Marriage is not worth it. It’s not worth the financial sacrifices, the lost sexual opportunities, and the lack of freedom. All in all, it’s a ball and chain — of little benefit to any man interested in pursuing happiness and well-being. This is the view that we’ve encountered from many young men of late.
Take Craig, a 29-year-old guy who saw online a lecture of Wilcox’s on marriage and men. In his words, “I would much rather buy a $75,000 condo by the beach in Florida working 10–20 hours a week with plenty of time and money to relax at the beach, sail, play golf and tennis as well as hang out with friends than marry a 30-year-old woman and take care of her into old age by working 50 hours a week at a job I don’t like.”
Let’s call him six-pack Craig. His bill of particulars with marriage is long and hyperbolic. But he does a good job of expressing a view that is increasingly popular among a growing number of men: Marriage is of little benefit to the average guy, especially the kind of guy who lives for the hedonistic moment. Indeed, the increased popularity of views like this are probably one reason why the share of young men (aged 20–39) has fallen in recent years, as the figure below indicates.
But it turns out that the sacrifices pay for themselves and more. Contrary to the view that marriage is just a ball and chain for guys, the benefits are substantial. Marriage offers substantial returns on men’s investments in money, sex, and health.
First, let’s consider money. Marriage has a transformative effect on men’s finances. After marrying, men typically work harder, smarter, and more successfully. They are less likely to be fired. And they make about $16,000 more than their single peers with otherwise similar backgrounds. In general, marriage seems to increase the earning power of men on the order of 10 to 24 percent.
This is what scholars call men’s “marriage premium.”
Research suggests that men who get and stay married live almost ten years longer than their unmarried peers.
Now, it’s true that some of the fruit of a married man’s labors goes to his spouse and children. But by the time they reach retirement, men who get and stay married are in much better financial shape than their peers who divorced or never married. Partly because they earn more and save more and generally spend many years in a dual-income family, stably married men have much greater wealth than their unmarried peers. In fact, the typical 50-something married guy has three times the assets of his unmarried peer, about $167,000 to $49,000.
Our first response to the six-pack Craigs of the world is this: In monetary terms alone, the financial return on marriage’s investments is substantial.
Sure, money matters, but for many men, sex matters more. Does married sex measure up, or is it as listless and infrequent as some single men seem to think?
When it comes to frequency, men who cohabit do have an advantage. According to the General Social Survey, 52 percent of cohabiting young men (20–39) have sex at least twice a week, compared to 42 percent of married men. But single men have the least sex, with only 37 percent of single guys in their twenties and thirties having that much sex.
On average, the quality of married sex trumps that of unmarried sex.
On average, the quality of married sex trumps that of unmarried sex. In the National Health and Social Life Survey, 51 percent of married men reported that they were extremely emotionally satisfied with sex, compared with 39 percent of cohabiting men and 36 percent of single men. Married men also found sex more physically pleasurable than men in unmarried relationships. These findings run counter to just about every movie, sitcom, and music video we’ve seen.
What’s going on here? We think guys benefit from the sexual investments that marriage encourages on the part of both parties. As one middle-aged spouse told researchers: “I think for sex you need more time, time to get in sync, time to know your partner, time to get to know what the other person likes or doesn’t like.”
Contrary to the stereotype of married men begging their wives for sex, what we see in the real world is that good sex is often built on the sacrifices spouses make for one another, inside and outside the bedroom. That obviously includes forsaking extramarital sex. The sense of commitment and trust engendered by marriage, then, translates into a better sexual connection.
Men don’t just enjoy a better sex life when married; they are also more likely to enjoy better health. Research suggests that men who get and stay married live almost ten years longer than their unmarried peers. And a recent Harvard study found that even among men diagnosed with cancer, the married ones live longer.
What gives? Simply put, the companionship, support, and gentle encouragement — marriage cynics might call it nagging — that a spouse provides translates into better physical health. Our immune systems function better when we have support from loved ones. Spouses tend to push doctors and nurses to give their other half better care when they’re in the hospital. Married men are more likely to be “encouraged” by their spouses to see a doctor. Sometimes nagging pays off.
The social and emotional support usually found in marriage translates into better mental health, too. Married men experience less depression and more happiness than do bachelors. The General Social Survey tells us that young married men (aged 20–39) are, compared with their unmarried peers, only half as likely to report they are “not happy.” Only 7 percent of married men say they are unhappy, compared with 17 percent of unmarried men. At 16 percent, cohabiting men are more similar to singles than to married men. Likewise, young married men are twice as happy: 43 percent of married men report they are “very happy” with life, compared with 20 percent of single men and 21 percent of cohabiting men.
The evidence is clear: Married men typically enjoy better physical and mental health than their single peers.
The Divorce Caveat
The science could not be clearer: On average, men are more likely to flourish when they get and stay married. But marriage is not without its risks. Foremost among them is divorce.
About 42 percent of first marriages end in divorce. Most divorces are initiated by women. This means that many men who marry will end up unwillingly divorced. These men obviously don’t realize much of a return on their investments in married life.
Both scholarly research and common sense suggest that there are a number of things men can do to reduce the risk of divorce. Men who do their best to hold down a stable job, don’t abuse drugs or alcohol, are sexually faithful, attend religious services regularly with their spouses, and, above all, make a regular effort to be emotionally engaged in their marriage are less likely to divorce. Men seeking to avoid divorce should keep these facts in mind.
The Return on Investment
We’ve seen that for the average guy, when it comes to money, sex, and health, marriage offers significant returns on the sacrifices it requires. It’s all of a piece with what one major research project, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, found about what makes men healthy and happy over the course of their lives, including their retirement years. Indeed, elderly men who enjoyed good marriages reported significantly less depression, better moods, and more satisfaction with life. The director of the study, Robert Waldinger, summed up the results: “Over and over in these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends and with community.”
Social science confirms that marriage confers enormous benefits for men’s wallets, their sex lives, and their physical and mental health. Yet too many men still believe in the ball-and-chain myth, viewing marriage as an expensive encumbrance on their freedom and their sex lives. These views are ubiquitous in popular culture, and that has undoubtedly had adverse consequences for men’s aspirations to marriage.
So, this Valentine’s Day, our message to men is this: If you’re in love, and you have a worthy partner, don’t be put off by the ball-and-chain myth. In the long run, guys like six-pack Craig are more likely to end up poor, sexually dissatisfied, and unhappy. Those are three reasons, among others, why you should think long and hard about putting a ring on it.
— W. Bradford Wilcox is a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. Nicholas H. Wolfinger is professor of family and consumer studies and adjunct professor of sociology at the University of Utah. This essay is adapted from Men & Marriage: Debunking the Ball and Chain Myth, a new report from the Institute for Family Studies.