Sunday, January 25, 2004

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Laura Kipnis on marriage

The occasionally droll Laura Kipinis -- author of Against Love: A Polemic -- puts on her serious hat for today's New York Times op-ed on the state of marriage. The highlights:

More and more people — heterosexuals, that is — don't want to get or stay married these days, no matter their income level. Yes, cohabitation is particularly prevalent in less economically stable groups, including the women counted as unmarried mothers. But only 56 percent of all adults are married, compared with 75 percent 30 years ago. The proportion of traditional married-couple-with-children American households has dropped to 26 percent of all households, from 45 percent in the early 1970's. The demographics say Americans are voting no on marriage.

The fact is that marriage is a social institution in transition, whether conservatives like it or not. This is not simply a matter of individual malfeasance; in fact, it may not be individual at all. The rise of the new economy has gutted all sorts of traditional values and ties, including traditions like the family wage, job security and economic safety nets. Women have been propelled into the work force in huge numbers, and not necessarily for personal fulfillment: with middle-class wages stagnant from the early 70's to the mid-90's, it now takes (at least) two incomes to support the traditional household.

But as the political theorist Francis Fukuyama has pointed out, the changing nature of capitalism since the 1960's also required a different kind of work force; it was postindustrialism, perhaps even more than feminism, that transformed gender roles, contributing to what he calls the "great disruption" of the present. The increasing economic self-sufficiency of women has certainly been a factor in declining marriage rates: there's nothing like a checking account to decrease someone's willingness to be pushed into marriage or stay in a bad one. And interestingly, welfare reform has played the same role for lower-income groups: studies have shown a steep decline in marriages among women in welfare-to-work programs, for many of the same reasons.

So how about a little more honesty and fewer platitudes on the marriage question.

Honesty would be good. Kipnis knows a lot more about this subject than I do, but some of her facts seem shaded.

For example, Fukuyama did posit in The Great Disruption that the post-industrial society had a deleterious effect on marital status. However, he also argued that the effect was temporary and reversible: "Social order, once disrupted, tends to get remade again." Fukuyama argued that the institution of marriage was rebounding -- not that there was an inexorable erosion of the institution.

This jibes with data suggesting a modest turnaround in marriage rates starting in the mid-1990's. John Leo noted back in 2001 that:

The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analyzed 1995 to 2000 data and concluded that the move away from marriage "really seems to have come to a halt," in the words of Wendell Primus, a poverty expert at the center. The proportion of children under 18 living with a single mother declined by 8 percent in five years, according to a report written by Primus and Allen Dupree. Working with an early copy of the report, Jonathan Peterson of the Los Angeles Times wrote that "some of the newest evidence suggests that the tidal flow away from two-parent families peaked years ago and may even be starting to change course."

Mickey Kaus also commented on this phenomenon at the time.

Finally, as to whether marriage is worth defending, go read this excellent summary of University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite's research on the benefits of marriage. It explodes more than a few myths on the subject:

While pundits, politicians, and moralists weigh the pros and cons of gay marriage, Linda Waite is still focused on traditional American couples, countering messages from the “antimarriage” culture and championing marriage’s benefits: specifically, that marriage itself is good for your physical and mental health, good for your financial stability, good for your sex life, good for your kids—good for almost every aspect of what many Americans consider a happy life....

[M]arried men, rather than trading their libidos for lawn mowers, have more sex than single men. And married women are less depressed than single women, contrary to feminist sociologist Jessie Bernard’s explosive 1972 book arguing that wives were more phobic, depressed, dependent, and passive—findings that have shaped cultural conceptions ever since. More recently Waite has shown that divorce does not make unhappily married people any happier. In a study released in July 2002 she and five colleagues analyzed data from the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Family and Households. When the adults who said they were unhappily married in the late 1980s were interviewed again five years later, those who had divorced were on average still unhappy or even less happy, while those who stayed in their marriages on average had moved past the bad times and were at a happier stage. After controlling for race, age, gender, and income, Waite’s group found that divorce usually did not reduce symptoms of depression, raise self esteem, or increase a sense of mastery over one’s life.

UPDATE: More venting by Laura at at Apt. 11D.

posted by Dan on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM


The "a family requires two incomes" bit has been taken apart any number of times, most recently by Stossel.

It seems to me she's pushing more than a few platitudes of her own.


posted by: Myria on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

[M]arried men, rather than trading their libidos for lawn mowers, have more sex than single men.

There must be some pretty sad single men out there...

I was in the doctor's office waiting room when an older gentleman came out holding a "six pack" sample of Viagra. He said to his wife, a little too loudly, "Look at what the doctor gave me."
She replied, "Now I know why prices are so high. They're giving out a whole year's supply as samples."

posted by: germ on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

That John Leo article doesn't say anything about marriage in general, just marriages with children. The CBPP quote looks like it's about marriages with children, too.

posted by: Jason McCullough on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

I've been noting the "two incomes not needed" articles for a while, and they are always in the form of "the couple could do with less and still have a fine lifestyle by our parents' standards".

The problem is that (1) we aren't our parents and (2) we measure wealth relatively. In general, people will feel (and be treated as) poor if they aren't consuming at a level relatively close to the peers. So, while in absolute terms you may not need the extra income, in any way that is meaningful to human beings, they do.

It's the same reason that measures of poverty using absolute income are useless. What may have been considered wealthy in previous times (colour television!) won't stop you from feeling poverty-stricken (and suffering all the attendent effects of poverty).

While being relatively wealthy doesn't buy happiness, being relatively poorer tends to buy unhappiness... So, if everybody else is working like a dog (and being unhappy because of it), you've pretty much got to joing the rat race and be unhappy along with them or opt-out and be unhappy about being poorer than them.

posted by: Tom West on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

That's all true, Tom, but it avoids the point that two incomes aren't "needed" to keep body and soul together. Two incomes are "wanted" so that the family can pay the leases on their two late-model vehicles, can pay the mortgage on their 4000 sf house, can pay the cable bill, the DSL bill, etc., etc.

I might even suggest that this lifestyle could be much more easily funded with one paycheck if not for confiscatory levels of taxation. When you include all state and federal taxes, my wife's income just barely covers our tax bill. We are a two-income family, but we really only have one income - mine - to live on.

Similarly, defining poverty as "relatively poor" is all well and good until it becomes a justification for taking my money and giving it to a family that owns a house, a couple of cars, a TV, computer, DVD player, washer, dryer, dishwasher, etc. etc. - all of which is not unusual for families officially classified as "poor" and therefor deserving of taxpayer-funded aid.

posted by: R C Dean on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Let's see how Amazon describes Kipnis' polemic: "this book is the perfect antidote to any lingering guilt about being happily single." Now, I know some happy singles and some unhappy ones, but I don't know any happy singles who feel something resembling "lingering guilt" over their marital status.

William Raspberry has a calm, sensible op-ed in today's WaPo on this subject: marriage is good for society and individuals both, it IS in serious trouble, and there is very little the government can do to "fix it." Certainly nothing to recommend an outlay of $1.5 B in a deficit laden economy.

Kipnis is tapping into a vein of anger that is as destructive as it is profitable. It is the voice of single people who have convinced themselves that if only boring marrieds could stop being in their faces all the time, they would be perfectly happy. But my happiness as a married person does not conflict with their happiness as a singleton, so why should the reverse be true?

My sense is that too few women and men view marriage as an investment, in which small but steady "payments" yield long-term dividends emotionally and financially. Coming to believe this, however, has helped me to cope with the necessary sacrifices that I feel I make in the pursuit of a healthy family.

Let's face it, no one gets a thank you note from ANYONE validating their lifestyle choices. It's time we all grew up and accept that we all muddle through life with no roadmap and precious little appreciation for "all we do."

posted by: Kelli on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

As a married man, I think all of this is fine. But I still don't see why the government should spent 1,5 billion dollars in what is essentially a moralizing effort. If action is needed at all, why not create good economic incentives, like eliminate the marriage penalty for dual income earners (there is no marriage penalty for single income families, but the conservative family value folks do not want the dual income penalty reversed as this would give mothers an increased incentive to work).

posted by: zaoem on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

What I wonder is whether marriage makes people happier, or whether there are types of people who are happier within marriage. For every Levin, there is an Anna Karenina, no? Some people are more restless than others, more easily dissatisfied than others. It seems difficult to assume that the institution will affect everyone in the same way.

It depends what your partner is like, doesn't it? If you are married to someone who is violent, or uncaring, or alcoholic - that marriage is bound to have more problems than others.

The difficulty of finding a good partner seems greater at lower income levels, where the available men may be unemployed, or involved in criminal activity. Working class or unemployed men tend to be more violent, as well, to assert manliness when other avenues (such as high wage-earning) are closed to them.

posted by: Anne C. on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

I agree that marriage is in a transitional state, but why does that have to be a bad thing? Isnt it possible that this is simply a healthy change? I come from the divorce genereration, basically every one of my peers, including myself, comes from a divorced family. What that tells me is that the generation before was getting married for the wrong reasons, having children too quickly, and hence divorcing. In my opinion, marriage rates are down for good reason. Divorce is a terrible thing, especially for children, and I think that my generation is especially leary of allowing such a situation to come to pass. So we get married later, have children later, and this is a good thing imo. I still think there is a major state of flux, and divorce rates havent lessened, but I believe that will come in time. My hope is that marriage will stabilize into a much more healthy form, with people marrying later in life and hopefully making better decisions.

posted by: Mark Buehner on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Just asked my single, professional mid-30s sister (who doesn't know what a blog is, tsk) her opinion.

Her thoughts: singles don't need the government telling them to get married. They need SOMEONE to come up with better opportunities for singles to meet each other. Government-run dating services seemed a bad idea to both of us. But she had one intriguing idea (having just come back from a business trip to Europe): why don't more private companies come up with quirky ideas like "single sections" on long plane flights?

Maybe Bush could take a less contentious (and expensive) approach to marriage promotion by setting up a "blue ribbon" panel to brainstorm public-private ventures like this?

But then, the schizophrenic side of the problem showed itself once more: she acknowledged that most singles (herself included) would probably be too embarrassed to sign on to such programs (reek of "desperation").

Scratch that--no new good ideas.

Unless...Bush hired Rev. Moon as a "marriage consultant" and paid for the rental of stadiums all across America...

posted by: Kelli on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Laura Kipnis:

"And I have really big breasts -- double-D cups."

Now does anybody have pictures?

And I pay her salary.

Seriously, Many years ago I read World We Have Lost by Peter Laslett who had read the parrish registers for Tudor/Stuart era churches in England which recorded births, deaths and wedings. IIRC, the bottom line was that marriages were not longer in that era. They were ended by death (particularly in child birth) or disease with fair frequency.

Of course, readers of Jane Austin, Anthony Trollope and John Galsworthy know that marriage was more about property and dynasty than love and sex in the pre-modern era.

The more things change . . .

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Why hasn't anyone pointed out that the economic fact she cited is also wrong. Middle class wages did not stagnate. It is true that most of the increases in wages were used to pay for large increases in benefits and social security taxes, but real wages did increase significantly.

posted by: stan on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Kipnis' iffy stats aside, what does it even mean to "defend marriage"? Are we talking about encouraging otherwise-happy singles to find a mate? Making it harder to get divorced? Providing counseling for couples with difficulties? Putting stricter controls on who can get married (ie make sure they are committed, financially stable, etc)? Keeping homosexuals from diluting the meaning of it? What?

posted by: David Adams on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Well, as far as I can tell most married men really do get it more often than single men. Single men are more often prone to focus on their exploits, than to focus on the often long dry spells in between. In addition, courting is an exhaustive energy intensive activity and contrary to stereotypes of male lotharios courting more than one woman at once is extremely exhausting. Now we've all known men who have been "cut off" or "put in the dog house", but it's a two way street. Often in my experience (as they often tell me themselves), these women are retailiating for being totally cut off from attention/respect/affection that can dry up when a man stops courting and focuses on his career. In addition, many women I know feel pressure to act prudish in public and feel more "liberated" in private. That poor guy's wife might have only been giving him sugar six times a year, or she might have been just cutting on him because she felt neglected or embaressed about his public exposure of their sex lives. Trust me, the old man has courted more than one lady at once - once roomates - and has been cut down by women in public who later get more affectionate in private. Sometimes they just want to know if you're confident enough to take a ribbing and really want them instead of just wanting to look good, and whether or not they can lean or you or will have to baby your ego. Take it from the oldman, if you have a chance with a non-psycho spouse or long-term committed consensual partner(s) then take it. It's way better in all arenas (on average) than being single.

posted by: Oldman on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

"So we get married later, have children later, and this is a good thing imo. I still think there is a major state of flux, and divorce rates havent lessened, but I believe that will come in time."

Actually, we get married later, and have more children before marriage than we used to.

Teenage pregnancy is down over the last few decades, but unmarried teenage pregnancy is way up. Maybe getting married later isn't all it's cracked up to be.

"The problem is that (1) we aren't our parents and (2) we measure wealth relatively. In general, people will feel (and be treated as) poor if they aren't consuming at a level relatively close to the peers. So, while in absolute terms you may not need the extra income, in any way that is meaningful to human beings, they do."

The real problem is land-use policies that jack up housing prices, and the refusal to adequately protect cheap neighborhoods. Generally, you keep up with the Joneses or you risk getting shot. Not an especially good deal, in my book.

posted by: Ken on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

If I may, I think we're moving too far from the central questions: why are fewer of us married and why should anyone care?

For the record (judging by friends and family members) the difference between folks below (roughly) 40 and the boomer generation is that Xers set up independent households on a large scale, set themselves up in good (often, previously male dominated) jobs, THEN looked around for a mate, at which time nearly all of their potential spouses were holed up in their offices and/or nice condos for large chunks of day and night. In other words, by the time they said "I'm ready" lots of good catches had gone home either alone or with someone else.

Now it seems to me that to get beyond this impasse, we have to be ready to recognize the STRUCTURAL impediments to mating in this post-industrial wonderland and surmount them. Unfortunately, too many single people who would prefer to get married (and yeah, not everyone wants to, and they can stop reading this if they haven't already) end up saying "I'm really very happy single, thank you very much" until the day they collapse in agony at the thought of going home yet again to an empty apartment.

One question I have for the economists out there is whether the decline in family living is in some way related to the rise in productivity with which it is coterminous. Lots of individual hamsters on their own exercise wheels may just run faster and harder than those who share cages and have lots of little hamsters. Maybe it's cheaper and easier for a society to import new blood than grow its own. Maybe we should all follow Kipnis' advice and follow our bliss into the beds of strangers. Let the state sort out our screwed up kids. I've got better things to do with my time (and my D cup breasts).

posted by: Kelli on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Why should we care?

I suppose we should start with the concept that the statisical data tends to lean toward it being benficial to individuals and even moreso to the society as a whole.

If taht's true, then it seems a proper area for concern.

posted by: Bithead on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Generally, you keep up with the Joneses or you risk getting shot.

Ah yes, that would be one of the "attendent effects of poverty" I was talking about :-).

whether the decline in family living is in some way related to the rise in productivity

It is interesting that a generation ago, companies preferred to hire married men, as they were supposed to be more stable and thus more productive. Now, if there is any preference, it is to (quietly) prefer to hire the unmarried who (presumably) have no interests outside of their job, and can be more easily transferred to other locations.

posted by: Tom West on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Short (informal) theory:

The state wants its citizens to spawn, in order to generate a neverending supply of new taxpayers (and soldiers?). The institution of marriage (between a man and woman) is a time-tested way for raising a new, relatively stable generation of taxpayers (and soldiers?). Thus, the state supports marriage, through laws and various incentives.

[See also Catholic church and its views on marriage and abortion.]

an lapsed Catholic, straight, happily single man who gets some from time to time.

posted by: keith on 01.25.04 at 10:33 PM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?