A review of The Case for Marriage. By Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher.

Doubleday 2000.

For quite a few years now research findings have demonstrated the truth that marriage has positive effects on those who partake of it. Indeed, so much research on this subject exists that about six years ago I wrote an article called “The Case for Marriage” in which I summarised the available data. In this new book the massive amount of data on the benefits of marriage is collected and brought up to date. What emerges is a comprehensive and intriguing look at the importance of marriage.

The authors summarise the data from the social sciences in this fashion: “The evidence is in, at least for the ways in which marriage is practiced today: Both men and women gain a great deal from marriage. True, marriage does not affect men and women in exactly the same way. Both men and women live longer, healthier, and wealthier lives when married, but husbands typically get greater health benefits from marriage than do wives. On the other hand, while both men and women get bigger bank accounts and a higher standard of living in marriage, wives reap even greater financial benefits than do husbands. Overall, the portrait of marriage that emerges from two generations of increasingly sophisticated empirical research on actual husbands and wives is not one of gender bias, but gender balance: A good marriage enlarges and enriches the lives of both men and women.”

A few examples (of many) can be noted: Unmarried people (be they widowed, divorced or single) are far more likely to die from all causes of death, including cancer, coronary heart disease, stroke and pneumonia. Married men are only half as likely as bachelors, and about one-third as likely as divorced men to take their own lives. Married people consistently report less depression, less anxiety and lower levels of other types of psychological distress than unmarrieds (of whatever variety). Married couples are far less likely to slip into poverty than are single people.

What about cohabitation? Isn’t it the functional equivalent of marriage? The evidence clearly suggests not: “On average, cohabiting couples are less sexually faithful, lead less settled lives, are less likely to have children, are more likely to be violent, make less money, and are less happy – and less committed – than married couples.”

The authors also argue that children benefit from marriage as well. Once again, the evidence is overwhelming: “Children raised in single-parent households are, on average, more likely to be poor, to have health problems and psychological disorders, to commit crimes and exhibit other conduct disorders, have somewhat poorer relationships with both families and peers, and as adults eventually get fewer years of education and enjoy less stable marriages and lower occupational statuses than children whose parents got and stayed married. This ‘marriage gap’ in children’s well-being remains true even after researchers control for important family characteristics, including parents’ race, income , and socioeconomic status”.

If marriage is so good for adults (let alone children), what, if any, public policy implications arise? The authors rightly argue that marriage is not just a personal affair, but is a public act and a social institution. As such it needs social support: “Because marriage is not merely a private, emotional relationship, strengthening marriage requires more than private, emotional efforts.”

Waite and Gallagher offer nine steps to rebuild a culture of marriage and to resist the encroaching culture of divorce. These include the creation of a tax and welfare policy that is pro-marriage, reform of no-fault divorce laws, restoration of the special legal status of marriage (no gay marriage eg.), and discouragement of unmarried pregnancy and childbearing.

Such proposals will not go down well with libertarians, feminists and other detractors of marriage, but they will do much to protect our children, strengthen our societies, and improve adult well-being.

For over three decades now the institution of marriage has come under sustained and severe attack. If the evidence presented in this book is at all accurate, then the guns should be redirected – it is the culture of divorce that needs to be assailed.

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