Is Marriage Irrelevant?

A new meditation on marriage shows that meditations on marriage may be beside the point — the biggest problem for Americans isn't love, it's money.

Writing in Time, Belinda Luscombe makes a convincing case that marriage (and here we're talking about heterosexual marriage, the only kind legal in most states) is changing. Americans are marrying later, and living together more beforehand. Both of these are old news at this point, but Luscombe does offer a pretty pithy explanation of the changing place of marriage in people's lives:

Promising publicly to be someone's partner for life used to be something people did to lay the foundation of their independent life. It was the demarcation of adulthood. Now it's more of a finishing touch, the last brick in the edifice, sociologists believe.

She also quotes sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who rather depressingly states, "Getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life." It's not that romantic, but maybe marriage has long been a resume item — just now it tends to go nearer the end of the resume than the beginning. The problem, as Luscombe states it, is that marriage is getting pushed farther and farther back for less wealthy and educated couples, to the point where it may be out of reach entirely.

Luscombe makes a convincing — and, on the face of it, disturbing — case that marriage is becoming more and more of a perk for the elite. She writes that, "In 1990 more high-school-educated couples than college graduates had made it to the altar by age 30. By 2007 it was the other way around." And people who never went to college are less likely than graduates to marry at all — according to Luscombe's numbers, just 48% of those with no college marry, while 64% of those with diplomas do (these numbers are lower than some others I've seen). Luscombe explains, "It's easier for the college-educated, with their dominance of the knowledge economy, to get married and stay married. The less well off delay marriage because their circumstances feel so tenuous, then often have kids, which makes marrying even harder." Growing inequality certainly seems like cause for concern — but is marriage really the issue here?

A hint that it's not comes from Luscombe's description of relationship quality among richer and poorer couples:

Even when couples are married, family life is a different experience for those with a college education and those without one. Professional occupations are much more likely to offer provisions for parental leave, the ability to work from home and flexible hours. Wealthy people can outsource the more onerous or dreary or time-sucking tasks that couples fight over. And the college-educated tend to have picked up more conflict-resolution and negotiation skills along the way. Their marriage is insulated from some of the stresses of balancing work and family. A sick child throws a much bigger wrench into the machinery of a factory or retail or service worker's life.

Basically, people with more money and education have easier lives in America than people who have less. This should come as a shock to no one, but what we do about it matters. And focusing on marriage may be the wrong way to go. Luscombe quotes one sociologist's finding that "a child living together with unmarried parents in Sweden has a lower chance that his family will disrupt than does a child living with married parents in the U.S." So it's not necessarily the institution of marriage that keeps people together or helps them raise their kids. And certainly just being married doesn't protect anybody from the financial devastation an illness can wreak in a country without an adequate social safety net.

One interesting fact stands out of Luscombe's piece: despite the "marriage gap" opening up between richer and poorer Americans, less-educated people want to get married just as much as college graduates do (46% of graduates say they want to get hitched, compared with 44% of non-grads). So the most important gap in this country — the one we really need to work to close — may not be between married and unmarried, but between those who have the means to do what they want in life, and those who don't.

Marriage: What's It Good For? [Time]

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