Tag Archives: marriage

Want a better marriage? Spend more time with your spouse

Photo by Trace Nietert via flickr.com

Photo by Trace Nietert via flickr.com

Marriage in the U.S. today: the best is better, but the average is worse, according to psychologist Eli J. Finkel in an opinion piece for The New York Times. (Without further clarification, this appears to be a discussion of heterosexual marriage.) Finkel reports that the happiest couples are happier both with their marriages and in general, while the average married person is less satisfied and likelier to divorce than in the past.

That’s because we are sizing up our spouses in the era of the “self-expressive marriage,” Finkel explains, drawing on the ideas of sociologist Andrew J. Cherlin and historian Stephanie Coontz. No longer are we satisfied with our family life as a means to filling our bellies, providing shelter, or even giving us love–many of us now expect marriage to yield “self-discovery, self-esteem, and personal growth.”

Marriages fall short of this ideal, Finkel argues, in part because people aren’t putting in the time with their spouses required for satisfaction. Whether it is working more or parenting more intensively, the average couple is logging hours elsewhere. And the divorce rate is higher for poor, less educated Americans, whose lack of time and energy for sustaining high-quality marriages Finkel attributes to exposure to trends such as “unemployment, juggling multiple jobs, and so on.”

Finkel devotes a quick sentence to government and workplace policy solutions (perhaps discussed in more depth in the forthcoming scientific write-up). As far as what individuals can do, Finkel’s advice boils down to a) spend more time together or b) if more together time isn’t possible, consider looking to marriage for love rather than for self-expression.

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Un-tying the Knot

Photo by mandaloo via flickr.com

Photo by Michael Swan via flickr.com

Contrary to conservatives’ emphasis on family values, sociologist Jennifer Glass at the University of Texas at Austin concludes that “red” states have higher divorce rates than their “blue” counterparts. Although previous studies have argued that socioeconomic factors, such as financial strain, explain this difference, Glass and her team of researchers found that it is actually specific elements of conservative Protestant culture that contributed to this higher divorce rate. Religious conservatives are more likely to emphasize abstinence before marriage and discourage living together without being married. They also marry and start having children younger than other demographic groups. All of these factors, Glass argues, contribute to marriage instability and the higher rates of divorce in states like Alabama and Arkansas than in more liberal states.

Other scholars, including sociologist Phil Cohen, have examined the overall decrease in divorce during the recent economic recession. From 2009-2011, couples seemed to be sticking together through tough financial times. However, as the economy has rebounded, so has the divorce rate. Rather than pulling together to overcome economic hardship, it seems that couples have postponed divorce until they could afford it.

Sociologist Andrew Cherlin, who studies changes in marriage over time, asserts that this is far from a surprising or unique trend, telling the LA Times, “This is exactly what happened in the 1930s. The divorce rate dropped during the Great Depression not because people were happier with their marriages, but because they couldn’t afford to get divorced.”

China’s Sexual Supply Chain

This Chinese park sign forbids prostitutes (along with superstitious activities, kite-flying, and feudalism), but says nothing about mistresses. Photo by Yendor Oz via flickr.com.

Providing sexual services in exchange for money is illegal in many parts of the world, “oldest profession” or not. And where prostitution is legal, it is often not regulated, leading to a whole new set of problems. On the other hand, being a long-term, extramarital lover may be frowned upon, but it’s generally not illegal. Sociologist and sex researcher Li Yinhe argues (as reported by the online edition of the South China Morning Post) that if mistresses and prostitutes are in the “same supply-chain”—that is, they essentially provide the same service—then prostitution should be decriminalized. In her talk at a “Love and Culture” forum, Li went on to discuss modern marriage, which she also sees in socio-economic terms:

…[T]he sociology professor said that judging from its current form, [marriage] would soon break away from its “shackles” and become more “free”… “The reason we had marriage was [traditionally] to bear children and allow each generation to inherit private property,” she said.

“If there are other uses for property and less cohabiting couples raising children, then the institution of marriage is likely to become extinct,” she added.

Savage Love, Social Science

Well, you don’t see that every day—or even every week in columnist Dan Savage’s nationally-syndicated “Savage Love.” But this week, if you happened to flip through your local alternative paper or visit The Onion’s AV Club online, you might have spotted the ever-elusive social scientist lurking in the often thought-provoking, sometimes lurid, and generally entertaining and thoughtful column. That’s right, Eric Klinenberg, NYU sociologist and author of Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, is called in to reassure a reader who simply doesn’t feel like coupling up.

When Klinenberg began his research for this book, he told NPR affiliate KALW San Francisco earlier this year, he thought it was going to be a story of sadness. Lonely elderly people dying alone in heatwaves, young people failing to launch, etc. But instead, as he tells Savage, “…young adults have been the fastest growing group of American singletons. They’re delaying marriage and spending more years single. Moreover, they increasingly recognize the fact that over their long lives, they’re likely to cycle in and out of different situations: alone, together; alone, together.” Klinenberg advises the letter writer to remain open to any of those possibilities, but demand respect for his current choice to remain single, pointing out that his findings show, “People who live alone tend to be more social than people who are married… So much for the myth of selfish singles!”

Klinenberg closes rhetorically, “We’ve come a long way in our attitudes about sex and relationships. Now that living alone is more common than living with a spouse and two children, isn’t it time we learned to respect the choice to go solo, too?” For the sake of the not-so-lonely letter-writer, we certainly hope so.

For more on Klinenberg’s research, be sure to check out our Office Hours interview with him about Going Solo.

For Richer and Definitely For Poorer

Photo by minicooper93402 via flickr.com

Photo by minicooper93402 via flickr.com

For one-percenters like Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, it’s easy to get the world’s fastest divorce. Their legal split took only two weeks. But for the poorest of Americans, divorce is still a luxury item.

So begins the Huffington Post’s coverage of new research out from Ohio State University researchers Dmitry Tumin and Zhenchao Qian, the gist of which is long-term separations are increasing. The authors report that, in their longitudinal study of over 7,000 people, about 85% of spouses who separated got divorced within 3 years, but about 15% hadn’t signed the papers within 10 years. HuffPo goes on:

…[R]esearchers said there was an economic reason… they simply could not afford to get divorced, especially when there were children involved. The study found that the married-but-indefinitely-separated group generally had only a high school education, were black or Hispanic, and had young children.

And the economic reasoning is both a push and a pull. There is the base cost of getting divorced, of course: ranging from just hundreds to thousands of dollars, depending on the complications of bringing in lawyers to take care of custody arrangements and joint property, it takes some cash to split up. But there are the financial benefits of staying married to consider, too: joint tax returns and shared health coverage are among those cited by HuffPo’s author Catherine New, along with the lower cost of shared rent or a mortgage, childcare costs that can be alleviated by swapping duties within the household, and so on.

New adds one final thought for those optimists who think it’s not the money—a separation might actually just be bringing those 15% closer again (the “absence makes the heart grow fonder” line of reasoning): the Ohio State study finds that 5% of separated couples did get back together. But half of those got divorced anyway.

Marriage & Alcohol

Pitchers of beer at Garnett's Cafe

It’s the Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, which means thousands of sociologists have invaded downtown Denver to present their current research.  While much of the research is newsworthy, several studies have already garnered public attention.

One study presented at the meeting, profiled in Live Science and a number of other sources, found that marriage appears to drive women to drink.  According to University of Cincinnati’s Corinne Reczek and her coauthors, it’s not because they’re unhappy.  Rather, it’s because they are influenced by their spouses’ drinking habits.

Previous studies had shown that married people drink less than single people.  This new study confirms this relationship in men but shows that married women actually drink more on average than women who were never married, divorced, or widowed.

For more on drinking and marital status, check out the article here!

The Marriage Split

It’s no surprise that the Great Recession has brought economic inequality front and center in the United States. The focus has been mostly problems in the the labor market, but Jason DeParle at the New York Times points out that other demographic changes have also had a sizable impact on growing inequality.

Estimates vary widely, but scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns — as opposed to changes in individual earnings — may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality.

To illustrate how changes in family structure contribute to increasing inequality, DeParle turns to the research of several sociologists. One issue is the fact that those who are well off are more likely to get married.

Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

“It is the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged,” said Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University.

A related trend is the educational gap between women who have children in or out of wedlock.

Less than 10 percent of the births to college-educated women occur outside marriage, while for women with high school degrees or less the figure is nearly 60 percent.

This difference contributes to significant  inequalities in long-term outcomes for children.

While many children of single mothers flourish (two of the last three presidents had mothers who were single during part of their childhood), a large body of research shows that they are more likely than similar children with married parents to experience childhood poverty, act up in class, become teenage parents and drop out of school.

Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, warns that family structure increasingly consigns children to “diverging destinies.”

Married couples are having children later than they used to, divorcing less and investing heavily in parenting time. By contrast, a growing share of single mothers have never married, and many have children with more than one man.

“The people with more education tend to have stable family structures with committed, involved fathers,” Ms. McLanahan said. “The people with less education are more likely to have complex, unstable situations involving men who come and go.”

She said, “I think this process is creating greater gaps in these children’s life chances.”

As sociologists and others have shown, the income gap between those at the top and bottom has changed dramatically over time.

Four decades ago, households with children at the 90th percentile of incomes received five times as much as those at the 10th percentile, according to Bruce Western and Tracey Shollenberger of the Harvard sociology department. Now they have 10 times as much. The gaps have widened even more higher up the income scale.

But again, DeParle notes that marriage, rather than just individual incomes, makes a big difference:

Economic woes speed marital decline, as women see fewer “marriageable men.” The opposite also holds true: marital decline compounds economic woes, since it leaves the needy to struggle alone.

“The people who need to stick together for economic reasons don’t,” said Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist. “And the people who least need to stick together do.”

For more on the Great Recession and inequality, check out our podcast with David Grusky.

Been There, Done That

Our love is here to stay

Photo by Tommie Milacci via flickr.com

Younger generations aren’t the only ones cohabiting these days. Research by sociologist Susan Brown and her colleagues at Bowling Green State University find that the number of Americans over age 50 who are living with their romantic partners – but are not married – has increased from 1.2 million in 2000 to 2.75 million in 2010.

As MSN reports, this arrangement provides older cohabitators many of the benefits of marriage without the potential economic risk.

Older couples may want to protect their individual nest eggs so they can pass the inheritance down to their kids. They also may not want to jeopardize a pension, Social Security payment or other benefit they are receiving because they are divorced or widowed. And they may not want to be financially responsible for the other person’s health care bills.

A “been there, done that” attitude is also contributing to the trend, Brown says. According to the team’s research, “71 percent of older couples living together were divorced, and another 18 percent were widowed.” The prospect of re-entering a union may be particularly unappealing for women who feel an “underlying expectation” to take care of their husbands.

Alternative relationships other than cohabitation also appear to be on the rise. Although the numbers aren’t as clear, Brown notes a group engaged in “living apart together.” “They’re very committed to each other ,” she explains, “(but they) don’t want to give up the autonomy that they have.”

Healthy Hearts

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Marriage may be good for the heart, in more ways than one, claims a new study from the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.  The study, which was covered by USA Today, found that married adults who underwent heart surgery were over three times more likely to survive the first three months after the operation.  And, the likelihood of dying within the first five years was nearly double for single individuals.

The lead author of the study is Ellen Idler, a sociologist at Emory University.  Idler and her colleagues interviewed  over 500 patients who underwent emergency or elective coronary bypass surgery prior to their surgeries.  Then, they analyzed the patients’ responses with survival data from the National Death Index.  Overall, marriage boosted survival for both men and women.

“The findings underscore the important role of spouses as caregivers during health crises,” Idler says. The higher long-term death rate for singles was linked to higher smoking rates — but spouses may also play a role in discouraging smoking, the researchers say.

First Comes Baby

Photo by Daniel Rothamel via flickr.com

Photo by Daniel Rothamel via flickr.com

In recent weeks, media outlets including the New York Times have reported what once would have been a startling finding: a majority of babies born to women under age 30 are being born, specifically, to unwed mothers. The Times gave a nuanced account by reaching out to social scientists to consider whether marriage still counts as one of the most important legitimators of a “family.”

One group, college graduates, appears to be resisting this trend. The highly educated are overwhelmingly waiting until after tying the knot to have children and, thus helping make a certain type of family structure (married with kids) an indicator of a new class divide. University of Pennsylvania sociologist Frank Furstenberg claims “marriage has become a luxury good,” in reference to the social and economic capital. They are, Furstenberg tells the Times, increasingly reserved for the highly educated. Sara McLanahan, a Princeton sociologist, argues particularly that there’s a specific quality among educated men that makes them more likely to give women equal authority in a relationship: “they are more willing to play the partner role.”

Another question raised by article asks, for parenting, does marriage really matter? After all, according to the data almost all the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. A study by University of Michigan sociologists Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland found that, in the United States, cohabitating parents are twice as likely to split as married parents (according to Smock and Greenland, two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned ten).

The Times also sought to answer why some of these couples with children decided to remain unmarried. The article states, “[F]ifty years ago, researchers have found, as many as a third of American marriages were precipitated by a pregnancy, with couples marrying to maintain respectability.” So what has changed? According to some of the sources the article’s writers spoke with, if cohabitating couples married, their official household income would rise, resulting in a possible loss of government benefits. University of Virginia sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox, government policies like no-fault divorce signal that “marriage is not as fundamental to society” as it once was.

Finally, Johns Hopkins’ sociologist Andrew Cherlin was called upon to discuss what Americans expect from marriage now that it is no longer merely a matter of practical support. That is, why do people keep getting married at all? Cherlin, author of The Marriage Go-Round, maintains, “[F]amily life is no longer about playing the social role of father or husband or wife, it’s more about individual satisfaction and self-development.”

Indeed, the simple fact that these data depicting generational shifts in family composition may seem alarming to some readers or mundane to others shows that the question of marriage remains important in the U.S. The New York Times’ ability to reach out to social scientists, though, allows for an article rich with context, scholarship, and a conceptual link to guide readers from a statistic about unwed mothers to a glimpse at larger social forces at work in the U.S.