Review: The Case for Marriage

The Case For Marriage by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, Doubleday, 2000

By Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller

There are many reasons why The Case for Marriage might make readers uncomfortable, annoyed, or outright angry. Many of you are probably among the 44% of American adults who are not married. The Case for Marriage calls discrimination against you not “injustice” but “simple common sense.” Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (LGBT) readers might find in the book new arguments to bolster the case for legalizing same-sex marriage, but the book’s authors carefully avoid taking a stand on this issue. Happily married couples — who presumably don’t need convincing that marriage was a good choice for them — might agree with Margaret Talbot’s observation in The New York Times, “It’s hard to know who is supposed to read this book or what purpose it might serve.”

But to dismiss the book entirely is to miss a larger issue of critical concern to anyone who believes in fairness and equality: it’s a primer on the arguments used by a growing coalition of conservative organizations to use marriage as a tool to shift our focus away from families’ and children’s real needs. The authors don’t just want to prove “why married people are happier, healthier, and better off financially,” as the subtitle suggests, but why our society should be structured to ensure that any existing inequality will be maintained.

To understand the origins and political uses of this book, one first needs to understand the book’s authors. Linda Waite is a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and the source of the book’s sociological research and academic credentials. Maggie Gallagher is a syndicated columnist and director of the Marriage Project at the Institute for American Values, a conservative think tank. Gallagher is no stranger to writing about marriage — her last book was titled The Abolition of Marriage. That book came with cover endorsements from William Bennett, Robert Bork, and William F. Buckley, Jr., just to give you a sense of the kind of people who admire her work.

The religious and social conservative case for marriage and against divorce, cohabitation, and other “evils,” is hardly new. But many who have been making those arguments feel (not incorrectly) that they’ve lost ground over the past four decades. Today, the majority of marrying couples live together first; Americans spend most of their lives unmarried; and the overwhelming trend is toward increasing acceptance of family diversity.

Enter Social Science

While the moral case against “living in sin” may no longer have the power it once did, the social science case for marriage adds a new twist. Under this new rubric, the reader is submitted the evidence of marriage’s benefits in the form of endless references to sociological studies and reams of footnotes. Each chapter of the book examines a subject like health, sex, finances, or violence, culminating in a list of the ways parents, clergy, teachers, judges, social workers, government officials, and media can take their side defending against what Waite and Gallagher call the “war on marriage.”

Much of their evidence, of course, is highly debatable if not outright distorted. In their eager attempt to show how different cohabitors are from married people, the authors neglect the glaring fact that these two groups are usually the same people. Most cohabitors get married, usually after a fairly short period of living together. Waite and Gallagher claim that cohabitors ” flaunt their differences” from married couples, but this hasn’t been our experience or that of most of the thousands of unmarried couples who contact our national organization, Alternatives to Marriage Project (www.unmarried.org). Like married couples, we eat dinner together every night, enjoy the company of our pets, pay the bills, put out the recycling, support each other through life’s crises, and have clear expectations for a long future together.

The book’s image of unmarried couples, on the other hand, is a caricature of couples who don’t care about family ties, don’t feel responsible for each other’s well-being, aren’t sexually faithful, aren’t happy, and are unsure about the future. This stereotype is as inaccurate and offensive as saying that all women are weak or all old people are senile. That’s because broad-based sociological studies present averages, overlooking individual differences and variation within groups. Waite and Gallagher’s primary source of quotes and stories about unmarried couples is the book American Couples, which was published 18 years ago (they also cite multiple other articles on “living together” that are fifteen to twenty years old — despite the fact that the role of cohabitation has changed dramatically during that time period). American Couples’ co-author Pepper Schwartz cautions against relying on research conducted two decades ago to draw conclusions about today’s cohabitors. She also says it’s important for research to distinguish between cohabitors in committed relationships and those who are “loosely attached,” and writes, “To dismiss cohabitation totally is to take a simplistic approach to that living arrangement. Cohabitation is not right for everyone — but it is surely the right choice for some people.”

In another example of how interpretations of research can be misleading, Waite and Gallagher write that “people who cohabit … are more likely to value all familial relationships less [than people who marry without cohabiting first].” But the source they cite, an article in the journal Social
Forces
, looked at a survey that asked people only how important it is to them to “live close to parents and relatives.” At a time when many families are widely dispersed geographically, it’s insulting to millions of Americans to claim that close-living relatives value their families more than those who live farther away. The book also says that cohabitors “more often define their relationship … as sexually open,” later admitting that 95% of cohabitors say they expect monogamy from their partner (the percentage for married couples is only a few percentage points higher).

Policy Reality Check

But even if a convincing case could be made for marriage and against cohabitation and divorce, Waite and Gallagher’s focus creating on a utopian marriage-centered future does too much damage to people now. There are simply too many people for whom the book’s message no longer applies. Most single people want to get married and don’t need additional pressure to add to their desire to find a partner. Divorced people, members of stepfamilies and blended families, LGBT families, and long-term unmarried couples have already heard loud and clear the cultural message that our families are less-than-perfect. Telling us again that we’re second best doesn’t do anything to help us make our existing relationships and families strong and healthy, imperfections and all.

Waite and Gallagher not only believe that marriage is better for everyone, but they want to ensure that it stays that way. Think that on average, married people are healthier than unmarried ones? Why not help close that gap by recommending universal health care, or at least widespread domestic partner and family recognition benefits? Instead, The Case for Marriage argues the opposite, that we should shore up the current system that arbitrarily allocates health care based on employment, marital status, and sexual orientation. They oppose domestic partner benefits that provide equal pay for the equal work of employees with unmarried different-sex partners.

The same is true for the issue of wealth. We received an email recently from a woman who was denied a promotion because she wasn’t married, which certainly doesn’t bode well for building wealth. Why not work to create laws and policies that prohibit such discrimination? To the contrary, Waite and Gallagher argue that we should increase marriage’s “special legal status” explicitly calling for a legal pedestal that would raise married people high above unmarried ones.

Even in the realm of happiness, Waite and Gallagher are ready with recommendations. They advise family members not to include and welcome unmarried partners as part of the family and to pressure adult children to get married. Sadly, when advice like this is followed, it causes tremendous pain, hurt, and disconnect within families. It concerns us when we hear from people whose parents cut off contact or otherwise “punished” them in an attempt to encourage them to get married or change their sexual orientation. In this way, too, Waite and Gallagher’s recommendations risk increasing the “happiness gap” they claim exists between married and unmarried people, rather than working to decrease it.

Waite and Gallagher write with concern about a “war on marriage.” We’re not aware of any such war. Even in feminist circles, few are against marriage (even Gloria is married now, after all). At Unmarried Equality, we have nothing against marriage and strongly supports the legalization of same-sex marriage. We simply question Waite and Gallagher’s decision to focus on marriage rather than focusing on the health and well-being of individuals and society. When protecting marriage is the primary concern, one can go ahead and argue marriage should be valued while single people, cohabitors, divorced people, stepfamilies, and LGBT people are shamed, ignored, punished or stigmatized.

But if one believes, as we do, in building healthy individuals, families, and societies, then the obvious answer is to respect and support relationships and families regardless of their marital status.


A version of this review appeared in Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, April 2001.