Want to know the secret to living longer, staying healthier, earning more money, and having great sex? Get married and stay that way.
Want to be labeled a Neanderthal at your next dinner party with the "enlightened" set? Suggest just that.
And, for good measure, tell them that sticking with a bad marriage generally is better for both partners than divorcing. As you're leaving to crawl back to your cave, leave a parting gift on the cocktail table: a copy of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher (Doubleday).
You probably already know much of what this book says. (Hmmm. Marriage good, divorce bad . …) But you may not know why it's true. And that's why the book has sent shock waves through the prevailing wisdom: It gives scientific teeth to traditional arguments for marriage. If you are happily married, it may give you insights into helping troubled friends and relatives avoid divorce.
Waite, a sociology professor at the prestigious University of Chicago—not Cro-Magnon Community College and Bait Shop—says she wouldn't have written the book if she didn't think she had an extremely strong scientific case. Even so, she knew some critics would dismiss it quickly. "A lot of people have a political agenda," she says. "They've already made up their minds. And all they want to hear is stuff that agrees with it."
She concedes that the book's polarizing message has helped its sales: "The conservative community wants to hear this message, but the liberal and the feminist community doesn't." In fact, Harvard University Press—originally scheduled to publish the book—backed out at the eleventh hour for dubious, undisclosed reasons. Here's an educated guess, based on some of the early reviews: Feminists on the cultural left don't like the idea that marriage figures heavily into how happy men and women are.
What's so provocative about Waite and Gallagher's research? Try these findings:
Unmarried people are far more likely to die young—especially men, who on average engage in riskier behavior when single than when married. Statistically, divorce is as dangerous to a man's health as starting to smoke a pack of cigarettes a day. Nine of ten married men will live to be at least sixty-five, while only six of ten single men will. Nine of ten wives make it to sixty-five, but only eight of ten single or divorced women will.
Married people have more money, and their money goes further. If you think about it, two can live almost as cheaply as one. Cohabiting doesn't offer nearly as many financial benefits as marriage, because married couples make long-term plans and decisions. The secret is an added ingredient: commitment.
Married people not only have far more sex than singles, but they enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally. "One reason married people have more sex," the authors state, "is that any single act of sex costs them less in time, money, and psychic energy. They have already made the huge investment in establishing and maintaining a sexual relationship and can lie back and enjoy the dividends." And, the long-term emotional commitment of marriage brings more sexual satisfaction than found with cohabiting couples.
Even in bad, "high-conflict" marriages (excluding when there's abuse), divorce generally creates more problems than it solves. That's especially true when children are involved, since they on average become worse off educationally, financially, and psychologically, from the time their parents get divorced all the way into adulthood. This concept's difficult to accept, and seems illogical to someone "stuck" in a bad marriage. Yet it's borne out. One of the book's keystone pieces of research shows that high-conflict marriages—where partners fight a lot—usually turn good if the couples don't give up. In fact, 86 percent of unhappily married people who stuck it out for five years reported that their marriages became much happier.
What's more, the worst marriages showed the best turnarounds: 77 percent of people who rated their marriages "very unhappy" reported a change to "very happy" or "quite happy" five years later. Waite sees more than just statistics to prove this. "People will come up to me and say, 'My husband and I were really unhappy ten or fifteen years ago, and we thought a lot about getting divorced. I decided I was not going to kick him out, that we were going to stick with it. Now our kids are grown and we're really happy and I'm so glad we stayed together.' That is really news that ought to get out to married couples," she adds. "Just because you're not getting along now doesn't mean that if you get divorced things will get better. And, it doesn't mean if you stay together things will stay this bad. The chances that they'll get worse are low, and the chances that they'll get better are almost overwhelming."
All of this begs the question: What about abuse? Waite's divorce research doesn't specifically address marriages where the arguments become physical, other than to point out that—contrary to media images—they're very rare. While 13 percent of cohabiting couples reported having fought physically during the past year, 4 percent of married couples had. That's still deadly serious, of course, but it throws cold water on earlier research, embraced by progressive culture, that marriage is a "hitting license." It also shows that an overwhelming majority of divorces have nothing to do with physical violence. More than two-thirds of divorces don't even end marriages where the partners argue a lot.
So what is ending so many marriages? Ongoing dissatisfaction. Unmet needs. Boredom. Basically, Waite says, people don't like conflict and pain, and they think it will only get worse, not realizing that research shows quite the opposite. So they give up without much of a fight, and our legal system encourages them with what amounts to a drive-through divorce.
There's been a vicious cycle, too. When divorce laws begat more divorce, couples began treating marriage with more caution—hedging their bets, Waite says. Both partners pursued careers over family, trying to protect their own interests in case the marriage were to end. They waited longer to have children, had fewer children, and spent less energy on marriage and family. After all, why invest heavily in something that might not last? And, guess what? They proved themselves correct.
Swimming Against the Tide
In the same way that no-fault divorce laws and cultural attitudes eroded the institution of marriage over time, Waite views her research as beginning to help build it back … brick by brick. "It took twenty years and it took a lot of different changes to get to where we are now," she says. "It wasn't just people saying, 'Marriage is a bad deal.' It was the sexual revolution and birth control and the women's revolution and political protests … it was the whole constellation of things. So it may take more than one thing to turn this supertanker around. But I think we have a lot of them."
If there's one area where Waite and Gallagher have won over the naysayers, it's in the fact that—news flash—divorce hurts children. Again, discounting violent situations, that's even true when high-conflict marriages end. "One of the myths is that if they get divorced, they'll end their conflict." Waite says. "The truth is, they'll really just change the location of it, from in the kitchen to over the phone, to at the front door when somebody's picking up the kids."
Waite has heard experts from both ends of the spectrum concede that divorce hurts children. A decade ago, those experts wouldn't have agreed. She views it as winning one battle in the culture wars. "I guess in some senses it wouldn't be so interesting to just tell people what they already believe," she says. "I just think it will take a while. There are a number of people in the research community who have changed their minds a lot about the consequences of various choices that we make. And I hope that will begin to change our ideas about how we should live our lives."
Science aside, simple compassion for struggling couples may help stem the divorce tide. Happily married couples can not only be role models, but also encouragers to those who are struggling. One woman who helped Waite with her book told her, "There are key moments when you're having a bad time, if the people around you encourage you to stick with it and say 'Stay; you'll be happier if you do,' it will make all the difference."
This woman told Waite the following story. Once upon a time, she was married and had a child, and a boyfriend. She saw nothing wrong with her husband or her marriage; this was her problem. Still, she considered leaving her husband to marry the boyfriend. "She went into a little diner and an older woman sat down next to her," Waite says. "She struck up a conversation and said, 'You know, I was sort of in that situation twenty years ago. I divorced a perfectly lovely man and I married this new guy. And you know, the only thing I did was change the slippers under the bed.' The woman who was telling the story said, 'I think of her as my guardian angel. I could have made a terrible mistake. And because of her, I didn't.'"
Waite is intrigued enough by the idea of bad marriages going good that she's continuing her research in hopes of finding out what couples do or don't do to increase their chances of success. She theorizes that too many people enter marriage thinking it will meet all of their psychological needs, all of the time, and that they are quickly disillusioned.
"It's sort of like the stock market," she says. "Just because your investments are down this year doesn't mean that, over the 30-year period that you're going to hold them, that you won't have huge gains."
After all, when research shows that something we're doing makes us happier, healthier, and wealthier, reasonable people would conclude that maybe we ought to keep doing that, and encourage others to do the same. Now that's enlightened thinking. mp
Jim Killam teaches journalism at Northern Illinois University. He lives with his wife and three kids in Poplar Grove, Illinois.
Copyright © 2001 by the author or Christianity Today/Marriage Partnership magazine. Click here for reprint information on Marriage Partnership.