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Opinion | Good Marriages Are Good. Bad Marriages Are, Well, Bad.

There’s an idea that’s been floating around for a few years that when it comes to marriage, wealthy elites hold luxury beliefs.

What does that mean? Rob Henderson — who popularized “luxury beliefs” in 2019 and has a book coming out next month that recounts his childhood in the foster care system — defines the term as “ideas and opinions that confer status on the affluent while often inflicting costs on the lower classes.” In a recent interview with Yascha Mounk, Henderson shared a story that illustrates what that means to him when it comes to marriage:

I had a conversation with a former Yale classmate who was telling me that monogamy is outdated and that marriage is this kind of patriarchal, outmoded institution. And then I asked her how she grew up. She was raised by a two-parent family, stable structure. I asked her, when she’s finished with law school and wherever she goes next (at this point, she was working for a tech company and applying to law schools), if and when you have a family, how do you want to do that? And she said: “I’ll probably end up getting married, having a husband and have that kind of conventional family life. But just because I want to do it doesn’t mean it should have to be for everyone. And I do think that marriage is problematic,” and so on. And I thought this is interesting, because she benefited from this institution, she intends to carry the benefits of those institutions forward to her own children, but her official public position is that people shouldn’t have to do this, or she’s publicly denigrating it and saying, “Actually, don’t do this,” or that it’s problematic or oppressive in some way.

He said that this kind of elite belief expressed by his classmate had a trickle-down negative cultural influence. Additionally, he thinks that these ideas reveal a hypocrisy among liberals who recognize the value of marriage as an institution but who stop short of extolling “the ideal of the two-parent family.” Henderson said liberal elites avoid talking about the norms they pass on to their children because they’re afraid to sound judgmental: “They don’t want to feel like a schoolmarm wagging their finger at how people live their lives.”

I don’t doubt that Henderson heard these marriage-is-outmoded beliefs expressed by his Yale peers. But I think he’s inflating how pervasive, lasting or influential his classmate’s view is; most young people still expect to get married, and the numbers haven’t changed much over time.

Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research has tracked high school seniors’ attitudes toward marriage since the 1970s. It found that the percentage of seniors who said they didn’t expect to marry has remained pretty consistent from 1976 to 2020, and that percentage was very, very low: In 1976 it was 6 percent, and in 2020 it was 5 percent. When you look at the percentage who said they did expect to marry, the numbers similarly haven’t changed much: In 1976, 74 percent said they expected to marry, compared with 71 percent in 2020. (The third option was “no idea,” which, honestly, I thought would be more popular among teenagers.) Considering how cynical Gen Z is about most major societal institutions, it’s remarkable how pro-marriage they are.

On the point that elites are perceived to be unwilling to be boosters for marriage because it might seem too judgmental, I am, again, skeptical — particularly since a lot of the folks who like to rail against elites are Ivy Leaguers.

But to the extent that liberals aren’t constantly banging the drum for marriage, my sense is that it’s because the benefits of marriage and two-parent families are pretty obvious to most Americans already. It’s not some big secret that having more resources and increasing the number of loving adults in a child’s life makes parenting easier.

This is true among Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters as well as 18-to-29-year-olds: According to a 2021 Pew Research survey of American adults, only 14 percent of either group said that “single women raising children on their own is generally good for society.” In fact, per Pew, the number of Americans who said that single motherhood and unmarried cohabitation were bad for society increased by several percentage points from 2018 to 2021.

I’ve also heard the argument that the beliefs of elite college students carry outsize influence because they will disproportionately be leading the country someday. But when it comes to dismissing or championing marriage as an institution, that theory doesn’t really hold water. I’ve never heard a prominent member of either political party or a chief executive of a major corporation say that marriage doesn’t matter. Our government spends $150 million a year on Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood programs. As for pop culture, there’s an entire very popular cable channel devoted to traditional courtship, and a rom-com that takes place at a destination wedding reached No. 1 at the box office this month.

But as The Cut’s Rebecca Traister explained in September, no matter how much people may want to be married in the abstract or how much encouragement they get from society to wed, “you cannot just conjure stable and rewarding romantic commitments on command.”

Expanding on that point just a few days later, the Washington Post columnist Christine Emba wrote, “Most women still want marriage, and the vast majority would prefer to marry before having a child.” Their problem, though, she said, “is that in real life, plausible marriage partners for heterosexual women are thin on the ground. All the elite infighting in the world won’t change the fact that a good man is increasingly hard to find.”

Arguments for more marriage (and for marriage needing better P.R.) rarely seem to address the quality of marriages. After World War II, when marriage rates were peaking, divorces were hard to come by and heavily stigmatized, and shotgun marriages were far more common.

A 2006 paper from the economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers showed that when divorce laws were liberalized in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and spouses from those midcentury marriages could leave their unions without their partner’s permission, there was less “extreme marital distress.” “Examining state panel data on suicide, domestic violence and murder,” they concluded, “we find a striking decline in female suicide and domestic violence rates arising from the advent of unilateral divorce.”

Which brings me to an alternative theory that might help explain why not everyone wants to trumpet marriage as an all-purpose societal salve: While good marriages are good, bad marriages can be very, very bad. That’s not to say all bad marriages are violent — they’re not — but we don’t know the individual stories when we look at sterile statistics about who declines to marry when they have a child together or who gets married and splits up. We don’t see the whys behind these decisions. (Though, as one study suggested, “the most common ‘final straw’ reasons were infidelity, domestic violence and substance use.”)

Depending on how dire the circumstances of a relationship are, singledom and single parenthood can be preferable — particularly if you’re able to live with or get help from extended family.

This is all, of course, a new iteration of an old argument. People on both sides seem to be covering the same old song every few years, just with new lyrics. See, for instance, this 2018 article from The Atlantic on the success sequence, which is another way of saying that getting married and having a stable job before you have kids is a good idea. Conservatives often think that following the success sequence is only about the individual, but in that article, the historian Stephanie Coontz outlined several “well-known impediments to following the sequence”:

everything from a lack of marriageable men who earn decent wages in some communities, high incarceration rates, the decline of union power and a general feeling that there’s little point to waiting to have a child because there’s little hope for ever really improving one’s lot. In such situations, choosing to have a baby — rather than wait for the ideal, financially responsible moment that will likely never arrive — can be the more rational choice.

I don’t think the stated beliefs of Henderson’s Yale classmate make a difference when it comes to these entrenched and complicated financial, romantic and logistical fundamentals that are leading fewer Americans down the aisle. It’s easy to point the finger at elites, cherry-pick their statements and stir a moral panic about the decline in the marriage rate over time. It’s harder to meaningfully expand the safety net so that fewer children live in poverty — which really should be the focus of all this — even if their parents don’t get hitched.

  • I recently had a wonderful conversation with Alice Evans, a visiting scholar at Stanford who studies global gender history. I particularly recommend her newsletter, The Great Gender Divergence, in which she offers “A Unified Theory of Marriage.” She wrote: “People marry for love, money or social approval. Financial considerations are especially salient for women, if they earn less and bear responsibility for the kids. But when women become economically independent, they needn’t tolerate disrespect.”

  • Marriage, a History” by Stephanie Coontz is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the long arc of disagreements about marriage in the United States. I reread parts of it last weekend, and this stuck out: “Anyone who thinks that male-female hostility was invented in the 1970s never spent time in a beauty parlor in the 1950s. When I was a teenager hanging out while my mother had her hair done, I got to listen in as ‘happily married’ women routinely expressed contempt toward their husbands and toward men in general. And I knew from my father and his male friends that hostility toward women ran rampant in all-male settings.” What changed over time, Coontz wrote, was that the hostility began to be aired in mixed company.

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