Marriage Reports Preach to the Choir?

12.20.2012, 8:20 AM

Kevin Noble Maillard is Professor of Law at Syracuse University.

We need something other than marriage to measure the strength of a family. Relying on a simple status marker to indicate the seriousness of the relationship is a gross oversimplification of a much larger issue. The justifications are expected: married people are happier, richer, smarter, less violent, more reliable, and just all around better. And presumably whiter.

Marriage reports preach to the choir. They identify and confirm the beliefs of a group resistant to cultural change. Even in an era where the meaning of marriage itself may include gays and lesbians, proponents overlook the diverse ways that people can have families. Supporters of marriage cling to a singular idea of the legitimate family—any variation or deviation cannot exist. Under this analysis, there are no shared roads to happiness or stability: marriage succeeds and cohabitation bleeds.

The underlying hope of the State of Our Unions 2012 report is acculturation. If poor and minority populations embraced the stabilizing ideals of marriage, pathological cycles would be broken. Their children would perform better in schools. Their household income would increase. They would be more productive members of society. And they would be more self-reliant and less dependent on welfare.

The problem is getting them to see the good in marriage, and how it benefits not only themselves, but all of society. But the cultural difference is so great, the belief goes, that it will take nothing less than Presidential support to convince “Middle America” of the conclusive superiority of married life. Otherwise, the unmarried masses, left to their own natural desires, seek fulfillment only in temporary pleasures: entertainment, food, and sex.

The pervasive worry—or labored exasperation—with unmarried people is their perceived, categorical difference from married people. Unmarried people are poor, uneducated, short-sighted, and violent. They act before they think, and have a limited view of family planning that only includes birth control. Government assistance and social programs are part of their everyday, dependent lives. They are prone to gun violence, according to Mitt Romney. Their children are doomed to poverty, sexual abuse, and malnutrition, and were born only to receive more assistance. Fathers are a distant, abstract concept. They probably rent.

Married people, however, are economically stable, college-educated members of the middle class. They are employed. Their children are clean and obedient. They provide taxpayer dollars rather than take them. Stepford is not an offensive concept. Family planning entails a vision of a shared future severed only in death. They have a joint savings account, and they own their home. They are not gay.

These are stereotypes, of course, but any marriage report necessarily believes in them. Deviations from the marital norm of stability and the nonmarital norm of chaos are problematic. Discussions of violent husbands are absent, as are high-income cohabitants. Creative people with long hair and colorful pasts shed them once they approach the altar. Married people are never laid off, fired, or underpaid, and married men don’t drink, abandon, or molest their children. Rich people always marry; poor people never do.

In many ways, this is the Moynihan report dressed in new, slightly less racialized robes. Civilized readers observe the pathologies of the uncivilized other, which sparks an academic “tsk, tsk” for the barbaric underclass. It’s a familiar group approach to cultural decline, and the audience is made clear. “You might expect that the less education people have,” a footnote admits,  “the more partnerships they would form and dissolve, and that African-Americans and Hispanics would have more partnerships than whites.” The foundation is laid: uneducated minorities are perceived to have more partners. Yet the study finds that “having multiple partnerships was not a minority group pattern.”

Who is the “you” in the “you might expect?” Presumably it’s not uneducated minorities. With this outlook, the married vs. unmarried “problem” isn’t going anywhere.


11 Responses to “Marriage Reports Preach to the Choir?”

  1. Elizabeth Marquardt says:

    Hi Kevin — I’m so glad you accepted the invitation to blog at FamilyScholars. You write, “These are stereotypes, of course, but any marriage report necessarily believes in them.” Well, I had a big role in writing this particular report, and *I* don’t believe in those stereotypes you listed.

    I believe marriage matters because I believe children need their fathers and they need family stability. Marriage is the best thing we’ve figured out to connect fathers to the children they produce and to keep couples together over time. And I’ve seen no evidence that Black children or poor children, as examples, need their fathers any less than other children do.

    I know it’s the holiday season and end of the semester and I much appreciate you reading and reacting to the report. I hope, when you have time, you might take a second look. We do, for example, offer the research demonstrating that on average women and children are at far greater risk of domestic violence from mother’s boyfriends and children’s stepfathers than they are in marriages of the mom and dad. Hollowing out marriage, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to have done much to keep women and children safer; on the contrary it seems to have put them more at risk.

    I like your writing that I’ve seen at the NYT because I feel like we share common concerns. If you read my work a little more closely, maybe you’ll feel the same way. Or maybe you won’t. In the meantime, I’d love to keep talking.

  2. Alana S. says:

    I have an extended family member that was raped (on a regular basis, and as a young child) by her biological father- her biological father that was married to her biological mother.

    Indeed marriage isn’t a cure-all in stopping evil.

    But its an important technology that offers some rules and guidelines and does actually stave off some things that we can all agree are bad.
    Just not every time and for every body.

  3. Diane M says:

    I don’t think the report does the things you accuse it of.

    It frustrates me that it’s impossible to talk about the growing number of children born to unmarried parents without being accused of looking down on people in such a nasty way.

    I have been very impressed by the fact that the Lapps are out there in the world talking directly to working class people about what they think about marriage and living in what sounds like a working-class neighborhood. In my experience, most academics do not do this. (Although one thing I love about our President is that he has.)

    “We need something other than marriage to measure the strength of a family. Relying on a simple status marker to indicate the seriousness of the relationship is a gross oversimplification of a much larger issue.”

    Marriage is a good marker for which relationships are going to last. Girls born to married people will probably still be living with both parents when they are 12. Girls born to a cohabiting couple will probably not be living with both parents.

    This may be partly because married couples are couples who intend to stay together. They have made that commitment and cohabiting couples have not. It could also because people chose not to make that commitment to someone who isn’t as trustworthy or reliable in some way.

    In any case, the children born to the married couples have a much better chance to get the financial support and time of two adults. They have a better chance to have an involved father with all the good things that can bring.

    If we could stop worrying about whether someone is judging people morally for living together, maybe we could get to the point of looking at what we can do to help children be born to two people who are committed to staying together and raising them. A good way to increase children’s chances of thriving is to encourage people to wait for marriage before they have children and to support married couples in ways that help them stay married.

  4. mythago says:

    @Diane M, you are making his point for him. The issue is whether parents are “committed to staying together and raising [the children]“, not whether they did or did not get a marriage license; when the discussion starts and ends with marriage, we are looking sideways at the problem.

    @Elizabeth, while you, personally, may not hold those views, the report is not the What Elizabeth Marquardt Personally Believes Report. Can you honestly look at what Kevin is saying and consider whether he is seeing something that really is there – whether or not you intended it to be, or personally believe it?

  5. Diane M says:

    @mythago – “The issue is whether parents are “committed to staying together and raising [the children]“, not whether they did or did not get a marriage license; when the discussion starts and ends with marriage, we are looking sideways at the problem.”

    I didn’t get that from his column. If that’s his point, I think he should have made it more clearly.

    However, I think it’s an interesting and important point and worth discussing. I see marriage as a sign that two parents are committed to staying together and raising the children. So I think we have a social interest in prevent pregnancies if people aren’t married and therefore committed to staying together.

    In practice, cohabiting parents don’t stay together. They are much less likely to stay together than married parents. So again, if the goal is to have parents who are more likely to stay, it makes sense to discourage pregnancy outside of marriage.

    There is also the fact that children of divorced parents do better as a group than children of unmarried parents (I think the latter group is parents who aren’t married and have split up). It’s not clear why this is. It could be that the parents who never married include more people with serious problems which is why they never married. However, it could also be that the legal process of divorce, as horrible as it is, benefits children in ways that don’t happen for children whose parents just break up. Perhaps the payment of alimony keeps children out of poverty. Perhaps better enforcement of visitation rights keeps the child connected to the non-custodial parent. Perhaps just having to make an agreement about it all is better than no agreement at all. I tend to think that it has something to do with divorce laws and I think someone should study this.

  6. Barbara says:

    Yes, it’s important not to view marriage as a “marker” if only for the reason that an unstable, improvident marriage is not a goal for anyone. That is, marriage does not solve any problem, it is, in our world, more of a reflection (or result) of characteristics that coalesce into a stable environment for the caring of dependent people, usually children. Telling two 18 year olds who find the female half of the couple pregnant to get married will not result in the stable environment we all wish for. That’s why there is a higher rate of divorce in so-called red states — because people are badgered into marriage when they are not ready, economically or emotionally.

    Rethinking family life as the result of intentional decisions rather than the ersatz coming together of people who are mutually attracted or find themselves about to become parents would probably be the place to start. All these things — graduating from college, using contraception, buying a home — take planning, intentionality.

    There are a lot of cultural forces that deride planning and intentionality, for instance, the idea of love at first sight, or movies like “Knocked Up” that seem to suggest that true love is truest or a happy life is happiest when it is the result of an accident. I don’t think that is true, but it is also the case that many people may feel, perhaps reasonably, that planning within the context of their economic and social future is fruitless. That’s why I think these cultural references are so popular, but they can lead to a kind of despair, and a self-reinforcing negative spiral as well.

  7. @Elizabeth. Thanks for your comments. I do agree that we both have similar concerns. In my family law classes and in all of my writings, I emphasize action over status. I see this as an issue of under- and over- inclusion. It’s easy to say that marriage stabilizes families, and that cohabitation hurts them. But it automatically assumes that married families are uniformly successful and stable without taking into account the vast variety of lifestyles and patterns.

    If marriage is the only way to measure stability for families and safety for children, this would mean that many families that have been forbidden to marry are inherently unstable. Does this mean that gays and lesbians are more violent, less happy, and less intelligent in the majority of states where they cannot marry? Likewise, it would mean that their families–and their mere existence–only becomes legitimate once they get married? The same could be said for the legions of interracial families forbidden prior to 1967.

    What is difficult to hear for alternative families is the insistence on a marital linchpin. Does it really hold everything together, or is it the decision of the people themselves to have a family?

  8. Diane M says:

    @Kevin Noble Maillard –

    “What is difficult to hear for alternative families is the insistence on a marital linchpin. Does it really hold everything together, or is it the decision of the people themselves to have a family?”

    This reminds me of a belief I see a lot on the Internet – it’s not whether or not you are married, it’s whether or not you are committed to each other/love each other. (“Marriage is just a piece of paper.”)

    The problem is that one way to show that you are committed is to have a ceremony where you make a public promise to stay together and take on some legal responsibilities. I tend to think that if you are truly committed to staying together, why not get married?

    In practice, we know that married parents are much more likely to stay together than cohabiting parents.

    I have found that being married got me more community support, including financial, and that this was generally helpful to my marriage. I think marriage itself can support families.

    However, it’s possible that married parents are more likely to stay together because they have made the commitment and cohabiting parents are choosing to not make the commitment.

    I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes in terms of social policy. If people who are not getting married because they are not committed to staying together have children, it’s not going to be good for the children. It would be better to have children being born to two parents who are committed to staying together and raising them together as much as possible.

    For couples who are excluded from marriage by law, I think the situation is different. A cohabiting couple that is not allowed to marry might in fact be fully committed to staying together and raising their children. It might, however, be somewhat harder for them as they won’t have benefits like health insurance, being able to claim someone as a dependent on your taxes, or Social Security survivor benefits.

    I believe that the benefits of marriage in terms of keeping families with children together are one reason it should be extended to same sex couples. I expect that in states where same sex marriage is allowed, you would find that same sex couples stay together more often. This would be an interesting thing for a scholar to study, in a few years time.

  9. annajcook says:

    I tend to think that if you are truly committed to staying together, why not get married?

    I made the decision to do so, and was luckily in a state where my relationship of choice fits within marriage law. But not everyone is so lucky (not only same-sex couples, but also folks in poly relationships where the decision would be to legalize *some* but not *all* of the adult connections in the family).

    I actually know way more hetero than non-hetero couples who have qualms about entering into marriage not because of their lack of commitment on a personal level, but because of their distrust of what marriage as an institution and set of toxic, sexist social expectations will introduce into their relationship. Just look at the intensely gendered messaging within the wedding-industrial complex, for example. I can really see why some hetero couples would just be like, “this has no relation to the type of family we want to build, so let’s skip the whole thing.” And pressure from family members who may not share your progressive values is probably a further dis-incentive.

  10. Diane M says:

    “I actually know way more hetero than non-hetero couples who have qualms about entering into marriage not because of their lack of commitment on a personal level, but because of their distrust of what marriage as an institution and set of toxic, sexist social expectations will introduce into their relationship.”

    Yes, I had many fears of marriage before getting married. My experience is that a) you can have a wedding outside of the wedding-industrial complex and b) you can run your relationship the way you want to, even if you get married. Having children is what changes your relationship. This will happen whether or not you get married if you have kids.

    I think if you’re going to have kids, you need to go ahead and make the lifetime commitment and it’s better to do it legally and get the benefits.

    But the other reaction I have is this – the number of children being born outside of marriage is going up. I don’t think this is because progressives are hesitating to commit to a sexist institution. I am concerned that if reflects an actual lack of commitment to staying together and to co-parenting.

  11. Deborah says:

    I think it’s a Shame to spend years with someone, have their babies, eat with them, sleep with them, pay bills together, & not have the guts or decency to man / woman up & make a commitment to them, as a person , you deserve that respect . It builds confidence, you lack insecurity when you know for a fact that’s our husband is coming thru that front door, if your not married, there’s no telling who might show up. Lets first remember if there are children involved, then you run the risk of having 1 parent households. The stress & pressure of doing it all by yourself is enough to make you realize that it would be a heck of a lot easier if you worked as a team with your partner & shared responsibilities.society looks down upon you when your not married. It’s simply not fair to give your life to someone who doesn’t think that your important enough to marry. That paper legally binds you & it forces you to be responsible In some cases it forces some people to grow up. I don’t know about you, but I want a guarantee that I will have stability in my life, not a maybe. Why settle for less, when you can get more?