The Case for Marriage

Another reprint from Mormon Matters.

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.

14 thoughts on “The Case for Marriage

  1. Excellent point Bruce. I am still working through and thinking about the whole marriage issue, but I don’t think we can get around the fact that there is something different about marriage than, say, cohabitation. Gay marriage will be discussed a lot in the coming week because of the NY legalization, and libertarians (with whom I usually agree, and by some definitions I am one) will be promoting the idea that “government should get out of the marriage business.” Government should not be in the business of regulating personal behavior of people who want to do what they want as long as they don’t hurt other people, and in this sense I agree with my libertarian brethren. The federal government should have nothing to do with marriage. But is it legitimate for local governments to get involved in the marriage issue? I think the answer is yes for the reasons expressed in this post.

  2. Geoff,

    The subject of marriage is one of the many many places where I and ‘ideological libertarians’ will never see eye to eye.

    Marriage is a time tested institution known to provide benefits to society. It should neither be changed lightly nor discarded lightly.

    Libertarians make the same mistake as liberals (and in fact, in this case are liberals) in believing they know how to fix or improve time tested institutions like this when in fact no one does.

    Institutions like this survived this long because they continually imparted value for generations. They may have to be changed someday, but it it should not be done lightly and maybe not at all if it’s continuing to work.

    I’m not against making changes, but I do fear the point of view that it’s easy to make changes without unintended consequences. That would lead to a mutations rate for society that would kill it. This is the primary point that keeps me from being either a libertarian or a liberal.

  3. Care to define “time-tested”? An anthropologist would likely question your claim.

  4. One other point for my libertarian brethren who may read this post: libertarians believe words have objective meanings. “Liberty” has an objective meaning. You cannot re-define liberty so it means: “the state making people free by taking goods from some people and giving to others.” If you redefine words this way, you have created an Orwellian world where words no longer mean anything. In the same way, “marriage” has an objective meaning which means “the public commitment of a man and a woman to forming a family unit.” You cannot change objective meanings. Now, you are completely legitimate in saying that government cannot and should not regulate personal and private behavior. I don’t care if two men or three men or a combination of 6 men and four women want to declare they are all “married” to each other (and I don’t think the government should care either). They can call their union whatever they want. But it is not objectively a marriage. It is a partnership or a civil union or a commitment ceremony. It is not a marriage.

  5. >> In the same way, “marriage” has an objective meaning which means “the public commitment of a man and a woman to forming a family unit.” You cannot change objective meanings.

    I, as a libertarian-esque person, challenge this idea. Why is that the objective meaning of marriage?

  6. If I read you correctly, I sense that you two don’t seem *overly* concerned about the ramifications of same-sex marriage (i.e. you don’t think it will bring about the collapse of society, at least). If that’s an accurate assumption, why do you think that fear is so common among same-sex marriage opponents?

  7. Bruce,

    To what extent are your views influenced by Hayek?

    Until fairly recently I had roughly followed the Libertarians in saying that inasmuch as marriage is “sacred” then government should have nothing to do with it. However, I have recently felt that an evolutionary account of society (largely but not totally in line with Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, but more fully inspired by evolutionary game theory) have made me pull back pretty hard from positions such as these.

    Accordingly, I’ve become pretty sympathetic to the contractual view of marriage which you propose. I’m not terribly suspicious of gay marriage, but I am definitely suspicious of many of the justifications that are mounted in it’s favor. I think that everybody for themselves, don’t ask don’t tell, what business is it of yours mentality is far more of a threat than same sex couples are.


  8. Vin asks: “Care to define “time-tested”?”

    I just made a comment on another thread about how some people ask for a definition, knowing it’s hard to define a word, then when the definition isn’t precise, declare that the concept doesn’t exist.

    “Time-tested” means nothing more to me that it’s been a around for a long time and has out survived other competitors. Not all cultures have ‘marriage’ as we think of it, but it’s really common and cross cultural. That can’t be entirely chance.

    Also, I would admit that the idea of marriage as a public contract isn’t the only possible way to look at marriage historically. And I don’t think this is *all* that marriage is either. But I wouldn’t say it’s a new concept either (though perhaps it’s been made more clear recently?) The fact is that ‘marriage’ across cultures ‘works’ because — and only because — it ties into the public’s view of a certain ideal (which is usually but not always monogamous.) Imagine how society would vastly differ if we all emotionally treated breaking up a marriage the same way we thought of stealing away one’s boyfriend of girlfriend.

    In this sense, marriage (most versions of it?) has probably always been seen as what today we’d now call a public contract. It is that I don’t believe we should give up.

  9. Vin asks “Why is that the objective meaning of marriage?”

    Here’s the problem with this question. There is no reason we can’t culturally decide “well, now marriage means X instead of Y.” And if we get the majority of people to see it that way, and then change the laws to force it into that new way of thinking, then by definition marriage no longer means X and now means Y.

    So if you are asking “why can’t we change it.” The answer is “we can.”

    But why should we when there is a ‘time-tested’ way of looking at marriage as not merely a personal choice (like cohabitation) that gives us an alternative to cohabitation? You are coming close to rejectionism here. Instead of merely showing problems with the argument, make your own and subject it to counter criticism.

    “I sense that you two don’t seem *overly* concerned about the ramifications of same-sex marriage…”

    Yes… I have mixed feelings about it. In general, I’m against it. For now. But I’m not really sure if it’s good or bad in the long run. I doubt anyone knows that or could know that.

    I’m entirely against obtaining it through courts instead of the political process (i.e. legislature) because then we force a chance that without recourse when we don’t know what it will do nor who it will hurt.

    However, the view of the book being reviewed is specifically agnostic on the case of gay marriage. One of the authors was against it and one in favor.

    But there is a big difference between society hammering out a new way of looking at marriage through the political process and having it forced upon society by re-imagining it as a personal choice rather than a public contract.

  10. Jeff G,

    I’m afraid my influence by Hayek is somewhere around 0%. With a margin of error of +/-0.1% (I.e. maybe I was influenced by him by accident.)

    I’m afraid I’m not really a classical liberal either.

  11. I was looking forward to Bruce N expounding on Hayek. Bruce, you should read some more Hayek; you would especially like his essay “Why I am Not a Conservative.”

    Vin, I will answer your question with another question: why do you think gays want to get married in the first place? If marriage is purely a private affair, then they could meet in their own living room, exchange rings and declare themselves married. No, marriage, is a *public* commitment and therefore involves the participation of family, friends and the community. From an anthropological standpoint, nearly all cultures have some kind of ceremony where the society declares: “these two are married.” This is a different state than “living together” or “friends” or “sleeping together” or anything else. It is a public commitment in which the community participates. Not every culture has this ceremony, but the vast majority throughout history do. So, it is not any good to say, “well, haven’t you ever heard of xxx culture, which does not have traditional marriage,” because you don’t make rules based on the exceptions.

    I would agree with you that gay marriage is not the end of the world, and we will probably see it in most US states within the next decade. I was glad to see that NY adopted gay marriage through legislative, rather than judicial, action. I am a federalist and believe that states should do what they want for the most part, but the judiciary imposing gay marriage on an unwilling populace (as happened in Iowa) is not a good idea. From the perspective of Latter-day Saints, it will probably have very little effect on our marriages at all in the short run. We will still get married in temples and celebrate eternal unions. The issue is what happens when society begins to say that private, religious weddings that don’t include same-sex marriages are discriminatory. I hope we don’t see the “anti-Mormon discrimination” movement start up trying to stop temple marriages in the near future, but I wouldn’t count on it not happening within the next decade or so. There will be many Mormons arguing that the Church needs to approve same-sex weddings in temples, just as there are many Mormons arguing for public same-sex marriage today. I will go out on a limb and argue that the Church will *never* perform same-sex marriages in temples, even if it means shutting down all temples worldwide. The whole drama could be avoided if we stuck to marriage meaning one thing and voluntary civil unions meaning another. But it may be too late for that.

  12. Geoff,

    Excellent point about “why do they care?” You can’t have it both ways. If marriage is just a private matter, than marriage isn’t a word worth capturing legally. If it is, then by defition it’s a public contract of sorts.

  13. I agree completely with the view in this post. I used to believe in the “government get out of marriage” idea. It was, ironically, my divorce which taught me about the societal value of a governmental marital contract.

    Once you understand the public significance of a marriage, the gay marriage debate completely changes. It is no longer about allowing others to associate as they will, and becomes about whether or not there is a public benefit to condoning their relationship. It makes it a less moral or emotional battle and more of a practical one.

  14. SilverRain, thank you for your kind words. You are right that the whole gay marriage debate should really be a practical matter, not an emotional one. Both sides have a case worth consideration, but those two worthy sides get no media time due to the false fronts the media presents as proxies instead.

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