Most people think of sociology as marriage-neutral, or even anti-marriage because the institution has been linked to patriarchy, heteronormativity, domestic abuse, and a general suppression of women’s rights; however, the field has seen a shift toward a pro-marriage point of view (see, for instance, scholars like Andrew Cherlin). In the Boston Globe,Philip Cohen from University of Maryland College Park says, “Criticism of marriage as a social institution comes from the universal and basically compulsory system of marriage in the 1950s.” Since ‘50s-style marriage is no longer necessarily true, it makes sense to see an evolving scholarly outlook on the issue.
Those who say matrimony matters point to its advantages for low-income children. According to Sarah McLanahan, children with unmarried parents spend less time with their fathers and receive less financial support. Cherlin, for his part, says marriage, more so than cohabitation, contributes to family stability that leads to better child outcomes.
The evidence doesn’t necessarily mean that marriage causes the “good things” attributed to it, either. Yes, unmarried mothers tend to make less money than their married counterparts, but marriage thrives among the more educated. Those with college degrees wait longer to marry and have more resources to give their children. This means the specific people who marry make it look like married people have better outcomes, when usually they were privileged before exchanging vows. Putting a ring on it will not automatically make people healthier, wealthier, or wiser.
This disparity in findings and even recommendations about marriage points to an issue bigger than family values: “This class divide in marriage and family life is both cause and consequence of the growing inequality in American life,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project. Kristi Williams elaborates that economic circumstances can influence marriage, so trying to change marriage without fixing economic disparities is wrong-headed. Philip Cohen agrees, saying, “The idea that the culture is going downhill and we need a cultural revival happens to be very closely related to the idea that we should not address poor peoples’ problems by raising taxes and giving poor people money,” he said. “So there’s a political element” in marriage promotion efforts.
Princess Jasmine fell for Aladdin, even after his Prince Ali façade failed. Lady Sybil Crawley married the family chauffeur Tom Branson, despite his socialist views and Irish, working-class origins. Richard Gere scaled a fire escape to retrieve his “Pretty Woman.” Typically, sociologists say, marrying across class differences happens much less frequently in real life than in popular culture. Jessi Streib, however, wrote a whole book about these uncommon couples. She tells New York Magazine’s Science of Us the findings in her The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages.
Streib’s interviews revealed benefits and challenges to class difference in marriage. Partners may recognize in each other qualities they felt lacking in their own class background. Thus, working-class individuals may value the confidence and sense of stability of middle-class individuals, while middle-class partners may gravitate toward the intimacy and expressiveness they perceive in working-class families. Middle-class individuals often communicate in a “managerial” style, which, according to Streib, means “They manage their emotions, so before you want to express something, you think about it first, you figure out what you really feel, you think about how to express it in a way that will make the other person most comfortable, and then you kind of quietly and very calmly state how you feel and make sure there’s a good rationale behind it.” Working-class individuals, on the other hand, have a more laissez-faire way of expressing emotions. They are more likely to state their honest feelings directly, even if they’re not particularly nice or polite.
While differences in communication styles provide opportunities for understanding, they also pose challenges. Trying to change the other person, Streib says, is not going to make a partnership work.
The couples who it went really well for were the ones who appreciated each other’s differences. So they would say things like, “You know, it’s not how I do it, but I can understand why that other way makes total sense,” or could actually use their partner’s differences to help them solve a problem at times. So keeping in perspective that difference isn’t necessarily bad, and that they love their partner despite or because of all these differences, could help a lot.
As in any relationship, cooperation and communication are keys to success. Cross-class marriages may not be incredibly common, but at least one sociologist is convinced Tom and Sybil could have made a life of it—save a few plot twists.
When a pretty, young woman is seen walking hand-in-hand with an older, perhaps less attractive, male, accusations of a “trophy wife” situation are quick to follow. But this quick judgement ignores an important factor – pretty women can be rich too. In an interview with NPR, Notre Dame sociologist Elizabeth McClintock discusses her recent study that finds little evidence for the existence of trophy wives. She tells NPR that people typically couple based on similarities in income, looks, and education, thus:
If usually rich people marry rich people and pretty people marry pretty people, then having a pretty woman with no money marry an ugly, rich guy, that’s a violation of the usual pattern that people select somebody who’s a whole lot like themselves.
Numerous studies argue that the trophy wife phenomenon makes evolutionary sense, as poor, pretty women are able to trade their looks for money. But McClintock argues that these studies are wrong. NPR’s Shankar Vedantam describes her reasoning:
McClintock thinks this earlier work is wrong for two reasons. First, the earlier studies don’t consider this important variable, which is that pretty women might themselves be well-off. So if a woman herself has wealth or status, what you really don’t have is a trophy wife phenomenon. All you have is matching rich with rich…And McClintock points out there’s another confounding variable here, which is that beauty and wealth often tend to go hand in hand. And that’s because the wealthy often have access to better nutrition, better cosmetics…. If wealth and beauty are actually going hand in hand really often it could be that lots of pretty women might themselves be rich, which again means they might not be trophy wives.
In McClintock’s study of over 1500 American couples, she found that, after controlling for the income of both partners, “the trophy wife phenomenon effectively disappeared.” Our gendered assumptions of women’s roles in relationships have helped to construct this myth of the trophy wife, which says a lot more about our own biases than actual reality. Vedantam sums it up nicely:
If you look only at the universe of good-looking guys, you will also see that good-looking men tend to be with rich women, but we are far less likely to say, oh, look, trophy husband. And so of course that’s a reflection of what’s happening inside our own heads, not actual reality.
Religious groups are known for championing an abstinence-only approach to pre-marital life, and groups both national and local have been set up to promote and support this lifestyle. Sociologist Sarah Diefendorf spent a year with one – a small support group for young Christian men – and in a recent interview with the New Republic she explains how the abstinence-only approach did not necessarily make for a healthy sex life after marriage. This was in large part due to the severely gendered environment that Diefendorf encountered in which masculinity was equated with sexual restraint and femininity was equated with sexual disinterest – beliefs that led to long-term struggles even after marriage. Diefendorf told the New Republic:
For these men, to be a good man and a man of God meant saving themselves for the wedding bed. Amy Wilkins, a sociologist at the University of Colorado-Boulder, also interviewed men who pledged abstinence before marriage, and she argued that these men are asserting their masculinity in different ways. Rather than saying, “I’m a man because I engage in a variety of sexual activity,” they’re saying, “I’m a man because I can avoid that temptation; I can control these things.”
When it came to abstinence-only support for women, Diefendorf found that there was none. The men she talked to believed that women do not “naturally” have the sexual urges that men do, thus eliminating a need for female support groups in the church. She said:
The church, and the men that I interviewed, don’t believe that women would need a space to talk through these issues. They believe that men are highly sexual beings and they have “natural urges” that need to be controlled, but they don’t believe that women have that natural desire to be sexually active. Women are the providers of sexual activity for their husbands.
These notions of purity and masculinity, however, made for a difficult transition into married life for most of the men. Diefendorf followed up five years later and found that the men from the group who were married were still struggling with sexual urges that they felt were “beastly” and, without a support group to talk through these issues, they often turned inward and stopped talking about, and in many cases enjoying, sex altogether. Diefendorf explains:
When you spend the first twenty-plus years of your life thinking of sex as something beastly that needs to be controlled, it’s very difficult to make that transition to married life and viewing sex as sacred…The idea is that once you’re married, it’s all good— you’re supposed to be enjoying sex with your wife…But as one of the guys said, once you get married, the “beastly” doesn’t disappear. They still struggle with issues like excessive pornography viewing, masturbation. A few of them were worried that they might want to have an affair. They’re still struggling with these things, but they no longer have an outlet to work through them. They didn’t have the tools to engage in a healthy sex life.
For a great read on how abstinence-only groups target women by making abstinence “sexy”, check out this post by Soc Images.
In a recent New York Times oped, Stephanie Coontz cites a plethora of sociologists in her discussion of the tug-of-war between gender equality and economic inequality over current marriage trends in America. In her piece, Coontz argues that families have become more egalitarian and stable due to increased gender equality, with women increasingly gaining equal access to education and employment. However, because of the recent recession and the increased income gap, the inequality between families continues to rise. Both forces, she argues, push and pull on the rates of marriage and divorce in American society. She writes:
Sometimes these trends counteract each other, with women’s work gains partly compensating for men’s losses in low-income families. Sometimes they reinforce each other, since the new trend for high-earning men to marry high-earning women increases the relative advantage of such couples over low-income or single-earner families. For all Americans, these trends have changed the rewards, risks, and rules of marriage.
Citing sociologists Christine Schwartz and Hongyun Han, she details how couples who share housework and have equal levels of education are just as likely to stay together as those who subscribe to more traditional gender roles. Husbands have doubled the time they spend doing housework, and the percentage of Americans who believe in the “male-breadwinner” family arrangement has declined significantly. However, these increases in gender equality are counteracted by growing economic instability among families. She cites research by sociologist Philip N. Cohen, as well as a Susan Brown and I-Fen Lin, to show how, while the more educated are more likely to get married and stay married, the return on a college education continues to decrease, increasing income inequality and marriage instability. Coontz argues:
While the sexes have become more equal, society as a whole has become far less, producing especially deep losses for young men. In 1969, by the time men reached age 25, three-quarters were earning wages that could support a family of four above the poverty line. By 2004, it took until age 30 for the same percentage of men to reach this income level. And while in 1969 only 10 percent of men ages 30-35 were still low earners, by 2004 almost a quarter of men in that age range remained low earners.
Coontz then turns to sociologist Andrew Cherlin’s book Labor’s Love Lost to discuss the implications of these findings. Cherlin’s book details how two important factors have lead to a decrease in marriage rates among younger generations. First, the decrease in blue-collar work that requires only a high school diploma has significantly affected the ability of lower-income males to fulfill the historical role of bread-winner. Second, the increase in gender equality detailed above has made it so females no longer need a breadwinner in the first place, allowing them to wait for a mate with a stable income or to make that income themselves. Coontz summarizes Cherlin:
Women’s expectation of fairness and reciprocity in marriage has been rising even as men’s ability to compensate for deficits in their behavior by being “good providers” has been falling. Low-income women consistently tell researchers that the main reason they hesitate to marry – even if they are in love, even if they have moved in with a man to share expense, and even if they have a child – is that they see a bad marriage or divorce as a greater threat to their well-being than being single.
However, our very own Doug Hartmann qualifies findings that indicate a decline in marriage rates in an interview with CBS Minnesota, saying that even though younger cohorts, especially women, are waiting to pay off their student loans and build their careers before marriage, the desire to get married has not declined. Hartmann says, “When you ask people about their attitudes about marriage, their desires to get married, that doesn’t seem to be in decline. It’s just the timing of it and when it’s happening is getting put off.”
Sociologists across the country are invested in understanding the changing trends in marriage and American family life, and their research has detailed important factors contributing to these trends. Coontz ends her article with an important insight, urging us to consider the stability and equality of the marriage landscape Americans are so often nostalgic for.
If women lowered their expectations to match men’s lower economic prospects, perhaps marriage would be more common in low-income communities. But it would most likely be even less stable, and certainly less fair. Turning back the inequality revolution may be difficult. But that would certainly help more families – at almost all income levels – than turning back the gender revolution.
Differences in education level lead to dramatically different views on when to become a parent, according to new research. John Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin shows that millennial women with college educations are more likely to wait until they are married before they have children than women without a college degree. In an interview with Sarah Kliff of Vox, Cherlin explains:
“We’re seeing the emergence two very different paths to adulthood. Among young adults without college educations, most of their childbearing is in their twenties and the majority of it is outside of marriage. That includes people who have gotten a two-year associate’s degree. The dividing line is the four-year degree. The vast majority of people with that college degree are having children in marriage. We didn’t see this 20 or 30 years ago. We didn’t see these sharp differences between the college graduates and non-graduates.”
This trend concerns Cherlin, as it could lead to a more unstable family life for the children of unmarried parents with a high school education. He sees a lack of middle-skill jobs as the cause of their financial instability. This leads to their higher rate of breaking up and ultimately reinforces economic inequalities between education groups. Parents who have a college education are less likely to get divorced, since they are the couples who are more likely to have two steady incomes.
When asked if we could turn this worrisome trend around, Cherlin posits:
“It depends on if you think we can turn the middle of the job market around, and if we can find productive employment for high school graduates. If that happens, then I think we have a chance of reversing the instability we’re seeing in family lives. I also think that it might be a good idea to promote a message that one should wait to have children until one is in a stable marriage.”
That said, providing an alternative vision of a future where the high-school and college-educated alike can navigate the new economy could lead to greater family stability for their kids.
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.
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.”
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.
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.