Over the past few decades, our society’s traditional beliefs and assumptions concerning the institution of marriage have come under attack. Many people believe that marriage is “only a piece of paper” anyway, and that it represents an outdated social institution that is no longer relevant or necessary for regulating intimate relationships.
Some have come to see it as merely an optional lifestyle choice—one that constitutes a potential threat to individual fulfilment, autonomy, independence and growth, and a serious handicap for women, damaging their health, self-esteem and severely limiting their career prospects. Still others believe that promoting marriage and marital obligations only puts women at risk for abuse and violence.
Those who can read the signs of cultural change suggest that our generation is on the verge of becoming a post-marriage culture!
There are a growing number of sociologists and family researchers who strongly contradict these assertions and myths. They claim that although marriage as an institution has been weakened by widespread social change, there is a compelling argument to be made for marriage and its benefits to both men and women.
Believers include Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, who, in their recent publication The Case for Marriage, systematically outline a wide range of scientific research that provides clear evidence that being married is much better for you physically, emotionally, economically, financially, sexually and spiritually.
They show how marriage isn’t just a private relationship, but a social reality that enhances and enriches people’s lives and creates a shared sense of meaning and purpose that provides the foundation for emotional and spiritual health. They show how through marriage and family, we each develop a sense of belonging and fulfilment that fulfils our basic need for love, trust, loyalty, fidelity, long-term commitment and mutual support.
Some of the benefits that they present, based on the empirical evidence they’ve encountered, follows:
Cohabitation has different expectations and effects our individuals. It may offer short-term advantages, but couples who cohabit have a temporary time perspective and lower levels of commitment. They also face higher chances of divorcing than do couples who never cohabited.
On average, cohabiting couples are less sexually faithful, lead less settled lives, are less likely to have children, are more likely to be violent, tend to make less money and are generally less happy than married couples.
Marriage not only improves women’s health, it improves men’s health even more. People who are married have lower rates of mortality, better health habits, higher levels of self-disclosure, lower hospital costs, and enjoy a social support network that boosts the immune system and improves physical health and survival.
Compared to single, divorced or widowed men, they experience less depression, anxiety, and other types of psychological distress.
Happiness clearly increases with marriage and decreases with divorce. Divorce is especially damaging to women’s mental health, with women reporting more depression and hostility, and less self-esteem, personal growth, self-acceptance and environmental mastery than divorcing men.
They also enjoy it more—physically and emotionally. The married tend to have more sex because it costs them less in time, money and psychic energy. They find it more satisfying because their sex partner is more available, less distracted, more eager and more able to please.
The higher levels of satisfaction for married couples is related to the fact that marriage adds meaning to the sexual act because it symbolises a union that is based on sexual fidelity, stronger commitment and emotional intimacy.
It has clear economic benefits for people with access to steady jobs and stable homes. People who are married have more money, and their money goes further. They tend to specialise, exchange, and share roles and functions in ways that generate higher earnings, encourage savings, help their partner to restrain from impulse spending, and generally leave the family financially better off. Clearly, married couples benefit from economies of scale, where two people live more cheaply than one.
Being in a two-parent family provides them with a better standard of living and gives them a greater sense of supervision and protection. It also gives them twice as many contact hours with parents and provides role models who show them how to relate effectively to others. Children from intact families tend to perform better in school, are more likely to stay out of trouble, are less likely to be abused in their own home, and are less likely to get pregnant out of wedlock.
On the other hand, children who come from divorced homes tend to be worse off educationally, financially and psychologically. They are frequently subject to much greater health risks and frequently show signs of anxiety, depression, intense anger, disruptive behaviour and other forms of emotional distress for many years after the family has broken up.
Kids who live with unhappy or highly conflictual parents are still better off than kids who live with a divorced parent. While this idea sounds illogical and quite difficult to accept, especially to anyone who is “stuck” in a bad marriage, the research shows that couples in a high-conflict marriage usually turns things around if they don’t give up on the relationship. Some 86 per cent of unhappy couples rate their marriage as very happy five years later.
Cohabitation doesn’t provide as much safety for both women and children. The evidence suggests that single and divorced women are at greater risk of being victimised, and that children are much safer living with two parents than with a single parent, a live-in friend, or a step-parent family.
The case for marriage is quite compelling. The empirical evidence that supports the distinct benefits of marriage is overwhelming. In spite of all the negative messages generated over the past few decades about how bad and limiting marriage is, many people now see that marriage has a lot more positive outcomes for individuals, couples, children and society than any other domestic living arrangement.
The fact remains that some 85 per cent of people in Australia and New Zealand will get married at some time and aspire to enjoy the benefits of a marital relationship based on mutual long-term commitment, sexual fidelity, intimacy, mutual support and a balanced equality between husband and wife.
Not only do we need to spread this positive message around, but we need to encourage government and community leaders to enact policies that support marriages and uphold the rights and responsibilities that come with a good, healthy marital relationship.
If marriage makes for happier, healthier and more financially secure people with a shared sense of meaning and purpose in life, why wouldn’t we want to uphold it, encourage one another to enjoy its benefits, and tell each other that it’s worth fighting to preserve a marriage, even when it gets a little shaky and the going is tough?