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The Latest War Against Marriage


Today thanks to a myriad of sociological studies showing that men, women, and children are better off, not worse off, in committed two-parent families, the campaign against marriage has metamorphosed once again. Increasingly unable to make the case for the sexually liberated single life or the superiority of the single-parent household, the antimarriage warriors now celebrate what they call family diversity.

Maggie Gallagher

In America we've managed to do something extraordinary: We've managed to make marriage, the most basic of all social institutions, controversial. In the last 50 years, differing ideologies have taken up the campaign against marriage, sometimes directly, often more subtly. But lately, the war on marriage has taken a disturbing new turn that threatens to eliminate marriage altogether as a public, legal category and therefore as a social institution conferring special benefits on those who choose to wed. Palimony, domestic partnerships, civil unions, even some versions of so-called marriage tax relief are the newest weapons of choice. Their advocates do not aim to denigrate marriage publicly, as did their predecessors, but to drown it in a sea of competing relationships that the law would treat identically.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, the war against marriage was a male-dominated campaign, launched by Beats and Playboy philosophers against the man in the gray flannel suit who went to work for a faceless corporation to support a whining wife and a passel of bratty kids in the suburbs. The marriage rebels celebrated a hip fantasy world of untethered male sexuality. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, some radicalized women had picked up the cudgels. Joining those militant feminists was a wide range of allies: population controllers, Marxist ideologues, apostles of the sexual revolution. These combined forces launched a far more wide-ranging and powerful assault on marriage, not just as a sexual constraint but as a lifelong parenting bond. Marriage was more than a noose around the necks of guys who wanted good times. It was an oppressive, patriarchal institution that enslaved women, abused children, and undergirded the savagery of capitalism.

Today, however, thanks to a myriad of sociological studies showing that men, women, and children are better off, not worse off, in committed two-parent families, the campaign against marriage has metamorphosed once again. Increasingly unable to make the case for the sexually liberated single life or the superiority of the single-parent household, the antimarriage warriors now celebrate what they call "family diversity." They now argue that, while two parents may be better than one, there is no compelling reason why those parents need to be married. The three-year-old Alternatives to Marriage Project, for example, celebrates unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples, and even "people in relationships of more than two people," as well as the conventionally wed. The goal is no longer to denounce marriage but to deinstitutionalize it, by extending the legal rights and benefits of marriage to more informal unions. Love is all you need, is the new rallying cry of a movement that may constitute the most insidious attack against marriage of all.

Depressed wives

How did this come about? Up until the early 1970s, most people, even the Playboy types, viewed marriage as a benefit to women and a constraint on men. Then, in 1972, the influential feminist sociologist Jessie Bernard flipped conventional wisdom on its head, arguing in her book The Future of Marriage that every marriage is really two marriages: "his" and "hers." While "his" marriage brought the husband health, esteem, and psychological well-being, "her" marriage brought the wife constraint, depression, anxiety, and psychological danger: "The poor mental health of wives is like a low-grade infection that shows itself in a number of scattered symptoms...for to be happy in a relationship which imposes so many impediments on her, as traditional marriage does, a woman might be slightly ill mentally."

So influential was Bernard's critique that even today, according to a recent review of marriage and family textbooks by University of Texas scholar Norval Glenn (published by the Institute for American Values, where I am an affiliate scholar), college students are taught that "marriage has an adverse effect on women's mental health," as one text puts it. "Bernard's investigations showed that the psychological costs of marriage were great for women," chimes in another. "If marriage is so difficult for wives," asks yet a third, "why do a majority surveyed judge themselves as happy?...[S]ince they are conforming to society's expectations, this must be happiness."

At about the same time that Bernard was writing, the divorce revolution conceptually demoted marriage from a lifelong bond to a perpetually "open" choice: The law made the marriage contract unenforceable, and divorce became an individual's unilateral right, at any time and for any reason. An influential line of Supreme Court decisions began to recast traditional societal support for marriage (such as a greater legal obligation to support children born inside of marriage) as a form of discrimination against unmarried people.

For young single women who found themselves pregnant, the campaign against marriage became even more explicit, in fact the new middle-class norm. Population-control groups determined to discourage large families, antiwelfare warriors concerned about the costs to taxpayers of child-rearing, religious groups opposed to divorce, and feminists who believed that marriage trapped women in domesticity joined forces to send an increasingly powerful message to the pregnant teenager: Unwed motherhood was preferable to early marriage. Here, for example, is a 1973 conclusion reached by two influential researchers: "[E]arly marriages have not proved stable.... It therefore appears unwise to encourage teenagers to marry to legalize their sexual activity or their offspring."

School counselors, medical professionals, clergy, and social workers helped spread the message: Having a baby was not a good enough reason to get married, not even to a man one loved and lived with. Despite abundant research documenting the difficulties of single motherhood for both mother and child, the campaign against "shotgun" marriage continues to this day. Reflecting community norms, high school health textbooks typically portray single motherhood as a misfortune that, with pluck, self-esteem, and community support, teens can overcome. By contrast, early marriage, as one typical high school textbook warns, "can be disastrous." Married teens "feel like social outcasts."

Young people are listening to and acting on their elders' warnings against marriage. Between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, the proportion of single pregnant teens who wed before the child's birth plummeted from almost 50 percent to 16 percent. The social pressure not to marry in order to legitimate a pregnancy has moved up, as our definition of "early" marriage expands to include adult women who wed while in their 20s. By the early 1990s, single pregnant women in their early 20s were about twice as likely as they were in the 1970s to choose unwed motherhood over marriage. Pregnant 18- and 19-year-olds teenagers but legal adults were three times less more likely to choose single motherhood over marriage as they were 30 years ago. Today, about 40 percent of births out of wedlock are to women cohabiting with a man, usually their baby's father. As University of Michigan professor Pamela Smock put it in a recent study, "The widely cited increase over recent years in nonmarital childbearing is largely due to cohabitation and not to births to women living without a partner."

This flies in the face of research showing that "shotgun" marriages are more successful than many suppose. In one study, for example, 75 percent of young white women who married before the birth of their first babies were still married ten years later. By contrast, research shows that having a child out of wedlock permanently lowers a woman's likelihood of going on to make a successful marriage. When I interviewed young white unwed mothers, many of whom were living with their baby's father, and I asked them why they were not married, one of the most common responses was, "I don't want him to feel he has to marry me." Others answered, "I'm too young to marry." For many American women, marriage and motherhood are increasingly seen as separate and unrelated categories.

During the 1970s, the campaign against marriage largely touted the joys of radical personal autonomy. Marriage was supposed to be a form of "legalized rape" or "slavery." This openly negative campaign later gave way to efforts to reshape attitudes, not toward marriage per se but toward single motherhood. The Murphy Brown debate (in which the television character proudly declined to remarry her former husband and baby's father) was part of a larger cultural effort to remake the mother-child relationship into an independent household unit. To say that a mother "ought" to be married implied that women "needed" men.

Lately, however, there has been accumulating scholarly evidence that single motherhood has wide and powerful negative effects on child well-being. Social-science evidence makes clear that except in violent or high-conflict marriages, there are no benefits to children from divorce, only serious risk. Children whose parents don't get or stay married are more likely to fail at school, to drop out, to slip into poverty, to become welfare-dependent, to be physically and sexually abused, to experience both physical and mental health problems, to be involved in criminal activity, to abuse drugs or alcohol, to become sexually active at young ages and with multiple partners, and to become young unwed mothers or fathers themselves. As adults, children raised outside of intact marriages are on average less successful in work and family life than children whose parents got and stayed married.

Twisting the law

For that reason, the anti-marriage advocates have largely abandoned attacks on marriage per se in favor of attacks on the legal benefits that society confers on the married. This indirect campaign is potentially far more destructive to marriage as an institution, for it tends to eliminate the very definition of marriage as a legal and social category. In 1999, for example, the Canadian Supreme Court declared that laws favoring marriage are discriminatory when they do not offer the same benefits to same-sex couples. The Vermont high court used much the same logic in requiring the state legislature either to extend the institution of marriage to gay couples or to create a separate, identical institution (the "civil union") that offers the same legal benefits. In Vermont at least, civil unions are restricted to same-sex couples who cannot legally marry. In Canada, by contrast, legislators eliminated federal legal distinctions between married and all unmarried couples who have lived together for at least a year. The term "spouse" has for most purposes been replaced in Canada's federal code by the term "spouse/common law partner." France created a new legal category, "civil solidarity pacts," which offer marital benefits to any combination of domestic partners, from two gay men to a priest and his housekeeper.

Here in the United States, the American Law Institute, a prestigious body of scholars whose work influences state legislatures, recently developed a series of model laws that would impose marital responsibilities and rights (such as alimony) on couples who had cohabited for as little as two years. And in a sweeping essay in the Summer 2000 issue of Family Law Quarterly, the distinguished legal scholar Harry D. Krause argued that vast changes in social norms and contraceptive technology over the past few decades have made the traditional boundaries between marriage and non-marriage obsolete. "[M]arriage may not yet be history," Krause wrote, "but it should be seen for what it has become: one lifestyle choice among many." Instead of drawing a sharp line between marriage and other forms of cohabitation, Krause suggested that lawmakers and judges adopt a functional approach that would decide on a situation-by-situation basis what kinds of associations merit special social benefits and privileges: "Married and unmarried couples who are in the same factual positions should be treated alike." In short, Krause was calling for the wholesale abolition of marriage as a legal status in order to bring the law into tune with his view of social reality.

Strange bedfellows

Such efforts to blur to the point of invisibility the line between marriage and other relationships are usually associated with political liberalism. But oddly enough, one of the policy proposals that would work to deinstitutionalize marriage comes from the right: some versions of getting rid of the marriage penalty in the tax law. Under current law, the penalty kicks in whenever the joint income of a married couple pushes them into a higher tax bracket on their joint return than they would pay if they were two cohabitating lower-bracket singles. Various proposals exist for eliminating the marriage penalty, but many economic conservatives advocate, at least in theory, a system in which all taxpayers, married or not, would pay taxes only on their own income. The rationale for this proposed "neutral" tax code, in which the government would ignore workers' marital status and essentially get rid of the joint return, is that the marriage penalty discourages married women, who typically earn less than their husbands, from remaining in the labor force.

Thus, quite unwittingly, some supply-siders of the right have joined the social engineers of the left in the war on marriage, seeing the individual's relationship with employer and government as prior to, and more important than, the special relationship and economic partnership of a husband and wife. For those who care about the fate of marriage, exchanging a marriage penalty for what is essentially a homemaker penalty taxing one-earner married couples at higher rates than two-earner married couples with the same income is a net loss. Two-career couples have fewer children and are far more divorce-prone than marriages where women work part-time or not at all. Many proposals to eliminate the marriage penalty, including the "second-earner deduction" proposed by George W. Bush during his presidential campaign, are essentially anti-marriage.

Being better off

Should marriage disappear as an institution, the harm to society would be immeasurable. In our new book, The Case for Marriage, University of Chicago professor Linda Waite and I take a look at a large and growing body of social-science evidence documenting the unique benefits of marriage for adults and children. Literally thousands of studies in economics, psychology, medicine, sexology, law, demography, sociology, and family science point to the same conclusion: In every way that scientists know how to measure, married people are better off on average. Marriage transforms people's lives in ways that make them, their children, and their communities better off. Adults who marry live longer, healthier, happier lives. They have lower rates of suicide, substance abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, depression, anxiety, and anomie. They earn more money than similarly situated men and women who are not married, and with the money they earn, they build more wealth. Married people are less likely than singles with comparable incomes to experience economic hardship, which economists define as trouble paying basic bills. Children whose parents don't get and stay married are at greater risk for just about every bad thing that can happen to a child in the early 21st century.

In addition to the personal costs to children and adults, there are substantial public costs to the retreat from marriage. More than 100 scholars and civic and religious leaders from across the ideological spectrum signed onto The Marriage Movement: A Statement of Principles, released last summer (and available at The statement urged Americans to strengthen marriage and reduce divorce and unmarried childbearing. In addition to the costs to children, these scholars and reformers noted there are as yet unmeasured, substantial taxpayer costs to divorce and childbearing out of wedlock, not only in welfare and food stamps but in foster care, special education, child-support collections, crime control, domestic violence, substance abuse, and Medicaid and Medicare payouts.

Marriage is not just one of many private lifestyle choices. Neither is it primarily a consumer good, a generator of lovely internal gratifications. As our book shows, it is actually a powerful wealth-producing institution, comparable to education in its ability to create and sustain social and human capital. Where the data make it possible, we compare the marriage bargain with the deal that cohabitating couples make. Contra Harry Krause and his ilk, there is virtually no evidence that living together is the functional equivalent of marriage. Cohabitators receive at best a small part of the benefits of marriage (shared rent and chores, perhaps), and in many cases they receive no benefits at all.

Diminshed returns

Even on a purely emotional level, cohabitation and marriage are not equivalent. In a study titled "Marriage and Happiness," published in 1998 in the Journal of Marriage and Family, two researchers look at data from 17 developed countries, from Japan and Sweden to the United States. In every country but one (Northern Ireland), married people were significantly happier than singles. Cohabitators, by contrast, received only a tiny fraction of the happiness boost associated with marriage. Part of the reason married people were happier is that married people reported more financial satisfaction and better health than singles, although a significant portion of their happiness remained unexplained after controlling for these variables. Cohabitators, by contrast, were not any more likely to say they were financially satisfied or healthier than singles. Neither were they happier in the unexplained ways that married people reported.

The simple truth is that cohabitators are not in the same "factual" position as married couples. The decision to cohabit, rather than marry (at least among heterosexual couples who are not engaged to each other), is not a simple act of sloth. It means something. One of the things it means is that at least one of the partners does not want the greater public, financial, sexual, and emotional responsibilities that marriage entails. Perhaps he wants to reserve the right to choose someone better in the future. Perhaps she is willing to share her bed but not her bank accounts. Precisely because cohabitators refuse to accept permanent, public responsibility to one another, they do not receive the same returns as married couples.

But marriage can work these wonders only when it is not treated as just another private decision. The reason marriage has transformative effects that other relationships, such as cohabitation, do not is that marriage is a public act and a social norm, publicly recognized and supported by family, friends, faith communities, and government. Cohabitation is an essentially private relationship, so we do not have firm social norms about how cohabitators should behave.

In November 2000, the Pontifical Council on the Family released a statement titled Family, Marriage and "De Facto" Unions that raised many of these same points. Cohabitation is not quasi-marriage. "De facto unions are characterized precisely by the fact that they ignore, postpone, or even reject the conjugal commitment," the statement said. "They are characterized by their strong assertion to not take on any ties."

Ccommitment to permancence

It is not unjust to make legal benefits hinge on marriage, because married people have assumed the public legal obligations to each other, and to any children of their union, that cohabitators have refused, the statement points out. To give marital rights to those who have refused its responsibilities is unjust as well as imprudent. Married people do not merely love and care for one another; they owe each other, and their children and parents, love and care as a matter of public record. By making a public commitment to permanence, a promise to love "no matter what," married people become better and more reliable lovers. As the Vatican statement concluded: "The bond reciprocally assumed has a reinforcing effect in turn on the love from which it is derived, fostering its permanence to the advantage of the partners, the children, and society itself."

The benefits of marriage flow not just to the married couples but outward: to their parents, to their children, and to the state, which is not burdened with the care of fatherless children or childless elderly. Marriage protects the dignity of children who are otherwise too often viewed as accidents of biology, rude intruders on their parents' sexual relations. But marriage also protects the dignity of grandparents and other kin: For "elderly persons can look to the future with confidence and certainty, knowing they are surrounded and taken care of by those whom they have taken care of for many years," the Vatican statement noted.

By contrast, a recent story in USA Today points out that today's high rate of marital instability, coupled with a plunge in childbearing, is fueling a crisis in caretaking for the elderly. "Most at risk are divorced dads who have lost close touch with their children," notes writer Karen Peterson. "The elderly may be able to rely on the expanded step-network [of stepchildren and other half-relatives] for an occasional dinner or symphony ticket," researcher Lynn White of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln told Peterson. "But the network will not be there to help you go to the toilet."

Worse than Playboy

Extending marital benefits to unmarried people does not increase their freedom, as the anti-marriage advocates assume, but instead expands the realm of state control over their lives, as the government takes over the care of people after family life breaks down. Unmarried couples will experience substantial intrusions into their property and personal arrangements, and married couples will gradually lose the greater protection that comes from clearly recognized status boundaries distinguishing marriage from other relationships. For a social institution, to lose its public boundary is to lose its power. If you can no longer clearly tell married couples from other couples, marriage can no longer function as a social institution, sending powerful messages to the couples, their kin, and their community about how they ought to behave and how they ought to be treated.

The latest war against marriage looks like a benign campaign, aimed at making the unmarried feel better about themselves and securing for them the financial and status benefits that now go automatically to the legally wed. It doesn't look at all like the scorched-earth assault that certain flamboyant feminists launched against marriage three decades ago. But if this latest onslaught succeeds and family life dissolves into a soup of voluntary decisions about lifestyle the social costs will be so high that we'll wish we had to contend only with the antimale militants and the Playboy fantasists who launched yesteryear's war against marriage.



Maggie Gallagher. "The Latest War Against Marriage." Crisis 19 no. 2 (February 2001).

Reprinted by permission of the Morley Institute a non-profit education organization. To subscribe to Crisis magazine call 1-800-852-9962.

The Author

Maggie Gallagher is executive director of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship.

Copyright © 2001 Crisis
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