Photo by Michael_swan via flickr.com CC
Photo by Michael_swan via flickr.com CC

The “traditional family,” many would have us believe, is imperiled by everything from women in the workplace and same-sex couples in the bedroom. What these “traditionalists” fail to name among the various threats is income inequality. As described in research published in the American Sociological Review and discussed on Fortune.com, observed increases in the rate of couples having children before marriage can be explained by changing social landscapes.

It’s no surprise to anyone that the middle-class is shrinking or that finding a job can be a tough gig. Andrew Cherlin, David C. Ribar, and Suzumi Yasutake’s research shows people are more likely to postpone marriage, but not parenting, if they can’t get a job. So, with a distinct shortage of available living-wage jobs and growing income inequality, more and more American families are comprised of unmarried couples with children. As the class system becomes even more polarized, it seems marriage boosters might want to consider a different means to their favored end: reducing inequality.

Frank and Claire Underwood House of Cards Promo

Spoiler alert! This season the popular Netflix series “House of Cards” got a bit more radical. Main characters and power couple Claire and Frank Underwood are unapologetically, consensually non-monogamous. In fact, sociologist Mimi Schippers says the show portrays “one of the best television representations of an open/poly relationship I’ve seen.” In the fourth season, Claire, married to the President of the United States, becomes sexually involved with Thomas Yates, a writer. While many shows depict “extramarital affairs” as inherently negative, “House of Cards” Frank affirms that Tom can “give” Claire things he can’t.

In a blog post for NYU Press, Schippers argues that the Underwoods go “beyond” marriage, monogamy, and dominant gender norms. According to research she conducted for her upcoming book, men in polyamorous relationships tend to shift their understanding of masculinity because they must forgo jealousy and control over the women in their lives. The openly non-monogamous relationships on “House of Cards” thus challenge more than just ideas about what relationships should look like. It confronts gendered expectations for men to be competitive and possessive and grants women sexual autonomy, independent of men.

[T]he Underwoods distinguish themselves from society’s ideas of the “perfect couple” by being both child-free and consensually non-monogamous. They are something else–something beyond “perfect”, beyond marriage, and beyond traditional gender arrangements. Rather than representing bad character or immorality, Claire’s increasingly intimate relationship with Tom and Frank’s enthusiastic acceptance of it (the very definition of polyamory) punctuates and solidifies the strength of their marriage as one between equals.

A recent comic and sociological exploration of heterosexual norms in the U.S. today.
A recent comic and sociological exploration of heterosexual norms in the U.S. today.

In one of the most iconic scenes in sitcom television history, Friends’ character Monica bends down on one knee and proposes to her long-time boyfriend, Chandler, in a romantic, candlelit, rose-filled apartment. Over fifteen years later, scholars suggest the reality of heterosexual marriage proposals is far less progressive. A recent article in The New York Times discusses why men remain more likely to propose marriage and why this tradition will likely not change in the near future.

Even as the traditional image of marriage has changed and the number of working and college-educated women continues to rise (studies show that men and women tend to marry spouses from comparable educational backgrounds), according to Amanda Miller, “Though women have more power to move the relationship closer to marriage, they still want the man to ask. That’s considered his job.”

Bradford Wilcox concurs, noting that women may also view their partner’s proposal as reassurance that he truly wants to get married (indeed, men often view their formal proposals as demonstrations of love and commitment to their future wives). A woman who proposes may face social consequences, though: Beth Montemurro adds that such women may be viewed as more masculine (and men who are proposed to may be viewed as more feminine). To avoid stigma, male-female couples generally stick to the script: men propose marriage.

A couple in Tehran. Photo by Kamyar Adl, Flickr CC.
A couple in Tehran. Photo by Kamyar Adl, Flickr CC.

Some Iranian officials are increasingly worried about what they call “white marriage” or sometimes “black coupling.” These terms refer to cohabitation between unmarried men and women. Officials deem the trend “worrisome” and “a serious blow to the family,” and some insinuate that women who cohabitate will become prostitutes when they are no longer viewed as beautiful by their partners. The Iranian news outlet Payvand recently featured a sociologist who spoke anonymously to the International Campaign for Human Rights about why cohabitation, despite the disparagement, seems to be on the rise.

One reason to engage in “white marriage” is that it allows couples to avoid the bureaucracy and gender inequalities that come with legal marriage in Iran. The sociologist notes that marriage contracts overwhelmingly favor men. For instance, men can control their wives’ travel, decide where the couple lives, and have more rights in divorce.

An earlier BBC article noted that cohabitation is also a result of the loosening of some traditional morals in Iranian society:

“Of course cohabitation is not accepted by the more religious parts of society,” says sociologist Mehrdad Darvishpour, who is now based in Sweden. “But just like in the rest of the world, the middle class in Iran is starting to prefer this type of life to traditional marriage. Sex before marriage isn’t taboo anymore.”

While it seems progressive, however, the unnamed sociologist in Payvand also highlighted potential negative consequences for a woman in a “white marriage”:

“If a woman is attacked by her male partner, she would have no legal protection,” the sociologist told the Campaign. “Instead she would be asked by the police and judicial authorities about her marital status and if she is not legally married, she will be in a lot of trouble.”

Since most cohabitation is hidden from the woman’s parents, she may lose the support of her family should she experience and try to escape emotional or physical abuse. Couples also risk accusations of adultery—an offense punishable by death—since Iranian Sharia Law requires all marital unions be registered.

For more on cohabitation in the U.S., check out this post from the Council on Contemporary Families.

When the time comes... Jane Mejdal//Flickr CC
When the time comes… Jane Mejdal//Flickr CC

Traditional norms of feminine behavior encourage women to pledge sexual abstinence before marriage, instilling values of female sexual innocence and purity. In contrast, these norms suggest male sexual activity before marriage legitimizes their masculinity. Men who choose to abstain from sexual activity until marriage remain largely unexamined. In 2008, Ph.D. sociology candidate Sarah Diefendorf studied a male abstinence support group called The River to explore male beliefs about sexuality and masculinity in relation to sexual abstinence. Diefendorf discussed her findings in a recent Huffington Post article.

Men within The River used the group as a support network to resist various forms of sexual temptation, including masturbation, pornography, and same-sex attraction. While the resistance of sexual desires often proved difficult, these men believed that by waiting for sex, an act they believed God deemed sacred, they would enjoy fulfilling sex lives as married men. And by sharing their struggles with sexuality, the men in the group still “reinforce the norm that they are highly sexual men, even in the absence of sexual activity.”

During interviews conducted three years later, Diefendorf discovered that most of the men were still wrestling with their sexual urges even now that they were married. They no longer had a peer support network holding them accountable and did not feel comfortable speaking to their female spouses, since their group as taught that women are nonsexual.

Diefendorf explained, “After 25 years of being told that sex is something dangerous that needs to be controlled, the transition to married (and sexual) life is difficult, at best, while leaving men without the support they need. Women, meanwhile, are often left out of the conversation entirely.”

Everyone likes a slice of wedding cake, but our opportunities to munch on the delicious dessert might be shrinking. According to an article in the Dallas Morning News, new research shows millennials aren’t getting married. Even though millennials are a large generation (by some accounts, bigger than the Baby Boom cohort) and are at prime marriage ages, rates of marriage are dropping across the U.S. Some projections suggest it could drop to 6.7 in 1,000 in 2016—a historic low. Why are heterosexual millennials delaying or forgoing marriage?

University of Maryland sociologist Philip Cohen’s research shows that the proportion of people getting married for the first time at older ages has risen in America, as economic and educational pressures encourage people to wait to wed. In addition, the U.S. has become less religious and more comfortable with unwed parents and cohabitation. W. Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist, adds, however, that there are some upticks in marriage trends, such as a rise in the proportion of educated persons who wed and an influx of Hispanic immigrants that could have positive impacts on American marriage rates, if not in the immediate future.

Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC
Image by Ginny Washburne via FLickr CC

 

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.

Image via alicexc.deviantart.com
Image via alicexc.deviantart.com

 

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.

Photo by Gary Willmore via Flickr.
Start seeing trophy husbands. Photo by Gary Willmore via Flickr.

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.

 

Photo by James Prescott.
Notions of masculinity and purity encouraged by abstinence groups make transitioning to married life difficult for many men. Photo by James Prescott.

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.