Just Because People Are Staying Married, Doesn’t Mean Marriage is Working.

The NY Times writes last week about marriage, infidelity and Mark Sanford,

Despite strong social riptides working against it — the liberalization of divorce laws, the vanishing stigma of divorce, the continual online temptations of social sites like MySpace or Facebook — the marriage bond is far stronger in 21st-century America than many may assume. Infidelity is one of the most common reasons cited by people who divorce. But surveys find the majority of people who discover a cheating spouse remain married to that person for years afterward. Many millions more shrug off, or work through, strong suspicions or evidence of infidelity. And recent trends in marriage suggest that the institution itself has become more resilient in recent years, not less so.

The article looks at statistics and finds that since more people are staying married, despite the temptations to get divorced or cheat, marriage is working. It ignores one key fact, that perhaps less people are actually getting married, but more often just live together. The article does acknowledge that since people get married older, they are more clear about what they want and are better equipped at “making it work.”
Firstly, if it is true, that people stay together after infidelity, looking at examples of public officials is not a good gauge of this since public couples have more at stake to stay together and not be destroyed by the public eye and the news media. They want to make an example of how they can overcome obstacle in their relationships, even if it is at great personal cost.
Secondly, if people are staying together despite infidelity, it could be for a variety of reasons. One, the pressure of marriage, culturally and financially doesn’t allow for all the transgressions we think our “free” society allows and second, our view of monogamy has shifted and we can accept when someone falls off the path of heteronormative monogamy. I am sure there are more open marriages now than there were say 30 years ago.
But that doesn’t change the main argument in the article which is really about how marriage is a resilient social institution. And I think it is safe to say the fact that marriage has become a booming industry, increasing cultural norm in almost retrograde terms and the government’s re-commitment to keep it between a man and a woman are not innocent players in this supposed resiliency. So I guess the question is, has anything really changed? Has feminism helped at all in helping women not buy into the industry of marriage?
Well, interestingly, it seems that feminism is part of what is keeping marriage working.

Some of the same social changes that have unsettled traditional 1950s-era marriages have seemingly deepened them in the 1990s and 2000s. Today women are contributing more financially to relationships than earlier generations, and men are contributing more to the domestic duties. Compared with earlier generations, men and women today are more likely to marry someone like themselves, with a similar educational background, experts say. The relationship is less about dividing economic and domestic duties and more about shared interests and mutual happiness.

That is something I can buy, but I still take issue with the “who” of these articles. Only a handful of my friends are actually getting married. Many of them may want to, but many of them are having kids without husbands and they are not getting married. Some because they don’t want to, or they haven’t found someone to marry or they don’t have access to the means to have a wedding. I am over studies that are just about how middle class people stay married and cheat or do not cheat. What are the relationship habits of people that don’t marry, that try alternatives, that don’t have social access to marriage (the queer community, poor people, etc), what are they doing? Their behavior will tell us much more about the institution of marriage than just looking at statistics of how many people are staying married.

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32 Comments

  1. Alphanista
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    I agree, but what does a “working” marriage really mean? Each couple would define this on their own needs and terms. What works for some, may not work for others. I would just say people are divorcing less because of money, its costs too much.

  2. B
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I was in a “women’s studies” class where my professor insisted that one of the risk factors for divorce was you and/or your partner not being religious. (She made it sound like non religious people are destined for divorce and unhappiness) But what she doesn’t understand about this statistic is that while religious people might be more inclined to stay married it is oftentimes because divorce is against their underlying beliefs and are forced to remain in unhappy marriages.
    I agree with your article that although more people might be staying married, marriage may not be working better.

  3. Kat
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Hmm… This is very interesting. I don’t know where I’d stand on the statements put forth above, but I do know my own marriage is working well (so far). I do know quite a few couples simply living together, with and without kids, houses etc., and I’m right at that age where people tend to get married. I like the idea that feminism is helping keep marriages together though!
    We lived together for 3 years before taking the leap to marriage, just to make sure we were sure, ready and could afford a wedding. Honestly we wanted to wait for TRUE marriage equality (GLBT allowed) to get married, but between tax benefits and family pressure we caved in and just got it done. We’ve known for a while that we were both ‘done looking’ so it wasn’t like we only did it for the societal norm thing…
    Bonny – I would be so mad to hear that professor! I’m Pagan and my husband is an Adventist Christian and we’re just fine! My folks are Agnostic and Catholic, have had an infidelity problem and are going on 30 years!

  4. stellarose
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Interesting, because I recently read the opposite statistic: that (evangelically) religious people were more likely to get divorced than others. The analysis (which I have not looked into independently) had something to do with age at first marriage (lower than average) and socio-economic level (divorce being more common amongst less weathy people, prob. due to economic pressures).

  5. Pencils
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    that don’t have social access to marriage (the queer community, poor people, etc)
    First, I don’t understand this–how do poor people not have social access to marriage? Weddings cost a lot, but marriages don’t, you can go down to City Hall and get married for not very much if you want to be married.
    Anyway, I’m married and very happy. My marriage works. My husband is a feminist and we have a very egalitarian partner relationship, and I believe that feminism has directly influenced our marriage and our lives together.

  6. B
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    Your statistics sound more reasonable. She was a very conservative woman and I think was trying to push her views on my class. She also said people are more likely to divorce if they cohabit beforehand.

  7. Brandi
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Only a handful of my friends are actually getting married.
    Samhita, this is the third time I can think of off the top of my head when you’ve pointed out that you and your friends don’t get married and thus draw conclusions about the state of marriage/relationships from it. So what? Your assumption that the argument in the article is wrong because you don’t see your friends getting married is the most basic of social science errors.
    As for the piece itself, I think marriage is far more complicated than a single statistic, and I’ve felt this way since studying marriage-related stats in family soc classes. The divorce rate is particularly problematic for me for a number of reasons, so any article that discusses “recent” marriage stability is going to have some scientific problems from the start.
    I don’t agree with your analysis, however. I think you’ve made a number of hasty judgments and assumptions about marriage. Here are a couple of examples.
    Firstly, if it is true, that people stay together after infidelity, looking at examples of public officials is not a good gauge of this since public couples have more at stake to stay together and not be destroyed by the public eye and the news media.
    Can you honestly say that a public official has “more at stake” because of media pressure rather than, say, people who are committed to the religious position that divorce is wrong or people who have children and don’t want them to split time between two families? I’m not sure I’d use highly-visible couples in comparison to an “average” middle-class family simply because the dynamics of the relationships likely are different for a variety of reasons. I find it disingenuous at best for you to assume that the media glare equals more at stake than maintaining/repairing the family and partnership of marriage.
    As someone who’s faced both media criticism for my political activism (though certainly not to the extent of governors and Senators) and a married parent of small children, I can say unequivocally that the media criticism (and the death threats from nuts watching the news) are far easier than the internal pressure to make good decisions for my children.
    second, our view of monogamy has shifted and we can accept when someone falls off the path of heteronormative monogamy. I am sure there are more open marriages now than there were say 30 years ago.
    In an open marriage, being non-monogamous *isn’t* cheating. Your argument breaks down when you make that leap. For people in open marriages, we don’t consider a secondary sexual parter as falling off the path of heteronormative monogamy. We consider it part of the bounds of our relationship. Please do not compare what we do as open spouses to cheating. It IS NOT the same.
    Making comparisons about marriage over the history of the institution is difficult because marriage is an evolving concept. I highly suggest anyone interested in an excellent historical review of marriage read Marriage, A Hitory.

  8. Brandi
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    The cohabitation stats are widely accepted in sociological circles. All of the studies I’ve read show that people who cohabitate are more likely to get divorced. In my soc research discussions, we developed the working hypothesis that people who cohabitate have more liberal views of marriage and thus will get divorce if there are relationship problems.
    On a personal note, my husband and I lived together for 3 years before getting married. We’ve been married for 5. I don’t see a significant difference in life as a married couple versus a cohabiting couple besides the obvious tax/insurance benefits and the social acceptance of us as a unit. I’m not sure if people simply hit a rocky patch after marriage and decide it’s not going to work or if there’s a qualitative difference for some folks once they’re married.

  9. Posted June 30, 2009 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

    One thing I like is how married people succumb or whatever to the temptations of the MySpace and Facebook. A new medium in which to cheat does not necessarily mean an increase in cheating, just an increase in people who…communicate online?
    These kind of self-justifying, self-reassuring studies are as useless as the marriages of politicians as a mirror.

  10. cattrack2
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Your professor is right on both counts. What she might not have pointed out is why. The reason is that the stats on co-habitation don’t control for religiosity. Once you strip out the highly religious, the stat flips & length of co-habitation becomes positively correlated with length of marriage; that is, among the non-religious, co-habitation is positively correlated with length of marriage. Religiosity–unsurprsingly since many relgions strongly frown on divorce–is positively correlated with length of marriage. But since religiosity is negatively correlated with co-habitation, unless its controlled for you’ll see odd conclusions. While this finding varies somewhat in strength the two correlations have been true for a generation.

  11. stellarose
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Sorry, a little off topic but since a few people have mentioned the tax benefits of marriage I have to point out that marriage does not have tax benefits for everyone. I pay a HUGE marriage penalty now that I am married, because my husband and I make the same amount of money and knock each other into the next tax bracket (in a marriage where one person makes nothing and the other earns a lot, this can actually knock the earner down into a lower bracket). Its something that really annoys me because I see it as being a tax on people with economically equal partnerships.
    (I fully understand this is a problem of privileged, wealthy people. It still annoys me that I have to pay much more taxes than my male colleagues who have stay-at-home wives even though we make the same amount of money.)

  12. Brandi
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

    Yes, you’re right, and I’m sorry I misspoke on the tax benefits. For us, the benefit has been insurance. We got married because I wanted to freelance and needed insurance. As a self-employed person, I pay a far higher percentage in taxes than when I was single and company-employed.

  13. inflammatorywrit
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help but feel that there is a bit of judgment being thrown on marriage and married people here. I kind of resent the implication that by getting married, I “bought into the industry of marriage”. I think that marriage – whether legal or otherwise – can be a wonderful thing when you are in a healthy, functional, egalitarian relationship (whatever that means to you). I decided to get married because I loved my husband and because I wanted him to be my life partner both legally and otherwise. In fact, I think my feminism has helped me be a better and more thoughtful partner and person.
    Marriages often fail because one partner is not getting their needs met, and my feminist sensibilities (and my husband’s, for that matter) have taught me to stand up for myself, to be my own person, and to ask for the things I need from a partner. We treat each other as equals, and we bring our own strengths and qualities into the relationship that complement our marriage rather than expecting that it will fix all of our problems. I don’t see what is wrong with the choice to be married, get married, or stay married if that’s what a couple decides. I do not think that marriage has to be an affront to feminism. What of two lesbians who wish to marry? Are they buying into the patriarchy as well?

  14. Vexing
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    More people are getting married?
    Surely, with the ever increasing population, this cannot be possible!
    Often ‘stats’ like this are used to mask the fact that, by percentage of the population, marriage is dropping – but in sheer numbers there are more people getting married than any previous year.

  15. Brandi
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    The NYT article really doesn’t address numbers much in terms of people getting married. The only stat it gives is that for people born in the 1930s who married in the 1950s, the overall rate of marriage was 96 percent while in “more recent generations” it’s about 90 percentage. Yes, it’s a drop but not a significant one.
    It really pays to read the article linked to before reading the analysis so that you’re forming your opinion on the actual piece being covered. The bulk of the article really addresses in depth (as much depth as a newspaper article can get anyway) reasons people stay through infidelity when that’s often used as a benchmark for whether a marriage will survive. Then the author looks at the problems with the 50 percent divorce rate and suggests using other numbers (origins of which are fuzzy) that the divorce rate is dropping steadily.

  16. Vexing
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    “Yes, it’s a drop”
    Indeed.

  17. Brandi
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

    I don’t understand why you are focused on the 6% drop in marriage rates. The article isn’t about marriage rates; it’s about divorce rates. Your first post accused the author of the article of using a numbers game by saying that “stats like that.” He doesn’t use those stats, so who are you accusing of doing it?

  18. Vexing
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 9:53 pm | Permalink

    It was a commentary on the use of statistics, not the article itself, or the author.
    And a little sarcasm thrown in for seasoning.
    I’m sure you’ll find it in your heart to forgive me from straying off topic.

  19. Brandi
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    In general, I assume comments actually are about the topic at hand unless a poster says specifically that they are not. Otherwise discussing a posting is pretty difficult.

  20. drfantastic
    Posted June 30, 2009 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

    “Only a handful of my friends are actually getting married.”
    Um…you’re like 28, right? Have a master’s degree? Yeah. Check back with me when you’re 35-38 and let me know how much you’re spending on wedding presents.
    Function of age & class.

  21. Vexing
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    Welcome to the Internet, land of tangents ;)

  22. cattrack2
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    LOL! Its a function of age at least, I know a lot of poor people who still get married!

  23. Stephanie
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    Right, but those who go through graduate programs are more likely to get married later in life. They have the means to hold off, as well as likely being focused on their career paths. People from a lower background are more likely to have social and economical forces pushing them into early marriages, plus if they’re out of school and starting a career at a younger age, they lives will hit a stability point in which they feel comfortable with marriage earlier, where as those who don’t enter their field until their thirties may not feel stable enough for marriage until then.

  24. klompen
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 4:03 am | Permalink

    Feminism declares that the personal is the political, and I agree since feminism should affect whether or not a male partner is willing to do laundry and whether a female partner is more excited about her wedding than her marriage, not to mention the more severe issues of domestic abuse and the right of same-sex couples to marry. But I don’t like judgments derived from statistics on marriage or cohabitation, because none of them can accurately signify the true nature of the relationship.
    Two individuals cohabiting could just as much signify a long-term commitment that doesn’t require government officiation to verify its resilience as it could an unwillingness by one partner to openly commit to the other. (I’ve seen both.) Likewise, two individuals entering into a marriage could just as much signify long-term commitment with the added desire to enjoy insurance benefits and/or throw a big party to celebrate it, as it could an unhealthy desire to meet society’s approval or a misunderstanding of marriage based on fairy tale expectations. (I’ve seen both.)
    Unless one studies every single couple individually, it’s impossible to know how feminist, egalitarian, and healthy today’s marriages and cohabitating relationships are. I don’t like pro-marriage or anti-marriage proponents on the right or left making sweeping generalizations about the resilience of either.

  25. Doug
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    The concept of “marriage” was originally designed to carry on a family’s heritage and preserve property rights. Arranged marriages were the norm, and love was an afterthought.
    Feminism, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness has challenged traditional marriage and that is a GOOD thing.
    Infidelity is a communication issue, not a sexual one, of course. Most men don’t talk too much about their desires, fantasies, and as such, the porn industry is larger than ever.
    When men and women learn to talk, share and communicate FULLY and NON-JUDGMENTALLY, marriages, relationships, commitments will see positive growth.
    NOTE: I nearly lost my 20 year marriage to infideltiy. We “re-set” the clock and communicated EVERYTHING (Guys you know how hard this is) as a result, my girlfriend became my wife, my wife became my kids mother, and now that the kids are grown, my kids mother became my girlfriend. That is the cycle than can derail a marriage, but one that we figured out how to keep on track makeyourwifehot.com/bragblog

  26. Interior_League
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Was kinda with you
    til “make you wife hot dot com”
    made me “WTF!?”

  27. Gopher
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    I know. I did a double-take.
    ” IT TEACHES MEN HOW TO ENCOURAGE THEIR WIVES WANT TO BE MORE FIT & ATTRACTIVE AND TO HAVE SEX WILLINGLY!!!”
    http://www.makeyourwifehot.com/
    ….ugh….

  28. Gopher
    Posted July 1, 2009 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    After looking at it though, I think its a joke. I couldnt stop laughing when reading the website. This reminds me of the guy that pushed him thumb ‘baby’ though an orange.

  29. stevie
    Posted July 2, 2009 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Anytime I see a marriage post by Samhita, I roll my eyes. We get it: you don’t believe in or care for the institution of marriage, and the anecdotal evidence around you shows that your friends aren’t interested in marriage. Yes, the statistics have some trouble to them, but I think it’s just as disingenuous on your part to declare that marriage isn’t working, due to your own biases.

  30. Mrs.s
    Posted July 2, 2009 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    I hate to say it, but I agree as well. I don’t believe in knocking an entire institution just because your friends aren’t doing it. Myself, and most of my friends are getting married or already there. So I guess based on that, I should say that married life trumps cohabitation because of my inner circle? (I know that Samhita provided statistical info, but I do think a lot of her opinion comes from her own bias, not necessarily the numbers presented. It seems as if though Samhita already had her opinion about marriage and just found the statistics to support it.) I think someone else mentioned this earlier, but until you study each relationship, you can’t just come to a general conclusion. Relationships are too varied and complexed to lump into one category.

  31. Mrs.s
    Posted July 2, 2009 at 10:15 am | Permalink

    I completely agree. As a married feminist I often feel posts like this one have the intent of downing marriage as an institution instead of just providing another perspective. It posts like this that as a married lady, make me feel like I have yo on the defensive. Maybe I’m just being sensitive, but it feels very divisive to me.

  32. Mrs.s
    Posted July 2, 2009 at 10:17 am | Permalink

    Sorry grammatical error.I meant to say “to be on the defensive” instead of “yo…” I’m a bit slow on the uptake this morning.

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