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.