The marriage hoax

Conservative moralists, alarmed by the divorce rate, want us to return to a Golden Age of Marriage. Too bad it never existed.

By Maria Russo
Published March 20, 2001 3:18AM (UTC)
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It must be America's most often cited statistic: Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. For many social commentators, including voices from the right such as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead ("The Divorce Culture") and Gertrude Himmelfarb ("One Nation, Two Cultures"), the lesson in this seems like a no-brainer: Our high divorce rate is a sign of widespread moral decline, evidence that we've become a selfish, consumer-oriented society, one in which even the most hallowed of relationships is disposable.

Last fall, two widely discussed books sounded an urgent call of alarm. Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher's "The Case for Marriage" and Judith Wallerstein's "The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce" both argued that our easy-out approach to marriage is getting out of hand; divorce, they feel, should be granted more rarely. But a new round of books published this year -- Nancy Cott's "Public Vows," Hendrick Hartog's "Man and Wife in America" and Marilyn Yalom's "A History of the Wife" -- tells a different, if less mediagenic, story. These books are histories, not polemics, but together they make a clear and compelling argument: The nation hasn't suffered a massive decline in moral fiber since the 1950s, and marriage isn't really any more fragile now than it was in the days of our grandparents and great-grandparents. The truth is that marriage has always been a shaky, contested, unreliable institution, and we're kidding ourselves that it was ever any other way.

The authors of "The Case for Marriage," a sociologist (Waite) and a nationally syndicated conservative columnist (Gallagher), assert that the current state of marriage represents not a particularly wobbly phase in its long history but a crisis that may herald the death of wedlock itself. We're "on the verge of becoming a postmarriage culture," Waite and Gallagher say, and they predict a grave social crisis if we don't change course. They fear that marriage is becoming "optional -- a private taste rather than a matter of urgent shared concern."

Their main evidence, of course, is that 50 percent divorce rate. They'd like people to stop thinking nothing can be done about it; the divorce boom, they say, presents grave problems of "public health" that must be fixed. To that end, their book reads like an infomercial for marriage. In a cheerleading tone that shifts now and then into one of ominous foreboding, they hail the "overwhelming scientific evidence" they've gathered proving that marriage is "good for you." They argue that current no-fault divorce laws should be changed, that unmarried couples who live together should not be given legal rights or even social approval and that government and media should step in to promote "a positive view of marriage," in the manner of current anti-smoking campaigns.

By saying that marriage is good for us, they mean that getting married will improve an unmarried person's health, both mentally and physically. For example, if you're married, their surveys have found, you "not only have sex more often, but ... enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally," than unmarried cohabiting people do: Forty-two percent of wives and 50 percent of husbands say they find sex physically satisfying, as opposed to 39 percent of cohabiting women and 39 percent of cohabiting men. The same 42 percent of wives but 48 percent of husbands say they find sex emotionally satisfying, as opposed to 39 percent of cohabiting women and 37 percent of cohabiting men.

Besides the head scratching this inspires -- they're saying that less than half of all marriages are sexually satisfying, and they consider that good advertising for marriage? -- there's a more fundamental problem with the authors' reasoning, one that becomes apparent when you read the histories of marriage. You can't approach "married," "divorced" and "cohabiting" people as if these were static categories, akin to eye color or ethnic background. It's like trying to lock a rifle's sights on a moving target. Whether two people are married, living together or divorced at any given moment reflects not just the state of their relationship and their degree of commitment to each other but also their personal responses to the legal and social options available at the time.

It makes little sense, then, to advocate marriage for cohabiting people and warn against divorce for married people through number-crunching comparisons between the groups. If, for example, as Waite and Gallagher wish, it were harder for married people to get divorces, many couples who are now divorced would still be married, and still suffer the sexual and emotional frustrations that quite likely led them to split up in the first place. And if that were so, the percentage of married people telling survey takers that they were happy and sexually satisfied in their marriages would plummet. There, right down the drain, would go Waite and Gallagher's evidence that marriage fosters better sex.

With a similarly misleading statistic, Waite and Gallagher make the odd claim that married people die less frequently than unmarried people do. "Unmarried people (including divorced, widowed and single) are far more likely to die from all causes, including coronary heart disease, stroke, pneumonia, many kinds of cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, automobile accidents, murder and suicide -- all leading causes of death." But unless both partners in a married couple die simultaneously, by this definition, one of them must die unmarried. This, sadly, is a statistic no amount of social activism will change, unless widowed people, the majority of whom are women, could all be counted on to remarry before their final date with destiny. While the surveys and studies in "The Case for Marriage" are, at a glance, persuasive, in fact they're an example of the third category in Disraeli's famous list of the three kinds of lies: "Lies, damn lies and statistics."

Waite and Gallagher come across less like civic-minded social commentators than like control-freak dinner party hostesses irked by the presence of unmarried guests. If they had their way, all unmarried people would be relegated to the kiddie table for life. Where social policy hasn't worked to further their goal of a symmetrical, legally coupled-up world, they advocate social ostracism. They urge their readers to "gently resist demands to treat cohabiting couples exactly like married couples" and warn parents "not to treat boyfriends and girlfriends exactly the same as spouses."

Of course, even those who disagree with Waite and Gallagher on most matters would agree that divorcing couples who have small children present a host of social problems that demand to be addressed. Yet it's hard to know the extent to which our high divorce rate actually is affecting children: Incredibly, according to Waite and Gallagher, the federal government doesn't collect information about whether a divorcing couple has children or not. States are merely required to report the numbers of divorces and marriages that occur annually, with no details about how many of the couples have children. Waite and Gallagher rightly complain about this state of affairs. Until we can compare the number of divorces that deprive kids of an intact family with the number of divorces that separate unhappy couples before they have children, we can't accurately judge how much divorce hurts kids.

Psychologist Wallerstein ("The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce") followed a group of 131 children from the aftermath of their parents' divorce until they reached adulthood to assess the long-term psychological damage caused by their families' breakups. Necessarily, then, the book has nothing to say about divorce between people without children or whose children are grown. And while much of Wallerstein's argument that parents should do everything possible to remain married is convincing -- features of post-divorce family life such as strict visitation schedules, for example, come off as especially onerous for kids -- the emotional costs often seem overstated. As evidence of one woman's "damage" from her parents' divorce, we're told that, at the ripe old age of 34, after years of ambivalent relationships, she was ready to get married to someone with whom she appears to have a loving and supportive relationship. All divorces, clearly, are not created equal. In fact, if Wallerstein's analysis is correct, it's safe to say that the more mismatched, childless couples who divorce before having children, the better for all of us.

But however much children suffer when torn between warring parents, is it really true that we now face an unprecedented "crisis of marriage"? According to historians Hartog ("Man and Wife in America") and Cott ("Public Vows"), the dire proclamations have always been with us -- it's just that now we have statistics to back up the hysteria. Hartog demonstrates that marriage in America has never been a stable and unconflicted institution. Huge legal obstacles to divorce did not guarantee that everyone behaved in the same way toward marriage. In fact, when marriage was more imposing and demanding, people simply approached it in more inventive ways.

Until relatively recently, it was often hard to tell whether two people were legally married to begin with. People have always moved around a lot in America, and the absence of centralized record keeping made it hard to know who was married and who wasn't. Picture life in a small town in New England in the early 19th century. That new couple who just moved in down the street -- could you be sure they were legally married? That fellow courting the girl next door -- who knew if he had left a wife and child in some other state? "A woman might call herself 'the Widow Jones,'" as Hartog puts it, and "no one in the community questioned her widowed status or her prior marital status." If an opportunity for "Widow Jones" to get married arose and she took it, chances are her new husband didn't call in a private investigator to conduct a background check. There may have been huge legal obstacles to divorce, but that didn't mean marriage was a failsafe way to keep two people together: "There were doors that could be opened and slammed ... leaving was a possibility, even where legal divorce was not."

At a time when "functional bigamy" was a common end run around the legal obstacles to ending a marriage, irregularities happened at all levels of society. President Andrew Jackson's wife, Rachel, turned out to have been married to another man at the same time, a fact the president's opponents tried to exploit during the 1828 campaign. Rachel was under the impression that the other man had gotten a divorce in Kentucky, but in fact he'd never gone through with it. Her mistake didn't hurt Jackson politically, though. The public, apparently, understood how such things happened: The couple's Tennessee neighbors accepted them as married, and Jackson easily won the presidential election.

The problem with agenda-pushing social commentators like Waite and Gallagher is that they're myopic. When historians like Hartog or Cott present the long view, it's obvious that while the current divorce rate may seem high, in many ways it's a meaningless statistic. We have nothing to compare it with. Were people a century ago less fickle, more sure of their hearts, more willing to stick things out -- or were they simply more likely to be widowed; less likely, if they were poor, to have the resources to make their relationship a legal marriage in the first place; and more likely, if they did get married and wanted to end it, to not bother getting legally divorced? The fact that divorce was an expensive, time-consuming and socially shaming option did not necessarily give people more faith in the wisdom of the institution of marriage. It seems clear that when legal options were closed to them, incompatible spouses opted out on their own terms, whether through abandonment, quasi-divorce options such as legal separation agreements or simply keeping their "married" legal status and going on with their separate lives, sometimes within the same household.

For all our longing for tradition and institutional certainty, America is a young nation and Americans have always been an improvisational people. Our approach to marriage has reflected this. In the early years of the nation, Cott shows, what looked like marriage was often an informal agreement, called into being by a couple who moved in together. These were for all intents and purposes marriages, but no record exists of them. This informality was especially common among white settlers in the West, where ministers were scarce and public records were practically nonexistent anyway.

African-American couples were not allowed to marry under slavery, and interracial marriages were illegal in most states after the Civil War (and in some states until quite recently). Cott further observes that in most Native American groups, "heterosexual couples were important, but they married within complex kinship systems that accepted premarital sex, expected wives to be economic actors, often embraced matrilocal residence and matrilineal descent, and easily allowed both polygamy and divorce with remarriage." If none of these unions existed as legal marriages, then of course they could not end in divorce. It's simply impossible to arrive at a meaningful marriage rate or divorce rate for the 19th century.

Even today, we're kidding ourselves if we think that the fact that people check "married" on their tax returns means we can be sure of their domestic arrangements. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's wife, Nancy Moore Thurmond, for example, is her husband's preferred successor should he die or become disabled before finishing his term. (She has said that she would decline the appointment but she would assist in closing his office.) However, the two have been separated since 1991, and she openly shares her life with Robert Oldham, her "social companion" (apparently a Republican code word for "adulterous lover," along with "good friend," still-married New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's description of Judith Nathan). This might seem like a strikingly modern arrangement for a nice Southern gal like Ms. Thurmond, but it's actually better seen as part of the hoary American tradition of marital making do.

That's not to say that earlier Americans weren't idealistic about marriage. In fact, they'd probably be dismayed by the crassness of Waite and Gallagher's cost-benefit approach to advocating the institution: Marriage will make you happier, and you'll have more money! And your sex life will rock. Though they may claim to be upholding tradition, these pragmatic proponents of wedlock have broken with one of the few conservative strains of American marital ideology that seem worth recovering and holding on to -- the idea that marriage is one way to become a better person, precisely because it isn't a guarantee of riches, happiness and endless pleasure.

In "The History of the Wife," historian Marilyn Yalom quotes from a letter Abigail Smith wrote to John Adams in 1764 as she anticipated their wedding: "Ere long may I be connected with a Friend from whose Example I may form a more faultless conduct, and whose benevolent mind will lead him to pardon, what he cannot amend." Yalom asks, "How many young people marry with the conscious expectation that they will become kinder and wiser by virtue of choosing a decent, generous mate?"

As they demonize divorce, Waite and Gallagher offer grandiose promises for marriage. It's the cure for what ails you, for what ails all of us, they suggest. Without realizing it, they're complicit in the same cultural mind-set they want to condemn. It's the same one-trick-fixes-all, feel-good consumerism that leads many people to get married, and to get divorced, on what amounts to a whim. Marriage, in their treatise, becomes a kind of universal wonder product, Prozac without the side effects. It's just a small step from the moralistic exhortations of Waite and Gallagher to the tacky seductions of the wedding industry -- from diamond merchants to professional wedding planners, who sell even otherwise intelligent young women fluffy-edged fantasies of being wrapped in endless, sparkling, effortless love.

We may be in a period in which the societal role of marriage is being redefined, but clearly, despite Waite and Gallagher's warnings, we're far from seeing the end of that resilient institution. There's even new evidence for a certain kind of renewal. As Cott points out, the seemingly radical movement for gay marriage has had the ironic effect of heightening the prestige attached to legally sanctioned marriage. And here at the dawn of the 21st century, with privacy increasingly under attack and personal lives constantly under scrutiny, marriage has come to seem attractive to many nontraditional people seeking a chance to experience "freedom in a chosen space -- a zone marked off from the rest of the world." That postmodern twist should be encouraging even to conservatives, if only they'd stop trying to save the institution and take a good hard look at it instead.

Maria Russo

Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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