Is marriage still a viable option for couples who are serious about their relationship?
A social science perspective.
What do we know about the importance of marriage for children, for adults and for our society? There has been a sharp increase over the last two generations in the proportion of children who do not live with their own two married parents, spurred first by increases in divorce, and more recently by large jumps in unmarried or cohabiting childbearing. A vigorous public debate sparked by these changes in family structure has generated a growing body of social science literature on the consequences of family fragmentation.
Marriage has changed a great deal over the past two generations, including increased incidence and social acceptance of divorce, cohabitation, premarital sex, and unwed childbearing. Other important changes include dramatic increases in the proportion of working wives, reduced tolerance for domestic violence, and a change in gender roles. Over the past 40 years, both men and women have become increasingly likely to support greater participation by men in the household and women in the labour force, with less sharp differentiations between women’s and men’s rates. Yet when it comes to the benefits of marriage, research shows more impressive evidence of continuity than change or decline.
Social science is better equipped to document whether certain social facts are true than to say why they are true. We can assert more definitively that marriage is associated with powerful social good more definitively than we can say that marriage is the sole or main cause of this social good.
Research seeks to tease out what scholars call “selection effects,” or the pre-existing differences between individuals who decide to divorce, marry, or become unwed parents. Does divorce cause poverty, for example, or is it simply that poor people are more likely to divorce? Social science attempts in a variety of ways to distinguish between causal relationships and mere correlations. The studies cited here are for the most part based on large, nationally representative samples that control for race, family background, and other compounding factors. In many, but not all cases, social scientists have been able to use longitudinal data to track individuals as they marry, divorce or stay single, increasing our confidence that marriage itself matters. Where we consider the evidence is, in our view, overwhelming that marriage causes increases in well-being, we say so. Where marriage probably does, but the causal pathways are not as well understood, we are more cautious.
We recognise the possibility that factors other than marriage, divorce or single parenting may be influencing outcomes. Relatively few family structure studies attempt to assess the role of genetics, reasonable scholars may and do disagree on the existence and extent of such selection effects, and the extent to which marriage is causally related to the better social outcomes reported here.
Of course, individual circumstances vary. While divorce is associated with serious increased psychological risks for children, for example, the majority of children of divorce are not mentally ill. While marriage is a social good, not all marriages are equal. Research does not generally support the idea that remarriage is better for children than living with a single mother. Marriages that are unhappy do not have the same benefits as the average marriage. Divorce or separation provides an important escape hatch for children and adults in violent or high-conflict marriages. Families, communities, and policy makers interested in distributing the benefits of marriage more equally must do more than merely discourage legal divorce.
Social science is typically better equipped to answer general questions (eg., Are high rates of divorce and unwed childbearing likely to reduce overall child well-being?) than to answer questions facing individual parents (eg., Will my particular children in my particular circumstances be harmed or helped by divorce?). But we believe good social science, despite its inherent limitations, is a better guide to social policy than uninformed opinion or prejudice. The public and policy makers deserve to hear what research suggests about the consequences of marriage or its absence for children and adults. This report represents our best judgement of what the current social science evidence reveals about the importance of marriage in our social system.
Here is our fundamental conclusion: Marriage is an important social good, associated with an impressively broad array of positive outcomes for children and adults alike. Family structure and processes are of course only one factor contributing to child and social well-being.
Our discussion here is not meant to minimise the importance of other social and economic factors, such as poverty, child support, unemployment, neighbourhood safety, or 1he quality of education for both parents and children. Whether our society succeeds or fails in building a healthy marriage culture is clearly a matter of legitimate public concern.
Marriage is more than a private emotional relationship. It is also a social good. Not every person can or should marry, and not every child raised outside of marriage is damaged as a result. But communities where good-enough marriages are common have better outcomes for children, women, and men than do communities suffering tram high rates of divorce, unmarried childbearing, and high-conflict or violent marriages. As policy makers concerned with social inequality and child well being think about how to strengthen marriage, more funding is needed for research into bath the causes of the marriage gap in child and social well being and ways to close that gap.
Solid research is painting the way toward new family and community interventions la help strengthen marriage. Basic scientific research on marriage and marital dynamics contributes to the development of strategies and programs far helping to strengthen marriages and reduce unnecessary divorce. Who benefits from marriage and why? How can we prevent both divorce and the damage caused by divorce? How can families, counsellors, communities, and public policy help at-risk and disadvantaged parents build healthy marriages?
Taken from 21 Reasons, National Marriage Coalition Australia, 2004