The Case for Marriage

I’ve enjoyed a book by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher called The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.

This book is, in large measure, a response to earlier research done by sociologists and family scientists, like Jesse Bernard, that wrote influential books “proving” that marriage was good for men and bad for women.

It makes an interesting read to see how one set of “evidence” that seems so overwhelming suddenly appears to be dicey at best and dangerously wrong at worst through a simple re-slice and reapplication of the same set of data. It is things like this have gone a long way towards convincing me that we know so much less than we think we do.

But what I found the most interesting was their carefully thought out definition of marriage and their well expressed concerns with our ongoing attempts to redefine marriage out of existence.

Marriage does not have one historical definition to be sure, and I think we can all admit that the victorian idea of marriage as the only sexual relationship for which you can’t be put in jail is gone for good. Waite and Gallagher waste no time on such a notion of marraige and instead strive for a modern workable definition of marriage that does not exclude other types of lifestyle, such as cohabitation, from the public discourse. Waite and Gallagher make a strong case that if marriage is accepted as a distinctive type of relationship that this does not invalidate the other types and will even enhance them by making them more distinct and allowing greater options.

And what is marraige? A good portion of the book is written to fight against what they see as the myth that “Marriage is essentially a private matter, an affair of the heart between two adults, in which no outsider… should be allowed to interfere.”

As sociologist Andrew Cherlin put it, married folks “are more likely today than in the past to evaluate their marriage primarily according to how well it satisfies their individual emotional needs. If their evaluation of these terms is unfavorable, they are likely to turn to divorce.” Psychologists, in particular, have played a key role in persuading Americans that marriage is primarily for and about adult happiness. Deconstructing the idea that marriage has other stakeholders besides the spouses, many argued instead that it is the parents who fail to divorce who are derelict in their duties to their kids.

Even lawmakers, judges, and policy analysts have begun to view marriage as part of a continuum of commitment rather than a distinct and distinctive relationship. Cities, courts, and corporations have begun to extend the benefits of marriage to other kinds of couples deemed the “functional equivalent” of marriage, and even to describe special supports for marriage as a form of “discrimination” against the unmarried. [For real life application of this, see this link here.] In a series of U.S. Supreme court cases covering a variety of specific issues, the Court ruled that laws that take marital status into account violate the equal protection clause.

Because we view marriage as an inner emotion rather than an outer reality, we have a hard time conceiving that the state of being married, in and of itself, could enhance people’s lives. Marriage is a piece of paper – a marker perhaps of things that matter, such as more money or better education, but in and of itself neutral in it effects. So for many years, family scholars tried to pierce the veil of marital status to uncover the “true” explanations for why married people, and children raised by married parents, seemed so much better off and why, in particular, children raised outside of marriage faced so many additional burdens and struggles.

We’ll try to unlock the secret mechanism at work in the marital vow, to show you how and why marriage itself makes a difference. Equally important, we’ll show how marriage can work its miracle only if it is supported by the whole society. Marriage cannot thrive, and may not even survive, in a culture that views it as just another lifestyle option. So when people become afraid or reluctant to use the M-word or to base public or social support on the status of being married, marriage is indeed in trouble.

Waite’s and Gallagher’s premise is that marriage should never be privatized because then its exactly the same as cohabitation and thus it ceases to exist.  

Marriage is something else entirely. Marriage is a public relationship made through a public commitment.

For at the heart of the unacknowledged war on marriage is the attempt to demote marriage from a unique public commitment – supported by law, society, and custom – to a private relationship, terminable at will, which is nobody else’s business. This demotion is done in the name of choice, but as we shall see… reimagining marriage as a purely private relation doesn’t expand anyone’s choices. For what is ultimately takes away from individuals is marriage itself, the choice to enter that uniquely powerful and life-enhancing bond that is larger and more durable then the immediate, shifting feelings of two individuals. What you lose… in thinking about marriage in this newly privatized way, is no less than the marriage bargain itself.

To summarize Waite and Ghallager as succinctly as I can, they make the case that marriage is not a private matter between two adults (that’s what cohabitation is) but instead a public commitment made through a three way contract between the two spouses and the public. The public, represented by the government in the contract, is as much as stakeholder in the contract as the spouses. This is why a divorce can only be finalized with the government’s permission, for they are one of the contract holders.

This contract involves pledge value produced by the couple for society and vice versa. In this view of marriage, it is literally a contract, not a legal right.

Marriage is not only a private vow, it is a public act, a contract, taken in full public view, enforceable by law and in the equally powerful court of public opinion. When you marry, the public commitment you make changes the way you think about yourself and your beloved; it changes the way you act and think about the future; and it changes how other people and other institutions treat you as well.

The marriage contract is in one sense liberating: the security of a contract frees individuals to make long-term exchanges that leave each person better off. But any contract also necessarily constrains the parties involved: They are less “free” to break the terms of the contract. Marriage is no exception.



23 comments for “The Case for Marriage

  1. Just for Quix
    July 8, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    Thanks for putting this together, Bruce.

    I agree that marriage has public value. Yet do we treat it with value because it really has value, or because we’re sentimental or pious? If it has value now, does it have value always?

    This is where I think 1 Corinthians 7 — to borrow from it arising in Hawkgrrrl’s “Paul the Misogynist?” post — is illuminating. Here, Paul affirms that it is useful to bring order to sexual permissiveness, and that it shouldn’t be a factor to divide faith, nor should faith divide the marriage. Elsewhere Paul and Peter both speak of marriage where the man loves the wife as Christ loves the church, and likewise, a woman follows order in the marriage as men follow the order of Christ. These teachings show of the tremendous practical capacity marriage has to keep us focused on Christ, to learn in examples of applied love, to have fidelity for our faith in Christ just as we have fidelity for our spouse.

    But what I think is tremendously helpful is that Paul, In 1 Cor 7, doesn’t give the shaft to single persons (unmarried, widowed and never-married). He plainly teaches that we each have different gifts and God has different purposes for our lives. So if a person chooses or happens to become or remain single they can still have full fidelity, love and equality before Christ.

    In that culture, especially the Jewish and Jewish Christian culture, where it was considered necessary for men and women to be married to have societal, community and religious value, Paul revolutionized what it means to be in equality before God. Jesus taught very little on marriage, but what he did teach seems to indicate it had practical value more than privileged spiritual value or exaltation value. Where The Gospel broke down barriers between Jew and Gentile as both acceptable and worthy to receive Grace in Christ, so did Paul goes further to show the limits of societal institution of marriage, while valuable, practically and spiritually, was not a valid point of division within the Body and equality before our Lord.

    In an LDS culture where unmarried and never-married people often feel marginalized and secondary citizens in fulfilling their gifts in God and wholeness of their life, it would do well to reflect on what really makes us equal and acceptable before God. Maybe then, marriage can be seen as a useful institution — for preserving sexual fidelity, for bearing and raising children, for finding happiness — with those for whom it is meaningful. Marriage then, beyond value in secular society, becomes one spiritual and practical tool for a life in God, but not an institution by which to bludgeon and exclude those who are seeking the same practical benefits as do we married persons. And certainly nothing by which to reduce the unmarried to secondhand or ministering angel status.

  2. Ray
    July 8, 2008 at 2:40 pm

    Bruce, my first thought upon reading this summary was to ask if the authors followed their “social contract” argument with the suggestion to strengthen marriage by requiring more of an upfront commitment / preparation prior to marriage and a more draconian penalty for “breaking the contract”. Iow, based on their argument, I would think that it is the ease of divorce that is the primary threat, not necessarily an expansion of the possibility of marriage for those traditionally denied that terminology. Again, just based on this post, it appears that the authors would not oppose expanding marriage to include gay marriage – as long as there was an understanding that those unions also need to be focused on shared fulfillment (as a couple, as a community and perhaps even with adopted kids).

    Is that how the book reads?

    Please don’t read this as a statement of my own political stance. It is a serious question about how the authors would answer the question and struck me due to the recent discussions about CA’s situation. I don’t want this to devolve into just another gay marriage fight, but I really am interested in the way contract vs. form is handled in the book.

  3. Gerry Spence
    July 8, 2008 at 2:42 pm

    The original role of the government and the public in marriage was to enforce fidelity and the property rights that were largely awarded to male heirs of the father. The public had an interest where property could be transmitted without controversy.

    The role of government in marriage and divorce has served to complicate the relationships between the parties and courts provide a ready tool for vindictive behavior. This is the one reason I do not enjoy practicing family law: I can’t believe what anyone tells me.

    The traditional relationship began outside the church (usually on the steps because marriage didn’t belong in the church proper) with the exchange of consideration. It was a proper contract defined by the parties and controlled by the communities interest in property law.

    The only threat to marriage these days is the mindset of a consumer society where everything has a particular shelf life and is then thrown out. The best marriage is defined by the commitment of the parties. The threat to marriage is not definitions, it is fear of having the weight of the law used against you if you confess your commitment to the wrong person.

  4. July 8, 2008 at 3:41 pm

    Re #2, with care not to threadjack– gay marriage is just marriage. There is no difference in expectation or goal. We can pretty much drop the initial ‘gay’.

    It is my hope that the opportunity to marry, legally and securely, will someday be extended to me and my boyfriend, even though we are gay. This public commitment would be good for society as well as us personally. We do not ask that the Church change any of its doctrines, just that it let us live our lives with the commitment, dignity and security that everyone else has.

  5. Joe
    July 8, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    The problem with many of these arguments is that they confuse correlation with causation. At its simplest, does marriage tend to make people happy/healthy, or do happy/healthy people tend to get married?

    I tend to go with the latter, rather than the former.

    (I’m also quite dubious about claims that married couples are financially better off. Versus divorced people with alimony and/or child support, maybe, but otherwise I don’t believe it.)

  6. Just for Quix
    July 8, 2008 at 6:01 pm

    Joe (5): I like your reversal of the usual correlation/causation explanation. As for the financial benefits, a married couple with a home and children has tax advantages that single persons (or gay couple) likely don’t have. Of course, children cost money. And many of the financial advantages of sharing resources can be obtained through roommates or cohabitation. So I’m with you to be a little skeptical about the “better off financially” claims.

    Ray (2): I’m liking your line of inquiry . . .

    Gerry (3): “The best marriage is defined by the commitment of the parties. The threat to marriage is not definitions, it is fear of having the weight of the law used against you if you confess your commitment to the wrong person.” Agreed. Although I think the lack of commitment within traditional marriages is a greater threat to the institution still. Statisticians and marketers say, as a trend, the Millenials generation (sometimes called Y) are more suspicious of consumerist society than my generation (X) and are more eager to desire a committed relationship, kids, and a family time:work mix favoring more family time. Yet they fear commitment, hang out instead of pursuing formal dating, and mistrust institutions of marriage and religion. We see unaffiliated spiritual-religious and non-denominational Christian segments proportionally growing while most other segments are proportionally shrinking. I think the greatest threat is from within the status quo than from without — though I don’t dismiss healthy skepticism toward “new solutions.”

  7. July 8, 2008 at 6:54 pm

    amen, gerry. far too often we fail to recognize the origins of what we consider marriage in property rights and primogeniture. that was literally its civil origin in England and, by extension, the U.S. and i couldn’t agree more that the biggest threat to marriage is consumer mentality, not whether we conceive of marriage as a private or a public commitment. the word commitment–not private or public–is the operative one. i’m a big fan of no-cause divorce. and of fewer people marrying. because frankly it’s no one else’s business why two people choose to end their marriage. because no one should marry just because it’s what’s done or because there’s no other way to make ends meet. people should *get* married and *stay* married not because they have no other real options, but because they are making/have made a genuine commitment to one another.

    and this is the single best argument for legalizing marriage equality i’ve read yet. if cohabitation and non-marriage partnerships are so detrimental, perhaps the single best way to strengthen marriage and, by extension (at least according to this argument) society, is to make it available to everyone rather than limiting it based on prejudice.

  8. July 9, 2008 at 1:57 am

    Re: Marriage is a public relationship made through a public commitment.

    By coincidence, I just argued essentially the same point in my latest post just write it down.

    The thing is that marriage is a kinship relationship that is understood in (essentially?) all human societies as “a public commitment made through a three way contract between the two spouses and the public.” So when a gay couple stands up and has a public commitment ceremony to declare that they are a married couple, and then they live as a married couple, then they are married according to the intuitive human understanding of what it means to be married. If the government is in the business of issuing legal certification of familial relationships, then they need to document them impartially. That means they shouldn’t be saying certain marriages don’t get documents any more than they should be saying that some subset of babies don’t get issued a birth certificate.

  9. The Right Trousers
    July 9, 2008 at 3:33 am

    I love it when we confuse individual rights with group rights. Or rights with contracts. I also love it when we declare that the best way to strengthen marriage is to 1) extend it to a very small population of prospective couples and 2) redefine it in the process. I also think it’s very wise to side with a certain causal direction without having read the literature first because, heck, you like that causal direction.

    Too much sarcasm, probably. Anyway, you people kill me.

    Whatever marriage started as (and honestly, what good does it do to judge it by its past?), it is right now the number one way to encourage society to provide children with resident fathers. (Please, no anecdotes about your awful dad. I’m talking generalities.) For it to work its magic, as a contract it needs to be:

    1) regarded as permanent and enforceable

    2) desirable

    3) generally understood as being the only available social permission to have both sex and children

    Notice that I’m talking public perception, here, or “social narratives” if that sort of terminology warms your heart’s cockles.

    Liberal (not the ideology) no-fault divorce laws have severely weakened #1. Popular culture, particularly the sexual revolution and parts of feminism, actively attack #2 and #3. Other things that weaken #3 are effective and cheap contraception, easy abortion, and widespread acceptance of artificially inseminating single women.

    One of the worst effects of recent court decisions on SSM is their codifying in case law the idea that marriage is only about personal fulfillment. It’s a direct attack on #3. In general, anything that decouples having sex from having children or officially endorses such weakens the ideal of marriage in public perception.

    I lean libertarian on most things, but I can see that marriage already has more work to do than the strength afforded it by public perception of it. Let’s not stretch it any thinner, okay?

  10. actualthoughanonlesbian
    July 9, 2008 at 3:42 am

    (9) was so singularly idiotic I’m delurking. Look you, about half of same-sex marriages would provide children with double the number of fathers your preferred mode of marriage would. what rot. methinks I smell a man whose first wife left him for greener, less sexist, pastures.

  11. The Right Trousers
    July 9, 2008 at 4:13 am

    And would this small increase in fatherhood (relative to the population) make up for the decreased perception of marriage as an institution that confers the right to bear children?

    Religion doesn’t own that perception. Law has an unfortunate way of becoming morality.

    Still very happily married, by the way. You can read sexism into my post if you like, but it’s solid fact that the majority of kids with single parents lack a father, and that men have less natural incentive to stick around. In an economic analysis, marriage has traditionally countered that very well.

    Edits for #9:

    Anything that decouples having children from marriage weakens the ideal of marriage as well.

    Does that mean we should keep older couples from marrying? No, that’s impractical. Also, we haven’t decided that keeping them from marriage’s benefits is worth doing. But doesn’t that mean the definition should be extended to same-sex couples?

    Only if the public ideal of marriage can take another hit. I don’t think it can.

  12. Bruce Nielson
    July 9, 2008 at 8:30 am

    Joe says, “The problem with many of these arguments is that they confuse correlation with causation. At its simplest, does marriage tend to make people happy/healthy, or do happy/healthy people tend to get married? I tend to go with the latter, rather than the former. (I’m also quite dubious about claims that married couples are financially better off. Versus divorced people with alimony and/or child support, maybe, but otherwise I don’t believe it.)”

    Joe, just an observation. You didn’t say if you had read the book or not. So it comes across like you have not. So your comment above seems to suggest that there were some arguments made in my post above about the benefits of marriage — and you specifically take issue with the idea it makes one more wealthy. But please point to any such benefit arguments at all in my post. There aren’t any.

    Unless you have read the book and just didn’t say so, I would have to assume that the “arguments” you are referring to in this book, that you are debunking, are the arguments you think the authors made based on the title of the book. But the book itself may well attempt to establish causality and may use very different arguments then the ones you imagine based on a title. You simply do not know at this point.

    While I tend to agree with you that any study will struggle with causality and thus the question must always be asked, you may want to actually read the book first before you decide how you feel about the arguments the authors made.

    If you have read the book, then I certainly understand where you are coming from. I’m a strong advocate of differing opinions from the same set of facts. However, since the authors do go to great lengths to show causality, it would be helpful for you to take issue with their actual specific arguments.

  13. Bruce Nielson
    July 9, 2008 at 8:43 am

    The Right Trousers,

    I appreciate what you have to say and I appreciate that most of it was said so respectfully. Please be careful on the sarcasm. This is a sensitive subject and it will set people flaming.


    I appreciate your point of view here too. Please becareful on calling people’s arguments “idiotic” and stick with your respectful sharing of your point of view. This is a sensitive subject.

  14. July 9, 2008 at 8:50 am

    Projections show that relatively few gay couples will choose to have children, but lesbian couples will have more children. This leaves more children fatherless, not less.

  15. The Right Trousers
    July 9, 2008 at 9:53 am


    Sorry about that. I was up early with sick kids, and I’m afraid it encouraged the snark in me. I’ll try to hold it in abeyance in the future.

  16. dpc
    July 10, 2008 at 7:04 am

    The problem with casting marriage as merely a social contract takes it out of its biological context. That’s the problem with defining marriage. You have a legal definition, a biological definition, a social definition, etc. It’s not just a ‘special’ relationship between two people irregardless of gender. It’s not just a three way contract. It has religious and spiritual dimensions that legal, social and biological definitions don’t capture. I think you have to look at marriage in a holistic fashion. The relationship between two people living together and enjoying conjugal relations is different that a married couple and its not because of all the legal goodies that marriage entails. Traditional marriage and common law marriage existed side by side in Canada for several years as legal equals, yet a person in a common law marriage would rarely refer to their partner as a ‘husband’ or ‘wife’.

  17. Gerry Spence
    July 10, 2008 at 10:11 am

    The law of marriage and the common law of common law marriage are anything but equal in Canada.

  18. July 13, 2008 at 6:11 am

    the biggest threat to marriage is consumer mentality

    Interesting to compare that with

    Whatever marriage started as (and honestly, what good does it do to judge it by its past?), it is right now the number one way to encourage society to provide children with resident fathers. (Please, no anecdotes about your awful dad. I’m talking generalities.) For it to work its magic, as a contract it needs to be:

    1) regarded as permanent and enforceable

    2) desirable

    3) generally understood as being the only available social permission to have both sex and children

    I guess the question is “what is marriage for?” and it is one that most of the debates have not been addressing directly.

    Is marriage for personal fulfillment, a form of consumerism or is it for something else?

    On that trend, the same problem is “what are children for?”

    It used to be that children were an investment. I’ve known people who got rich (well, incomes in the 25k a month or higher brackets in the 80s, net value of over a million in the 70s) by having children. However, mostly in our society children are a consumer good.

    That leads to a number of thoughts and questions.

    At least this discussion is addressing the questions directly rather than by implication.

  19. July 13, 2008 at 11:55 am

    Those who think this book makes an argument for legalizing same-sex marriage should read the entire book, as well as some of the authors’ other writings. Maggie Gallagher, for instance, is the president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, as well as the National Organization for Marriage, which helped get the initiative opposing same-sex marriage on the ballot in California this November. To read her take on the California Supreme Court’s ruling on the matter, see this column and this column.

  20. July 16, 2008 at 8:27 am

    Bruce and Steven M: Thanks for the initial summary and the very thought provoking comment. You’ve given me a lot to think about…

  21. August 1, 2008 at 8:51 pm

    I found this to be an excellent bit of libertarian commentary on gay marriage:

    Hypocrisy and gay marriage

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