Bella’s Blog

Bella DePaulo2

New Monthly blog from Bella DePaulo.

Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of  Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and  the forthcoming How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. She writes the “Living Single”  blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com.

The views expressed here are my own and not the official position of Unmarried Equality.

The Marriage Opportunists Are Coming – We Need to Be Prepared

Our organization, Unmarried Equality, puts our goal right in our title. We want equality for people who are not married. We are about social justice. Our previous title,  “Alternatives to Marriage Project,” underscored our core belief that there are many different roads to a good life – marriage is not the only one.

In the 1950s, when just about everyone married – typically at a very young age – and hardly anyone divorced, marriage really was the norm and everything else was an “alternative.” Now, though, the number of adults in the U.S. who are not married is approaching the number who are (and by one count, has already exceeded it). The nuclear family, still a sentimental centerpiece of American
life, is now a distinct minority. Knock on any door at random across the country and you are more likely to be met by a single person living alone than a family of mom, dad, and the kids.

In our numbers, we who are not married should have great strength. Our values, too, should redound to our benefit. Equality is a great American value, so our quest for it should be heralded as one of the new sources of pressure on that
revered moral arc that bends toward justice.

But that is not what’s happening.

Instead, a new pro-marriage movement is emerging from Institute of American Values. The proponents formed a Marriage Opportunity Council; I’ll call them the marriage opportunists. Pro-marriage activism has been part of the American scene for decades. What is new this time is that the marriage opportunists claim to be uniting the left and the right, conservatives and liberals,
in a common quest to improve Americans’ opportunities to marry.

The Argument of the Marriage Opportunists

Also new is their argument, as articulated by David Blankenhorn, William Galston, Jonathan Rauch, and Barbara Defoe Whitehead earlier this year in a cover story for the Washington Monthly. The authors took two undisputed trends – the growth of inequality and the decline of marriage – and tied them together. Want to do something about the inequality in American society? They have an answer: Make marriage more achievable.

Marriage, they note, has increasingly become a class-based institution.
The most highly-educated and economically secure people are marrying each other and having kids who grow up in their married-parent homes. Those who are less educated and less well-off are less likely to get married or stay married and more likely to have kids who grow up in single-parent homes. The kids of the married parents do better than the other kids, who get trapped in “cultural patterns that become ‘baked in’ over time…” The cycle needs to be stopped, the marriage opportunists argue, by tearing down the barriers to marriage and incentivizing Americans to get married and have kids – in that order.

The argument is so thoroughly conservative that persuading the right to sign
on should be no problem, except for the fact that they are being implored to make
a big concession: Stop fighting same-sex marriage. It is here and it is not going away. Instead of seeing people such as gays and lesbians, as well as single mothers, as opponents, they should be viewed as “potential recruits” to project marriage.

Gays and lesbians, most often aligned with the left, have already shown their commitment to marriage by putting their quest to legalize same-sex marriage at the center of their political agenda. Now, the argument goes, gays and lesbians who marry and start families care about kids just as much as conservatives always have. They are on board, too.  Plus, with same-sex marriage winning the day legally, progressives purportedly can champion marriage without turning their backs on the LGBT community. All those concerns about marriage being “patriarchal, confining, or reactionary”? The marriage opportunists believe we are over all that now.

Marriage opportunists believe in Magical Marital Transformation. Get married, they think, and all sorts of good outcomes will follow, including wealth, happiness, successful kids, and caring communities. Marriage, they claim, “strengthens social bonds. It is a wealth-producing institution. It’s almost certainly society’s most pro-child institution.” They describe the two-parent
married family as “a touchstone of America’s economic and moral vitality.” The word “moral” is significant. They really do seem to think that married people are morally superior people.

What the Marriage Opportunists Are Not Acknowledging: Myth-busting and Fact-checking

The belief in magical marital transformation is so widespread, and so rarely challenged,  that is has become ensconced as part of the conventional wisdom of our time. The problem, though, is that these claims – that marriage transforms miserable, isolated single people into blissfully happy couples who become more connected to other people and raise more successful children – are often exaggerated or just plain false. I have made this case repeatedly and in great detail, first in Singled Out and more recently and even more comprehensively in Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong.

To mention just one example, the claim that marriage “strengthens social bonds”  or builds community is in some important ways the opposite of the truth. Study after study has shown that it is single people, more so than married people, who more often visit, support, and stay in touch with their parents and siblings. They are also more likely to help, encourage, and spend time with neighbors and friends. People who marry become more insular, even if they don’t have kids.

An analysis of recent Census data also challenges the basic premise of the marriage opportunity agenda that it is family structure that is to blame for poverty and inequality. The Council on Contemporary Families found that “there are almost as many poor or near-poor children in two-parent families as one-parent ones.” They concluded that “financial security, even more than household composition, shapes children’s everyday experiences in ways that contribute to growing inequality.”

The marriage opportunists are correct, though, in their claim that getting married is likely to result in economic benefits (though divorce can reverse them). They note, for example, that marriage “tends to improve earning power, particularly of men.” What they do not admit is the role of outright discrimination in producing this outcome. As I noted in Singled Out, married men are paid substantially more than single men even when they are similar in accomplishments and seniority, and even when the married and single men are identical twins. Also left unsaid in the very lengthy Washington Monthly article was the fact that there are more than 1,000 federal laws that benefit and protect only those who are legally married. Married people do better economically than unmarried people not because they are morally superior but because they are politically blessed. The mere act of marrying cracks open a pinata of special treats.

Fundamental to the marriage opportunity agenda is the belief that just about everyone wants to marry. But that’s an ideological belief, not a factual one. In the Washington Monthly article, Blankenhorn and his colleagues claimed to have empirical support when they said, “Polled in 2010, only 12 percent of Americans told the Pew Research Center that they did not want to get married.” But if you actually read the report, “The decline of marriage and the rise of new families,” you will see that the percentage of Americans who said they didn’t want to marry was 25 percent, not 12 percent. Among those who were previously married, nearly half (46 percent) said that they did not want to marry. Even considering just the overall figure of 25 percent, though, does that mean (as the marriage opportunists seem to imply) that 75 percent of people do want to marry? Actually, no. Less than half (46 percent) said they want to marry. The other 29 percent said that they were not sure.

The marriage opportunists have also made a claim about a consensus that does not really exist. They have put together people (usually from the right) who have used the term “family values” to mean the valuing of just one kind of family  with other people (usually from the left) who have advocated the legalization of same-sex marriage, and then talked as if they had nearly the whole wide world on their side. They don’t. People who are single at heart – who live their most meaningful lives as single people – do not buy into an agenda that aims to marginalize them. Members of Unmarried Equality want equality without marrying. So do the all the people who have come together under the banner “Against Equality.” As gays and lesbians with a marriage agenda were attracting most of the limelight, many others were signing on to a document called “Beyond same-sex marriage: A new strategic vision for all our families and relationships.” Their statement proclaimed that “marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others.”

Social Norms and Public Policies: What the Marriage Opportunists Want

For well over a decade, I have been criticizing the singlism (stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against single people) and matrimania (the over-the-top hyping of marriage and coupling and weddings) that are pervasive in American society. The marriage opportunists, it seems, would like more of both.

The 1,000+ laws that privilege married people and discriminate against single people are not enough for the marriage opportunists. They want public policies to include even more marriage incentives.

The marriage opportunity agenda actually includes a number of policy recommendations that I find totally noncontroversial and even laudable – except for the matrimaniacal couching of those goals. For example, they would like to see “apprenticeship and training innovations to help those without a college degree enter the workforce” as well as “the removal of unnecessary impediments to workforce participation.” They also hint at wanting to lower rates of incarceration. However, the goals of those policies, as the marriage opportunists see them, are not to improve the lives and the dignity of all people, but to make them more marriageable.

The esteemed marriage scholar, Andrew Cherlin, who has also expressed support for the new coming together of the left and the right to reverse the retreat from marriage, mentioned another worthy proposition in a recent op-ed in the New York Times: extending the earned-income tax credit to adults with no children. He explains that people such as Republican Representative Paul Ryan are behind the extension because they hope it “will increase their incentive to work, and help them marry and start families.” Again, the ultimate goal is not fairness or equality or freedom from poverty, it is marriageability.

I care about many of the same big-picture problems and goals as the marriage opportunists do. But my caring is less confined. They care about growing inequality and want to reverse it by getting more people to marry. I care about growing inequality and want to reverse it by implementing policies that do not privilege marriage over every other way of living a life. They care about helping
kids and want to do so by getting more couples to marry before having kids. I care about helping kids and want to do so with policies that help them directly, regardless of the marital status of their parents.

The very essence of what marriage opportunists want is “broad access to marriage.” What I want is broad access to a good life for all humans.

Rather than herding all Americans into the marital lane and then rewarding them extravagantly once they get there, I’d like to keep all lanes open and value all of the important people in our lives. To give just one example of a policy change, we could expand the Family and Medical Leave Act. Currently, workers in eligible workplaces can take time off to care for a parent or a child. Married people are also covered to care for their spouse. People who are not married and want to take time to care for someone especially important to them, such as a sibling or close friend, are not eligible to do so. They should be.

The marriage opportunists don’t just want material benefits. They want social ones, too. As Blankenhorn and his colleagues noted, marriage needs “social legitimacy and broad cultural buy-in.” They want more acclaim for married people, and by implication, less for unmarried ones. When they said that “matrimony was bringing new self-esteem and social inclusion to previously marginalized gay people and families,” they meant that as a good thing. I think it is shameful; marital status should not be the criterion for self-esteem or social inclusion.

The Washington Monthly authors want more research, particularly studies that provide “evidence on why marriage matters for gay couples and their children, just as scholars have long done on why marriage matters for straight couples and their children.” But if they only want research showing that Marriage Wins, then they don’t want research at all – they want propaganda. There truly is a research deficit, but it is not in the field of marriage. Scholars interested in the topic have access to funding for their research, a glut of journals and textbooks and conferences dedicated to disseminating what they find, and university departments on marriage and family and the professorships and students that go with them. We are never going to be lacking for research on marriage. What we really need is more research on life outside of marriage. It is not just important for single people. Americans now spend more years of their adult life not married than married.

Should We Be Worried?

The marriage opportunists cannot change the course of history with their arguments.  For decades, Americans have been forging new ways of living and loving and raising healthy, happy kids – or not having kids at all. All the rhetoric in the world is not going to persuade 21st century Americans in huge numbers to pair up and pivot back to the 1950s, even if the version of marriage dangled in front of them includes gays and lesbians and women who have careers, and gets
loaded with even more protections and unearned benefits than it already is.

They can, though, have an impact. They have access to big-time media. For their cover story, the Washington Monthly gave them space equivalent to about seven op-ed articles. Other influential outlets got in line. CNN, for example, published “Why liberals should get behind marriage” and at the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote a column titled, “When liberals blew it.”

They also have money and the huge institutional resources amassed in their think tanks, their organizing, and their access to power. We cannot ignore them.

 

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