Last summer's publication of Judith Wallerstein's The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce prompted a wind-fall of media reports on the effect of family breakup on children, especially young children. But the reports, print as well as broadcast, have usually focused on the negative effects of divorce, rather than making a positive case for married life.
Now Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher have taken up the challenge to defend marriage in its own right — not just as a “lesser-of-two-evils” alternative to divorce. Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, and Gallagher, a nationally syndicated columnist, pile up the statistics, showing that married people are more likely to express satisfaction with their lives than single or divorced people, less likely to suffer health problems, less prone to alcoholism and drug use, and more likely to report sexual satisfaction than people who have sex outside of marriage.
Married couples reap major economic gains, too, the pair points out. They can hand over the family finances to the more responsible partner. They can specialize — she does the finances, he does car maintenance — which means they can get the same amount of chores done in half the time it would take a single person. And a married couple's income pays for one roof repair job and one toaster; if the two people lived separately, the same income would have to stretch to cover two households.
This may seem like a selfish argument. Get married for the health benefits? What about love?
But Waite and Gallagher subtly show that spouses only reap the benefits of marriage to the extent that they remain loyal to one another. Love, it turns out, is the secret ingredient that makes marriage so healthy.
The more deeply committed a husband is to his wife, the more loyal a wife is to her husband, the more likely both of them are to gain the emotional, physical and financial benefits of marriage. One study found that “husbands and wives who do not believe marriage is forever are far less willing to pool their money,” and thus far less likely to gain the economic benefits of marriage.
Marriage's benefits also come from the social support married couples get. “[M]arriage is not just a label,” the authors write. “It remains a transformative act — marriage not only names a relationship but it creates a relationship between two people, one that is acknowledged, not just by the couple itself, but by the couple's kin, friends, religious community, and larger society.”
Waite and Gallagher's book lacks the passionate prose and moral philosophy that distinguished Gallagher's 1996 book The Abolition of Marriage from the crowd of family-policy books. The present book sometimes feels too laden with statistics.
But The Case for Marriage is a strong challenge to the conventional wisdom that marriage is about “the old ball and chain.” (The book was deemed too controversial by Harvard University Press, which has been roundly criticized for rejecting it.) Waite and Gallagher are very careful to address potential problems in the interpretation of their statistics, and they touch on a wide range of subjects.
The Case for Marriage is a necessary and well-written contribution to the national dialogue on marriage. It presents social science in terms that are easy to understand. Its final chapter offers practical suggestions for strengthening marriage. And its belief that promise-making love is anything but selfish, boring, fleeting or weak is nothing less than inspired.