Soulmates & Deficits
The State of Our Unions Report Looks at Marital Economics
by David Mills
Dan Quayle Was Right,” declared the cover of (of all places) The Atlantic, after the then-vice president had chided a popular television show for glorifying single motherhood, and been roundly abused for his unenlightened views by nearly every major publication in America and every network news show. In the article, published in 1993, a freelance scholar named Barbara Dafoe Whitehead showed with copious evidence from social scientists that divorce and out-of-wedlock births were demonstrably bad for children, countering the convenient myths that the children were happier when their parents pleased themselves and that they easily “bounced back” from divorce.
As the reality of the costs of marital breakdown began to overcome the mythology, the article brought public attention to a growing movement in support of marriage, which used the findings of social scientists of unimpeachable secularity. What had been an issue for the “religious right” became a concern for public intellectuals and policy-makers of all sorts, liberal and conservative. Not all of them, by any means, because such a self-serving mythology cannot easily be dethroned, but a surprising number.
Marriage & Recession
In 1997, Whitehead and Rutgers professor David Popenoe, author of Life Without Father, founded the National Marriage Project. Popenoe’s book, published by Harvard University Press, another unimpeachable source in the world of mainstream thought, proclaimed in its subtitle that “fatherhood and marriage are indispensable for the good of children and society.” This was, though once a truism, now a bold claim.
The project gathered an ideologically diverse group of scholars concerned for marriage, and soon began publishing an annual report called The State of Our Unions. The report came to include a review of the “Social Indicators of Marital Health and Wellbeing,” annually updating the statistics on matters like marriage, divorce, cohabitation, teenagers’ attitudes to marriage and family, “fragile families with children,” and “loss of child centeredness.”
The project is now headed by W. Bradford Wilcox, a University of Virginia sociologist (and occasional contributor to Touchstone). He edits the State of Our Unions with Elizabeth Marquardt, author of Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce and director of the Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.
The 2009 State of Our Unions, titled “Money and Marriage,” reflects “on the challenges and opportunities presented to the institution of marriage by the Great Recession,” the editors write in their introduction. The five papers—all written by scholars but accessible to others—attempt not only to measure the effect of the economy on marriage and divorce rates, but also to look at deeper issues, like the effects of family finances (including debt and savings) on marriages, the way husbands and wives should divide their financial responsibilities, and how the “Great Recession” affects the relation of husbands and wives. (The following reviews the five papers in the 114-page report, though not the very helpful second half, giving the “Social Indicators of Marital Health and Wellbeing.”)
Though the five writers disagree at various points, what they found, not surprisingly, is that marriage is much more than a matter of good feelings, but a very practical institution affected by a couple’s economic circumstances and affecting them in turn.
Nest & Nest-Egg
Yet because “Americans have increasingly come to view marriage primarily as a soulmate relationship” and “emotional intimacy, sexual satisfaction, and individual happiness rank at the top of marital aspirations, especially for younger adults,” writes Wilcox in his own paper, Americans have tended to forget the practical effect of financial health or insecurity upon their marriages. The practical question during the “Great Recession” is whether financial stress helps couples see their marriage as “an economic partnership and social safety net” or drives them apart.
It can do both, but affects different social classes somewhat differently. On the one hand, he notes, the divorce rate is down slightly and families are working hard to reduce their debt (a destructive strain upon marriage) while reviving the “home economy,” which itself contributes to marital and familial harmony. On the other hand, the disproportionate effect of the recession upon men—over three-quarters of the jobs lost were men’s jobs—stresses marriages, because many men feel inadequate when their wives make more money or work more hours than they do.
Poor and working-class men are more affected, because their marriages depend more upon the husband’s income and their families are already more economically vulnerable. Thus, among the effects of the recession will be a deepening of “the marital divide that has opened up between college-educated and less-educated Americans, a divide marked by dramatically higher rates of divorce among those without college degrees compared to those with college degrees.”
The final effect of the recession upon marriages, Wilcox concludes, can’t be predicted. But it “has once again brought into clear relief the enduring truth that marriage and money, the nest and the nest-egg, go hand in hand.” This he clearly believes a good thing, because it highlights the serious error of the “marital soulmate” mythology.
Assets to Happiness
Among the recession’s most obvious effects is that it has increased the amount of consumer debt many families carry, which was already much too high for the health of marriages. Consumer debt, writes Jeffrey Dew, who teaches at Utah State University, “plays a powerful role in eroding the quality of married life.”
Couples who begin their marriage in debt or fall into debt not only fight more about money but argue more about other issues as well and spend less time with each other. Over a three-year period, couples who began with no assets were 70 percent more likely to divorce than those who began the period with $10,000 in assets. Serious disagreements over finances, he writes, are
Having financial assets, not surprisingly, increases marital happiness. For women, it decreases the likelihood of divorce, he writes, both because they are happier in their marriages when they are economically secure and because they will suffer economically by getting divorced.
Even the perception that a spouse handles money badly decreases marital happiness and sharply increases the likelihood of divorce. And further, materialism harms marriages, Dew notes.
Economies of Scale
Though many commentators declared that the recession would be bad for marriages, and others that it would be good for them, Alex Roberts argues that the statistics mislead. “Both marriage and divorce rates tend to fall when the economy heads south,” because “marriage and divorce are, in a word, expensive.” But when the economy improves, “this pent-up demand for marriage and divorce is released and the rates of both typically swing up.”
Some couples find that the recession draws them together, while others find themselves pushed apart, writes Roberts, a scholar affiliated with the Institute for American Values. Some of the second group, being unable to divorce, adopt alternatives, like “in-house separation arrangements” where one spouse might have the basement and the other the upper stories.
However, he argues, the economy isn’t the primary influence on marriage, because the marriage rate has been declining for decades even when the economy was growing. “The business cycle operates on the marriage rate like wind on a projectile: It might push it around a bit, but does not determine its general direction.” The marriage rate is still declining, though when the economy is growing, it temporarily and deceptively “increase[s] relative to a broader downward trend in the marriage rate.”
In fact, “the impact of economic trends on marriage has been steadily weakening for over a century.” Where marriages were once not only economically fruitful (as they remain) but economically necessary—they were “joint-production companies” that created substantial economies of scale—“it is now often more economically optimal for women to join the paid labor force and for households to purchase such goods and services in the marketplace.” This they can do while single or living with someone.
Without such an economic advantage to marriage, and with “certain changes in values” Roberts does not list, fewer women will marry and many more will divorce when the marriage ceases to satisfy them. At the same time, many couples “that would once have delayed marriage or divorce due to an economic downturn are now cohabiting.” These relationships, naturally much more unstable, are not counted in the marriage statistics.
Roberts argues, as does Wilcox, that the effect of the economy on marriage differs between social classes. Because marriage has “increasingly come to signify a bond of companionship whose purpose is to satisfy emotional needs—instead of economic ones,” and the affluent are more likely to enter these kinds of marriages, their marriages are better insulated from the effects of economic change.
Even if couples do not have to get married for economic reasons, Roberts writes, “marriage itself typically creates substantial economic benefits for families,” even for the more affluent. Couples who remained married over five years had on average about twice the income and four times the net worth of those who had gotten divorced or never married.
Not only does marriage “generate tremendous economies of scale” and thus “increase the amount of income that couples are able to save,” but married men “work harder, work smarter, and earn more than their unmarried peers.” Couples living together, “in contrast, are less likely to pool resources, feel obligated to spend wisely and save, or invest in the future of the household.”
Adaptable Gender Roles
Looking not at the economy but at the way marriages work, another scholar offered an unexpected insight into the economic relations within marriages. The usual division of labor in the home—women make more of the decisions about spending, while men make the decisions about investments—may undermine the family’s economic well-being, argues Ronald Wilcox, who teaches at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.
Men, for example, tend to be overconfident in their abilities and not listen to advice, “characteristics that play havoc with their ability to invest money.”
The more cautious woman will “generate risk-adjusted returns . . . that are superior to her male counterpart’s.”
But on the other hand, “women’s gathering instincts can wreck household finances as well. . . . They enjoy shopping, spending money, and, unfortunately, do it to excess more often than men do.” Men make better, less impulsive, decisions in the market.
Families would benefit, Wilcox concludes, if the husbands did more shopping and the wives more investing.
The economy “may accelerate the social acceptance of women as equal breadwinners and men as capable parents and homemakers. . . . [I]n times of necessity family gender roles may be more adaptable than we think,” writes Christine B. Whelan. For example, “in an intensification of a decades-long trend,” young college-educated men “expect to have dual-career households” and women are increasingly interested “in a man who takes a nurturing role in the family.”
Today, reports Whelan, who teaches sociology at the University of Iowa, about one-third of married women earn more than their husbands. Men are spending more time watching their children and doing housework, while the number of stay-at-home fathers is increasing. And this is more typical of the young: “just 27 percent of adults under 35 believe that it is better for men to focus on breadwinning and women on homemaking, compared to 58 percent of Americans over 55.”
The Christian will note, upon reading these papers and the “Social Indicators,” that they show in sociological detail what the realistic Christian tradition—notably the hard-headed book of Proverbs—has long taught. As W. Bradford Wilcox writes in his paper, sharply rejecting the “soulmate” mythology, “Money matters for marriage. Income, employment, debt, assets, and the division of household labor all shape the quality and stability of married life in the United States.”
But other things matter too, of course. Perhaps the editors can next explore how a commitment to the permanence of a marriage, such as Christianity provides, or the lack of it, affects a couple’s response to economic hardship, and how fragile even committed marriages are when the paychecks stop coming.
The State of Our Unions can be found at www.virginia.edu/marriageproject/pdfs/Union_11_25_09.pdf. “Dan Quayle Was Right” can be found at www.theatlantic.com/politics/family/danquayl.htm. Elizabeth Marquardt’s website can be found at www.betweentwoworlds.org and the Institute for American Values at www.americanvalues.org.
David Mills is executive editor of First Things. He was editor of Touchstone from 2003-2008. His most recent book is Discovering Mary: Answers to Questions About the Mother of God (Servant Books). He is living with his wife and two of their four children in Manhattan, where they attend Immaculate Conception church.
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“Soulmates & Deficits” first appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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