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The Case for Marriage: A conversation with the authors

Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher are the coauthors of "The Case for Marriage", a book about how getting married and staying married influences lives. Waite is a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. Gallagher is director of the Marriage Program at the Institute for American Values and is a nationally syndicated columnist. In this interview the authors discuss research regarding marriage and other aspects of their book.

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Q. What’s new about the case for marriage?

A. Maggie: Most of the arguments for marriage over the last two decades have been moral or religious ones. This book is different. It presents the scientific case for marriage, as it is now practiced in America. There really is a broad and deep body of careful scientific research on the benefits of marriage. Overall married people live longer, happier, healthier, less depressed, more sexually satisfying and affluent lives—because they are married. This is true not only in the United States, but in virtually every country in the world. Secondly, most past reports of scientific research have focused on the welfare of children. This book looks at the effects of marriage on adults who do it: are men and women better off it they marry? The answer is yes. We are.

Q. How big a difference does marriage make?

Maggie: It can be the difference between life and death. Take long life for example, we did a study looking at people in late middle age and tracked them as they married, divorced, remained single or died. What we found is astonishing. Take two 48-year-old men. Make them as alike in terms of income, family background, etc. as you can, except that one is married and the other is not. What is the likelihood these men will still be alive at age 65? The answer is that 9 out of 10 married guys will make it to 65, but only six out of 10 single guys. That’s amazing. Three out of 10 guys lose their lives if they lose their wives. For women you also see powerful effects, just not quite as large. Nine out of 10 wives will make it to age 65, but only eight out of 10 single or divorced women will live to collect social security.

Q. You say marriage makes people happier—how can it do that?

Linda: If you ask people in a survey how happy they are in general, married people say they are happier than unmarried people. They are less likely too be lonely or depressed, or to abuse drugs or alcohol than single people, and all of these problems lead to unhappiness. And married people always have someone who cares about them to talk to.

Q. But isn’t it true that marriage is good for men, but bad for women’s mental health?

Maggie: No, it’s not true actually. Both married men and women are mentally and emotionally healthier, on average, than their single counterparts. We’ve even tracked couples into marriage, looking at their initial mental health status, and watched what happens when they marry. It###s not just that happier, healthier people marry: getting married actually boosts your happiness and reduces signs of mental distress.

Linda: And getting unmarried makes things worse.

Q. What about money? Isn’t marriage expensive these days?

Maggie: Marriage is actually a wealth-producing institution. Getting a lifelong, permanent economic partner makes you much better off financially in a variety of ways.

Linda: Two really can live as cheaply as one—or according to a recent publication by the National Academy of Science, as one and a half.

Maggie: And married people earn more money—it’s not just two incomes, but having a life partner seems to help you manage your career better, both husband and wives make more money than otherwise similar singles. Married couples also manage money better, are less likely to say they have trouble paying bills even when they make no more money than singles.

Linda: Among people nearing retirement, married people have assets more than twice as high as single people.

Q. If marriage is such a good deal, why is it in trouble?

Linda: A sort of vicious cycle. Divorce laws changed and that caused an increase in divorce. As more marriages ended, men, and especially women, began to hedge their bets, investing in their own education and career rather than their husband’s. Having children is riskier when marriages don’t last, so people had fewer, but having children does hold marriages together. As more women worked, they spent less time and effort on their marriages and their marriages suffered. And as women and men were less financially dependent on marriage, they didn’t try as hard to make things work, so more often they didn’t.

Q. But isn’t divorce better for kids than a bad marriage?

Linda: No, except in special circumstances, children are better off if their parents stay married—even if the marriage is not particularly satisfying. But is the marriage is physically violent or high-conflict, children are probably better off if their parents divorce.

Maggie: Children in high-conflict families can get some psychological relief from divorce—if the parents stop fighting. if divorced parents keep fighting, it’s a disaster for children, worse than high-conflict marriages. But partly it depends on what you mean by a bad marriage; research shows that most divorces aren’t taking place in high-conflict households but low-conflict ‘boring’ marriages. These divorces do not benefit children at all and are very risky for the adults involved too, compared to the better option of improving the marriage.

Linda: Research we did for the book showed that husbands and wives who said that they were quite unhappy with their marriage who stayed married were much happier five years later. In fact, nearly three-fifths of those who were miserable earlier rated their marriage as quite happy or even very happy if they stuck with it.

Maggie; So just as good marriages go bad, bad marriages "go good" and they are more likely to do so if friends, family, professionals, communities and the legal system understand and support the importance of enduring marriages. Once we begin looking seriously for answers, we’ll find lots of ways that families, clergy, educators, counselors, judges, welfare administrators, communities and public policy can help strengthen marriage and reduce divorce. That’s what we hope this book will accomplish.