once you get through that transition, basically you're fine. It's just the transition that's tough. In fact, what they've found is that those people who were divorced during the five years from one interview to the other did substantially worse than the married people. So being in the transition created by divorce wasn't a risk factor for poor emotional well-being, but being divorced, possibly several years after the transition phase, was related to poor emotional well-being when compared to that of married people.

Jessie Bernard's conclusion that marriage is good for men and bad for women was based only on psychological well-being, but we've taken that message and applied it, or thought it applied, to marriage more generally. There was never evidence on any other dimension that marriage was a good deal for men and a bad deal for women, and there are lots of other dimensions to consider.

What's interesting is that the rates of interpersonal violence are also lower for married men. The same things that put people at risk for violence generally put people at risk for intimate violence-being poor, being poorly educated, being relatively young, being black, and being unmarried. Again, the National Survey of Families and Households asks people the extent to which arguments between them during the last year had become physical. And then, if they had become physical, whether one partner had hit, kicked, or shoved the other partner. And then, if that had happened, who had done it. "Did you kick?" "Did your partner kick?" Given that you know the gender of the respondent you can figure out male-to-female violence and female-to-male violence.

I looked at rates of violence for married couples and for cohabiting couples taking into account their characteristics-how old they were, how long they'd been together, their education, and their race. I found that for married couples, rates of domestic violence male-to-female are about the same as female-to-male. Therefore, when couples are violent, generally both are violent. Women are as likely to initiate violence as men are.

Now that's only part of the story because obviously the size difference means that if someone is seriously hurt, it's generally the woman. And this ignores serious violence of the kind that sends people to shelters and emergency rooms-which is almost exclusively man-against-woman. In addition, the proportion of people who said there had been violence in their relationship was about twice as high for cohabiting couples compared to married couples, and with cohabiting couples the male-to-female violence was higher.

The literature argues that there are different types of cohabiting couples, one being the engaged couples who are just waiting for their hall to be rented (e.g., they rented the hall for October and it's March), but on lots of dimensions they look very much like already-married couples. Then there are what I call the uncommitted cohabiters, who have no plans to marry and who look, on almost every outcome we can measure, worse. In looking at domestic violence I found that, although levels of domestic violence were lower for engaged cohabiting couples, they were still much higher than for married couples. So, if you had to make an argument against domestic violence, you'd say either never have a relationship with a man if you're a woman, and never have a relationship with a woman if you're a man, or you're better off married. If you're going to have a boyfriend, an ex-boyfriend, a husband, an ex-husband-someone you live with-you're better off to be married to that person. The argument is that when you get married, you become socially connected to a whole set of people who have an incentive to help you reduce violence. You have your wife's brothers, you have the people at work, and that actually helps-it inhibits violence in married couples. Also, because married couples have more to lose if the relationship ends, their commitment to the relationship reduces violence.

Married people produce more so they have more. But, and this is a really important point in my view, the specialization does not have to be a traditional, gender-traditional, specialization. I'm not saying that women should only work in the home and men should only work in the market, and that men should never diaper a baby and that women should never earn any money. How you specialize is not so important. You pick some things and the other person picks some things and you

I haven't talked about sex-the sex part of my book is work that I did using a large study of sexual behavior done at the University of Chicago; it was on the cover of Time magazine in about 1994. I looked at sexual satisfaction for married, cohabiting, and sexually active single couples. I took into account their other characteristics, attitudes, sexual practices, how long they had been together, health, whether they had kids, education, and how religious they were.

What I found was that both married men and married women reported higher emotional satisfaction with sex than otherwise comparable cohabiting men and women. Among the sexually active singles, the only people who reported the same high levels of satisfaction were people who expected to be with their partner for the rest of their lives-the engaged singles. Something about being married, especially for women, increased their emotional satisfaction with sex. I would argue that marriage changes women's sexual behavior for the better-certainly toward more sexual exclusivity.

Assume that you accept my argument, that you buy my case for marriage, that married people are healthier, they live longer lives, and they're happier. But popular culture or American society believes these erroneous myths, which are unsupported by research-what do we do? What I did was write this book to get the evidence out to the general public. But I think we need to start a conversation about marriage. In Washington, D.C., people in the marriage movement talk about marriage as the "M word." Listen to politicians talk about marriage. They say family values. They rarely-I would say never-say, "We need to support marriage." I think we have to talk about marriage. It's not the same as any other family arrangement. It doesn't bring the same benefits. Pretending that it does is not doing anyone a service. I'm not making a moral argument; I'm making a public health argument-what's good for you. It's not the only argument you can make, but it's a powerful argument. We have to talk about marriage. We have to talk about it as an important institution, and hope that as a result of that conversation people will become more aware of the benefits of marriage. So, can I count on you to spread the message? Thank you.

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