In a recent report from the National Marriage Project, scholars David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead wrote, “Marriage is a fundamental social institution. It is central to the nurture and raising of children. It is the ‘social glue’ that reliably attaches fathers to children. It contributes to the physical, emotional and economic health of men, women and children, and thus to the nation as a whole. It is also one of the most highly prized of all human relationships and a central life goal of most Americans.”
Most Americans, according to a recent study, say that having a happy marriage is either the most important or a very important goal in their lives. Yet Americans are becoming less likely to marry, and the chance a marriage will end in divorce is between 40% and 50%. Scholars Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher describe this state of affairs as a “postmarriage” culture. More and more people simply don’t believe marriage is necessary anymore. More than half of all marriages are preceded by cohabitation, and a majority of young people believe living together is a good idea.
In response to these prevailing trends, Waite and Gallagher recently (2000) published a groundbreaking book titled The Case for Marriage. The book summarizes the benefits of marriage for couples, children, and society. Affirming these benefits in our own marriages and communities is one of the best ways we can strengthen the family as an institution.
Benefits of Marriage
Scholars have found that marriage tends to improve the way people think about themselves, their spouse, others, and the future. Husbands and wives do unselfish things for each other and for their families that they would be less likely to do alone. Individuals who are married find they develop more of their whole selves. Marriage and the home can be a safe place away from the pressures of society, a place where two people committed to one another can come to understand their partner deeply and fulfill their roles most completely.
Study after study has consistently shown that married people across cultures have better health than unmarried people. For example:
- Less alcoholism. Married men have lower rates of alcoholism than their unmarried counterparts. Researchers believe that wives offer encouragement, support, and protection from daily problems that could otherwise lead men to using alcohol. When married men do become alcoholics, they show higher recovery rates than unmarried men.
- Less suicide. Numerous studies have found that married men and women have lower suicide rates than unmarried men and women, probably because married people have a larger social network of friends and relatives. Meaningful relationships give people a sense of personal value and a feeling of responsibility to others, both of which lessen the likelihood they will commit suicide.
- Less illness, accidents, and murder. Married people are less likely to die from all causes, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, car accidents, and murder. They spend less time in hospitals and have higher recovery rates. Evidence even exists that social support boosts the immune system, making married people less likely to catch a cold.
One of the most consistent findings in the study of psychiatric diseases is that married people enjoy better mental health than the unmarried. For example:
- Less mental illness. Married men and women have the lowest rates of depression compared to the unmarried. They also have the lowest rates of schizophrenia.
- Less stress. Studies show that married men and women tend to handle stress and anxiety better. Having a spouse who depends on you can be powerful motivation to do well in work and to persevere through stressful situations. Spouses provide emotional support and encouragement for each other, and they help balance life.
- Less loneliness. Married persons have someone to share their thoughts, feelings, and lives with, and thus they are less likely to feel lonely.
- Better psychological well-being. Married persons are more likely to report feeling hopeful, happy, and good about themselves.
Sexual Benefits of Marriage
Physical intimacy in marriage is a symbol of total commitment to and love for a spouse. Marriage offers the most secure, rewarding, and emotionally safe context for sharing physical intimacy. Research has found that faithful married couples are more satisfied with their sex lives than any other group. They have sex more often and enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally, than singles. Married couples are also more satisfied than cohabiting couples.
Married couples have higher incomes than single men and women. In fact, marriage actually helps men earn more money. As a marriage endures, a man’s commitment to work and his prestige in his career continue to increase. On average, marriage increases income by about $1,800 for every year of marriage.
Because married couples have an obligation to others, they tend to be more financially responsible and are more likely to save money. They also have the opportunity to combine their strengths. For example, a husband who is skilled at fixing things can save a family a great deal of money, as can a wife who is skilled at managing money. When marriage partners pool their resources, both people benefit.
The Harm of Divorce
Sadly, between 40% and 50% of all marriages today end in divorce. Legal changes have made divorce easier, and the stigma of divorce has largely disappeared. Divorce can be a downward spiral that is not easily broken; research shows that children of divorced parents are more likely to get divorced themselves.
One common myth about divorce is that children are better off when parents in conflict separate. This is not necessarily true. Only children whose parents have very high conflict experience relief when their parents divorce. Research shows that less than 30% of divorces end these high-conflict marriages. A small minority of divorces benefit children. Most divorces leave children worse off.
Children thrive when they have two parents, as long as the parents are not in high conflict every day. Many people don’t realize that bad marriages can improve with time and effort. In fact, most marriages get better over time; permanent unhappiness is very rare. One study found that 86% of couples who stayed together despite difficulties reported being much happier five years after the troubled period.
Benefits of Marriage for Children
Children who live with their married, biological parents enjoy many advantages over children who live with a single parent or with a remarried parent. Advantages include:
- Better academic performance. Children living with two parents perform better in school and are less likely to drop out. They have higher test scores and grade point averages and are more likely to go to college. Later in life, they have better jobs, higher incomes, and lower unemployment rates.
- Less criminal behavior. Neighborhoods with a majority of single parents (usually mothers), have higher crime rates than neighborhoods with two-parent families, probably because fathers are more able to manage and control boys’ behavior. Children of married parents are less likely to turn to gangs and crime for social support than children of single parents.
- Less premarital sex. One study found that girls from two-parent homes are less likely to experiment with premarital sex than girls from single-parent homes.
- Stronger parent-child emotional bonds. Emotional ties between parents and children are stronger in married homes. Adult children raised by both a mother and father rate their relationship with their parents higher than those from divorced or unwed families. A healthy parent-child bond helps children work hard, follow rules, and stay out of trouble.
- Better physical and emotional health. Even a child’s physical and emotional health benefit from living with both parents. Married homes can provide more supervision, which prevents accidents. Children in two-parent homes avoid the sadness, tension, anxiety, depression, and disruptive behavior that many children of divorced parents experience.
- Less abuse. Children living with both biological parents are at lower risk for being abused. Stepfathers and boyfriends abuse children at far higher rates than biological fathers. Research has shown that without the biological tie between father and child, men are more likely to take out their aggression on children.
- Less poverty. Children of two-parent families are largely protected from poverty and the many disadvantages that it brings, such as high levels of stress, poor health, low academic achievement, and a weak social support system.
Costs of Divorce to Society
As more marriages fall apart, communities become weaker. Every member of society– married or not and parent or not–carries the burdens of divorce. These burdens include higher crime rates, higher poverty rates, more welfare, less education, and more public health care. When individuals, couples, and communities support marriage, these burdens can be lessened.
Researchers Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher suggest several ways individuals and communities can support and strengthen marriage:
- Get the message out about marriage. Citizens everywhere have the responsibility to let others know that marriage matters. Divorce is damaging too many families. As a citizen you can speak out about strong marriages as a public health issue. Every couple can support the case for marriage by strengthening their own marriage. If you know of others who are struggling, listen to them, encourage them, and do all you can to help. Help them understand that their marriage is worth fighting for.
- Get the facts. Part of getting the word out is getting the facts right, which requires accurate information. Unfortunately, government agencies tend to put a low priority on collecting data about marriage. Without data, researchers can’t assess and understand what is happening to families. As a citizen, encourage both federal and state governments to put a greater emphasis on collecting information about marriage and divorce.
- Create pro-marriage tax and welfare policies. Changes are needed in the federal tax code and welfare policies to better support marriage. Some policy changes that could be considered include eliminating marriage penalties in the tax code, increasing the new child credit so that it accurately reflects expenses, and structuring child-care benefits so they don’t punish those who choose home care over day care.
- Change laws to strengthen marriage. Making it more difficult to get a divorce (such as increasing the waiting period for no-fault divorces) would affirm the importance of the marriage commitment. States could follow the innovative example of Florida. In Florida, couples seeking to marry pay reduced marriage license fees, and high school students are required to complete a course in marriage and relationship skills.
- Enlist religious and community support. Most marriage ceremonies occur in churches, providing an opportunity for clergy and congregations to require marriage preparation.
- Scrutinize policies for unintended anti-marriage consequences. When drafting policies, all organizations should consider the effects on marriage. For example, under current federal healthcare policy, if an indigent single woman becomes pregnant, Medicaid will help cover costs. But if the woman gets married, both she and her husband become ineligible for Medicaid and other insurances, providing an incentive to postpone marriage.
- Discourage unmarried pregnancy and childbearing. Speak out against media, magazines, and sports figures that glorify unmarried pregnancy and childbearing.
- Rethink domestic-partnership legislation. Extending marriage benefits to cohabiting couples sends a message that cohabitation is equivalent to marriage. This message is dangerously false. On average, cohabiting couples are less faithful, less settled in their lives, more likely to be violent, less committed, and less happy than married couples. Giving the benefits of marriage to those who refuse to take on the responsibilities of marriage is unfair and unwise.
The following resources offer additional ways you can help make the case for marriage in your community.
The Case for Marriage (2000), by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher.
The National Marriage Project
Should We Live Together: What Young Adults Need to Know About Cohabitation Before Marriage, by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead
Does Divorce Make People Happy? Findings From a Study of Unhappy Marriages, by Linda Waite, Don Browning, William J. Doherty, Maggie Gallagher, Ye Luo, and Scott M. Stanley
The Top Ten Myths of Marriage, by David Popenoe
Restoring a Culture of Marriage: Good News for Policymakers from the Fragile Families Survey, by Patrick Fagan
Encouraging Marriage and Discouraging Divorce, by Patrick Fagan
The Positive Effects of Marriage: A Book of Charts, by Patrick Fagan, Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson, and America Peterson
The Effect of Marriage on Child Poverty, by Robert Rector, Kirk Johnson, and Patrick Fagan
Written by Jennifer Crockett and Marisa Beebe, Research Assistants, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
Making the Case for Marriage comes from the website, Forever Families.
Waite, L. J., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The case for marriage. New York: Doubleday.