The Marriage-Mongers

Jeremy Cohan

January 17, 2015

It’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between breaking news and full-page ads. Case in point:

“Study Finds More Reasons to Get and Stay Married.”

The article summarizes recent research—part of a more general trend in certain sectors of liberal social science—that argues that the married are happier, higher-income, better educated, and less stressed. As marriage comes more into question, the defense gets simpler and more desperate.

As the history of the French civil union, as well as the rise of cohabitation, indicate, marriage is no longer the exclusive form for long-term love or child rearing. Relationships, care, and marriage cannot be used interchangeably. And are we expected to believe in both the post-economic character of marriage—Gary Becker tells us that marriages have matured from economic partnerships to realizations of romantic love and companionship—and in the functional benefits of getting hitched? In the absence of adequate social support, any alternative family arrangements are bound to economic hardship.

Marriage and the poor is a long and sordid topic. Adolph Reed has pointed out that, for liberals, unwed mothers are a problem if they are poor, and a feminist achievement if they are elite. From the 1965 Moynihan Report to Obama’s hectoring black fathers, moralizing against the poor’s family decisions has been tied to a social science discourse that mixes correlation with causation to lecture and demean. Poor people getting married won’t suddenly make them better-educated and wealthier. Concern masks coercion.

Insofar as marriage is a bottleneck institution for real social functions like raising children, health care provision, income management and security, and coping with crises in the life course, it is not just ideological fog. It’s not a shock that people who take part in the institution reap the benefits—and that some are fighting for the right to so participate. Yet, surprisingly, the data shows that people are less and less willing to put up with the institution despite the benefits: “A quarter of today’s young adults will have never married by 2030, which would be the highest share in modern history, according to the Pew Research Center.”

It’s a sad situation when critical imagination can’t keep up with the dynamism of reality. Too often, progressive political movements do little more than demand inclusion in institutions that are—at worst—shot through with compulsion and inequality, and—at best—on the way out. What a letdown, from the call for Sexual Revolution! Skepticism towards radical critiques of institutions like marriage that valorize exclusion is warranted; what philosophers called “abstract negation,” and what is known today as poor tact, is also poor strategy. “Gay people should have the right to be as miserable as everyone else.”

But as Nietzsche once wrote: “When something is falling, give it a push.” When an institution is in crisis the best response is not necessarily to force it on people by reiterating its benefits, whether as old-fashioned wisdom or cutting-edge data. It’s also possible to start thinking seriously about other institutions that might fulfill these real needs. It’s possible to grapple with a changing reality, rather than denying it.

Family Romances Love New Social Forms