A review of Marriage, Health and the Professions. Edited by John Wall, et. al.

Eerdmans, 2002.

What are the social, legal, medical and psychological implications of the fact that marriage is good for you? This collection of essays seeks to answer that question.

The social sciences have make it quite clear that marriage confers a number of benefits on those who partake of it. Married people live longer, healthier and fuller lives than those who do not marry. How are the various professions, such as law, medicine and therapy, to respond to these facts?

A number of family experts, theologians, and social scientists here address these questions. The professions, they argue, have tended not to discuss such issues because marriage is often viewed as a strictly private and personal affair. But as we begin to understand the public nature of the institutions of marriage and family, the professions need to look more closely at some of the new findings concerning marriage.

For example, if marriage is indeed good for couples, good for children, and good for society, how should family law reconsider its role? What changes might business leaders make in the light of the new research? How should governments respond to the findings of the social sciences?

The 14 chapters in this book address these issues, and explore a number of related themes. The result is a new examination of marriage and its importance, especially in its social and public setting.

Several of the chapters alone are worth the price of the book. The chapter by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead on “The Personal and Social Costs of Divorce” is a very fine summary of what the social sciences have been discovering over the past few decades. Their concluding remarks are worth repeating:

“It is clear that children are hurt by divorce, often seriously and much more than many adults seem to believe. And high rates of divorce create a social climate in which the kinds of intact families most likely to help children thrive are in ever shorter supply. Through its gradual corruption of a strong culture of marriage, childbearing, and child rearing, divorce may have negative consequences for society far greater than we now realize.”

Equally important is the article, “The Health Benefits of Marriage” by Linda Waite. She provides a helpful overview of the available evidence which tells us that married people do indeed live longer, healthier and happier lives than do non-marrieds. Singleness, cohabitation and other relationships simply do not compare with that of marriage.

The implications of these truths are spelled out in the remainder of the book. Legal changes, for example, seem to be in order if it is true that easy divorce has such bad ramifications for children, adults and the broader community. A return to some kind of concept of fault in divorce laws is one possibility. Covenant marriage is another. But societies must make marriage more secure while making divorce more difficult.

Likewise, in education we need to do more to spread the message that marriage is a valuable social good, as well as a benefit to individuals. And the negative impact of divorce also needs to be made known. Just as society has cut down smoking, drink driving and other harmful behaviours by education campaigns, such an approach is needed here as well.

In the same vein, counselors and therapists need to reassess their approach to marital difficulties. Instead of simply blessing a quick divorce, more work needs to be done on getting couples to work through their difficulties, and reinforcing the ideal of marriage. And marriage educators need to restore the social dimension of marriage, instead of treating it in such a highly individualised manner. Marriage is much more than a private, individual affair, and this needs to be kept at the forefront of any counselling.

Indeed, on every front we need to affirm the goodness and usefulness of marriage and family, while pointing out the negative results of divorce and family breakdown. Individuals and societies both need to hear this message.

As John Witte concludes in his article on the goods and goals of marriage: “Stable marriages and families are essential to the survival, flourishing, and happiness of the greater commonwealths of church, state, and civil society. And a breakdown of marriage and the family will eventually have devastating consequences on these larger social institutions.”

We now know this truth conclusively, with a wealth of social science research to back it up. The next step is to act accordingly. This book helps us to do just that.

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