Politics & Policy

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Marriage*

But Were Afraid to Ask Stephanie Coontz

In Sunday’s New York Times, Stephanie Coontz, director of public education for an outfit called the Council on Contemporary Families (which advocates for non-traditional families), administered a pop quiz on marriage. Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, offers the iMAPP marriage quiz, below:

The iMAPP Pop Quiz on Marriage

1. True or False: Young women today are more eager to marry than young men. True. According to the Monitoring the Future Survey, 82 percent of high -chool seniors who are girls said having a good marriage and family life was “extremely” important to them, compared to 70 percent of high-school seniors who are boys. (National Marriage Project, State of Our Unions, 2005)

2. True or False: College students today are more likely to approve of casual, uncommitted sex than college students 20 years ago. False. Between 1980 and 2000, the proportion of students in the UCLA College Freshmen survey who agreed that “if two people really like each other, it’s all right for them to have sex even if they have known each other for only a very short time” dropped from 48 percent to 42 percent.

3. True or False: Marriages are much more likely to end in divorce today than they were 20 years ago. False. The overall divorce rate peaked around 1980 and appears to have declined modestly since then. Divorce rates per 1,000 marriages were 22.6 in 1980, 20.9 in 1990, and 18.8 in 2000(latest data: 2004: 17.7). (National Marriage Project, State of Our Unions, 2005.) According to a recent study divorce rates among the college-educated have fallen the most dramatically since the 1970s, while rates among less-educated Americans may have risen slightly. Between the early ’70s and the early ’90s the proportion of women with college diplomas whose marriages dissolved in the first ten years plummeted from 24.3 percent to 16.7 percent. Divorce rates among those with less than a college degree, meanwhile, increased slightly from 33.7 percent to 35.7 percent.

4. True or False: Divorce rates are much higher today than 40 years ago.

Too true. In 2004, the number of divorces per 1000 married women was 17.7; in 1960 it was 9.2. (National Marriage Project, State of Our Unions, 2005)

5. True or False. Cohabitation has skyrocketed to historically unprecedented levels in the U.S..

True. According to the National Marriage Project, since 1960 the number of unmarried couples in America increased by nearly 1,200 percent. (National Marriage Project, State of Our Unions, 2005. About 40 percent of births out of wedlock in 2002 were to cohabiting mothers. These children are three times as likely as children born to married couples to see their parents part. (Wendy D. Manning et al, 2004, “The Relative Stability of Cohabiting and Marital Unions for Children,” Population Research and Policy Review, 23:135ff.)

6. True or False: The vast majority of today’s mothers don’t want a full-time career.

True. In a 2005 nationally-representative survey of 2000 mothers, just 16 percent prefer a full-time job.

7. True or False: The proportion of babies born outside of marriage has doubled since 1960.

False. The proportion of out-of-wedlock births has sextupled since 1960. It has doubled since just 1980. At this rate, by 2040, 122 percent of all babies will be born out of wedlock. (That’s a joke.) Out-of-wedlock birth rates were 5.3 percent in 1960, 10.7 percent in 1970, 18.4 percent in 1980, 28 percent in 1990, and 33.2 percent in 2000. (The latest statistics are 34.6 percent in 2003 and 35.7 percent in 2004.)

8. True or False: Men and women are just about equally likely to say they are happily married.

More true than false. Women are less likely to report being very happily married, but only slightly. According to GSS survey, in the early 1970s, 69.6 percent of husbands and 68.6 percent of wives described their marriage as “very happy.” By the early 2000s, it was 64.6 percent of husbands and 60.3 percent of wives.

9. True or False: “Philosophers and theologians have always believed that strong marital commitments form the foundation of a virtuous society”.

Obviously false. Plato, Marx, and Rousseau are just a few of the many philosophers who have targeted marriage and the family for destruction, preferring that the state raise children. But Christian philosophers and advocates of political liberty have long understood that strong marital bonds protect children and women, civilize men, benefit society, and foster political liberty and limited government. (Medieval theologians, it is true, looked askance at “excessive” sexual passion, even directed at one’s wife, but they strongly approved of both love and marital commitment, acknowledging marriage as a sacramental bond.)

10. True or False: Divorce impoverishes women and children.

True. The majority of children raised outside of marriage experience poverty. As many as one-third of divorced women slip below the poverty level after divorce. (Bradford Wilcox et al, 2005, Why Marriage Matters: 26 Conclusions from the Social Sciences, NY: Institute for American Values.)

11. True or False: Divorce hurts kids.

True. Divorce approximately doubles the risk of long-term permanent damage to children (E. Mavis Hetherington and John Kelly, 2002, For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered). And even kids who are not damaged are often hurt. In Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce, Elizabeth Marquardt reports the results of a nationally representative survey: 64 percent of children of divorce agreed that “it was stressful in my family,” compared to just 25 percent of children raised in intact married homes. Children of divorce were four times as likely as children from intact families to agree, “I love my father, but I don’t respect him.” They are also almost eight times as likely to disagree with the statement “My father taught me clearly the difference between right and wrong.” Fifty-one percent of children of divorce agree that “There are things my father has done that I find hard to forgive,” compared to 19 percent of children in intact families. Forty-four percent of children of divorce agree that “I was alone a lot as a child,” compared to 14 percent of children from intact families. Only 44 percent of children of divorce strongly agree that “I generally felt emotionally safe” as a child, compared to 79 percent of adults who were children in intact families.

12. True or False: “The preferred form of marriage through the ages has been between one man and one woman” (taken directly from Coontz’s quiz).

True. Four out of five of the great religions that gave birth to large complex civilizations (encompassing the vast majority of people ever born) have had monogamous marriage systems. And while polygamy has been common in many tribal societies, almost every known society throughout the ages considers marriage a male-female sexual bond with procreative implications. “The unique trait of what is commonly called marriage is social recognition and approval . . . of a couple’s engaging in sexual intercourse and bearing and rearing offspring” (Kingsley Davis (ed.), Contemporary Marriage: Comparative Perspectives on a Changing Institution). Professors Margo Wilson and Martin Daly write in Evolutionary Psychology, Public Policy and Personal Decisions:

Marriage is a universal social institution, albeit with myriad variations in social and cultural details. A review of the cross-cultural diversity in marital arrangements reveals certain common themes: some degree of mutual obligation between husband and wife, a right of sexual access (often but not necessarily exclusive), an expectation that the relationships will persist (although not necessarily for a lifetime), some cooperative investment in offspring, and some sort of recognition of the status of the couple’s children. The marital alliance is fundamentally a reproductive alliance.

13. True or False: Religion has no effect on divorce rates.

False, false, false. Mere religious affiliation may not reduce divorce, but religious practice clearly does. One longitudinal analysis of the National Survey of Family Growth found that couples who attended church as often as once a month had divorce rates less than half that of couples who attended church once a year or less. Similarly, a recent study of the National Survey of Families and Households found that marriage in which both couples attend church regularly have the lowest divorce risk (David B. Larson and James P. Swyers, 2002, “Does Religion and Spirituality Contribute to Marital and Individual Health?” in John Wall et al (eds.) Marriage, Health and the Professions).

Maggie Gallagher is president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.


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