Is Marriage a Greedy Institution?

Bella color, square, 376 dpi

[This is the sixth in my new series of monthly columns. The views expressed here are my own and not the official positions of Unmarried Equality.]

In our matrimaniacal society, there is a lot of bedrock talk about marriage. The institution, we are told, is the bedrock of society, the very foundation of civilization. It is marriage that builds the social bridges that keep us all connected. Single people, in contrast, are the social isolates, lonely and alone. Or so the story goes.

Bedrock talk is not new. In the late 1800s, the sociologist Emile Durkheim proposed that marriage so integrates people into society, and singlehood so alienates them, that single people end up killing themselves more often than married people do. (He was wrong about that. In fact, most claims about how getting married makes people healthier or happier or makes them live longer are grossly exaggerated or just plain wrong.)

But do people really become more connected to neighbors, friends, coworkers, siblings, or parents after they marry than they were when they were single? Popular culture, with song lyrics such as “You are my everything” or “I just want to be your everything,” seems to glorify something different, what I’ve called “intensive coupling.” By that set of values, it is not insular or creepy, but admirable, when the two people in a marriage look to each other

“for companionship, intimacy, caring, friendship, advice, the sharing of the tasks and finances of household and family, and just about everything else. They are the repositories for each other’s hopes and dreams. They are each other’s soul mates and sole mates. They are Sex and Everything Else Partners.”

That’s how I described intensive coupling in Singled Out. Sociologists have a different description of it. They call marriage a “greedy institution.” Once people marry, they focus primarily on each other. Their own nuclear family gobbles up almost all of their time and attention. Everyone else – friends, neighbors, coworkers, and even their own siblings and parents – gets short shrift.

These arguments are no longer theoretical (though they will probably always be ideological). We now have stacks of studies relevant to the question of whether marriage is an institution that integrates and embeds people within their broader families and communities or whether it is instead a greedy institution (at least as it is practiced today, and in the countries such as the US where most of the relevant research has been conducted).

The weight of the evidence is overwhelmingly in support of the hypothesis that it is single people who are more connected to other people, who are doing the work of maintaining social ties and exchanging help and support, and married people who focus primarily on each other. Marriage does, indeed, seem to be a greedy institution these days.

The relevant research includes studies that compare people who have always been single to people who are currently married and also to people who have previously been married (divorced or separated or widowed). Those studies can’t really show that getting married causes people to become more insular, because the married and single people are different people, so maybe other differences between them (and not their marital status) explains the differences in social ties. The stronger research (though still not definitive, in terms of causality) follows the exact same people as they go from being single to getting married: Do they become more connected to other people or less so?

As it turns out, the answer is almost always the same, no matter how you do the research or which measure of greediness or connection or caring you use.

Here are some examples of relevant research findings:

  1. People who have always been single spend more time exchanging help with neighbors and socializing with them than married people do.
  2. People who have always been single spend more time exchanging help with friends and socializing with them than married people do.
  3. People who have always been single are more likely to exchange help with their parents, and have frequent contact with them, than are married people.
  4. People who have always been single are more likely to exchange help with their siblings, and have frequent contact with them, than are married people.
  5. When people get married, they have less contact with their parents and spend less time with their friends than they did when they were single. It is not just a honeymoon effect – in research that followed people for up to six years after the wedding, they were still more insular than they were when they were single. Kids can’t explain the difference – even the married people with no kids were less connected to their family and friends.
  6. Single people keep siblings together. Once people marry, they have less contact with their siblings than they did when they were single. If they get divorced, then they again have more contact.
  7. Single people are more likely to volunteer for civic organizations and participate in the life of their cities and towns than married people are.
  8. In the US, Single people have more friends than married people do. That’s true whether they are men or women and regardless of whether they are parents or have no kids. (Studies from the Netherlands and Great Britain offer similar conclusions.)
  9. Elderly parents are more likely to get help from their grown kids who are single than from those who are coupled. That’s true regardless of whether they are Black or White, and it is true for their sons as well as their daughters.
  10. Single people are more likely to provide long-term care than married people are. When more than 9,000 British adults answered the question, “Do you currently or have you ever regularly looked after someone, for at least three months, who is sick, disabled, or elderly?”, the results were clear. Singles had done so more often than married people.

Are you thinking to yourself, hmm, I thought I had heard just the opposite. That’s what I thought, too, long ago, before I started studying single life and not just practicing it. There have been books written that claim to make the case that it is married people who are more caring and more connected and who are the glue holding our society together. But when I actually studied the data from those books very closely, I found something else entirely. For example, in his book, Marriage in Men’s Lives, Steve Nock claims to have shown that marriage civilizes men, making them more dedicated workers and more generous people. But his own data show that they only work harder in ways that benefit just themselves (for example, working more hours to get more pay, though only in their first marriages); they actually devote less time to the kinds of professional and work groups that would benefit people other than themselves and their own nuclear families. Nock’s data also show that men also become less generous with their friends after they marry.

Of course, all of these studies were published before same-sex marriage became legal all across the U.S. We do not yet know whether gays and lesbians will practice marriage in different ways than heterosexuals do. Perhaps in part because LGBT people were sometimes excluded not just from marriage, but from their own families of origin, there is a rich tradition in such communities of valuing a wide range of social connections, such as friends and fellow activists and supportive members of extended families. The term “families of choice” has origins in LGBT communities. Gays and lesbians have long been in the forefront of experiments in living, creating meaningful lifespaces rather than just following some prescribed path through life.

Will they continue to innovate or will they practice marriage the heterosexual way? Wouldn’t it be interesting if same-sex marriage really did affect heterosexual marriage, not in the ways that its opponents feared, but by turning it into a less greedy institution?

[Note. For more about contemporary innovations in living, as practiced by gays and straights, singles and couples, parents and people who are not parents, and people of different ethnicities and social statuses, check out How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.]

smallest image of cover, How We Live Now


About Bella DePaulo


  1. I have been becoming more & more inspired to promote a more ‘evolutionary trend’ towards ‘Celebrating the Love of Two Lovers’.
    Your writtings have just inspried my writtings… hope not a wee bit too detailed
    Marriage, they say, ‘Is an Institution’,

    One that was created a very long time ago

    for various reasons that made perfect sense to

    those that were

    Part of that old world view.


    in most cultures, married women had very few rights of their own,

    being considered, along with the family’s children,

    the property of the husband

    as such,

    They could not own or inherit property,

    or represent themselves legally.

    Over time,

    A lot of these ‘Non-Equanimeous’ perspectives have been Transcended…

    Another big step up In the

    Evolution of Human Developmental Stage Growth

    is the Transcendence – From

    Myth, Magic & Miracle Based Ethnocentric ‘religious’ views…

    And moving up to the next stages:

    Modern Rational

    Post-Modern Rational

    Pluralist (every one is equal)

    To Finally…


    Beginning the 2cd-Tier of Human Conscious Awareness

    Of which about 5% are currently now operating at.

    There are some very valid points to consider with stage growth,

    You can’t skip stages…

    At best you can accelerate your growing process…


    for a lot of people,

    They are stuck in a ‘traditional’ Spiritual rut.

    The downside of ‘traditions’

    is that

    it keeps a lot of Progressive Higher Perspectives


    Way back ‘when’…

    No specific ritual was prescribed for celebrating a marriage:

    “Marriage vows did not have to be exchanged in a church,

    nor was a priest’s presence required.

    A couple could exchange consent anywhere, anytime.”


    Decrees on marriage of the Council of 1563

    made the validity of marriage dependent upon

    the wedding taking place before a priest and two witnesses


    Establishing the Doctrine of

    Bringing in the fear of God and the Dogmas of Church

    into Love.


    about 40% of Americans are currently drawn to this perspective…

    Which seemed like the ‘thing to do’ 500 years ago,

    Heck ‘

    ‘We’ had just started to figure out the Earth was Not indeed ‘Flat’


    The ‘Theology’ of the times, mixed up with combining the power of the state

    Gave a mighty strong Authoritative pressure to

    Believe in the unbelievable

    Have Un-rational ‘Faith’ in the Myth, Magic and Miracles

    Required by Church & state

    Before your True Love could be

    ‘Sanctioned’ in accordance to Church Doctrine

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    A few hundred years ago,

    the transcendence towards the next higher 3rd-person perspective emerged

    ~ The Modern ‘Rational’ ~

    The capacity to take an

    Objective, Scientific, Universal Perspective

    and thus the switch in identity from a

    Local Ethnocentric identity

    to a universal or global world-centric identity occurs

    A switch from “us”

    to “all of us.”

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    In the late 1960’s,

    The emergence of… Postmodernism.

    Where Traditional modernity introduced a 3rd-person perspective,

    This new stage-known variously as:

    pluralistic, postmodern, relativistic, sensitive, individualistic, multicultural

    came with the emergence of

    a 4th-person perspective

    The capacity to

    Reflect on, and criticize, 3rd-person perspectives,

    including science,

    Leading to a multitude of different or pluralistic views.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    Only a few decades ago developmentalists began to notice

    the emerging of the next

    Highly Integrated Level.


    Begins the 2cd-Tier of Human Conscious Awareness

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    Abraham Maslow had called

    1st tier – “deficiency needs”

    and 2nd tier – “Being needs”

    The 1st tier levels are

    Partial, narrow, excluding, separative, and driven by deficiencies

    2nd-tier levels are

    Inclusive, embracing, comprehensive, integral, and driven by abundance

    Only around 5% of the worldwide population

    is at integral levels of development.

    The Inspirations of creative wholeness tend to trend things upward towards


    Embrace and more integration of many perspectives…

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    To ones that have transcended Ethnocentric religious perspectives of

    only accepting and unconditionally loving those within their group of followers

    Those at Higher developmental growth stages

    can no longer ‘resonate’ with constraints of Lower stage perspectives

    But yet

    Still feel Inspired to Express their Love to a Higher Source

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    This is a Non legal and Non Binding Marriage of True Love that recognizes the Eternal Being in each other

    A Union of Soul Mates

    Not a pesky Bureaucratic Formality

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    Those on

    The emerging second tier of Human Developmental Growth

    are on the cusp of

    Personal Awakening.

    They have grown as far as the leading edge of society

    and now are Naturally inclined towards a Spiritual-ness…

    A key aspect of Spirituality is the ability to

    ‘Be’ in the moment.

    In ‘this’ moment, a life together is fulfilling

    Later down the Road of Life…

    The ever present moment may bring uncharted directions to pursue

    for Inspirations we can’t see currently.

    To Limit one’s self with the huge burdens legally required to buy yourself out of

    a legally binding commitment

    Seems quite the unnecessary expense of wasted time and money

    If the heart is just not in it anymore

    There should be a natural conclusion to move on…

    Not a new car’s worth of Lawyer fees and court costs.

    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

    And Oh Yea…

    No One Is Going To Hell

    for Not accepting Myth, Magic or Miracle based Doctrine of a Church wedding


    for being among the 41% of first time marriages that end with Lawyers

    The societal trend is towards more couples choosing the path of

    A Commitment Ceremony

    For More Enlightening Info Please Check out this Resource:


  1. […] those stories are not accurate descriptions of what single people really are like, and they are most certainly not true of Noreen. Before the […]