“Marriage is a wonderful institution,” deadpanned Groucho Marx, “but who wants to live in an institution?”According to W. Bradford Wilcox, the answer is “not too many Americans.” In an important essay in National Affairs’ inaugural issue, Wilcox shows how Americans in the last four decades have abandoned the institutional model of marriage, which emphasized the welfare of children, in favor of the soul-mate model of marriage, which prioritizes the emotional welfare of adults.
The results? Wilcox cites a mountain of social scientific evidence that shows the disastrous effects of the divorce revolution on children’s well-being: specifically, children of divorce are “two to three times more likely than their peers in intact marriages to suffer from serious social or psychological pathologies.” Thus, Wilcox concludes that on the basis of children’s welfare alone, it is in our national interest to strengthen the institutional model of marriage.
However, while cataloguing the strong evidence for the link between marriage breakdown and declining children’s well-being, Wilcox notes that the evidence for the effects on adults is more ambiguous. Psychologist Mavis Hetherington, he observes, finds that 20 percent of divorced adults said their lives are enhanced and another 50 percent apparently suffer no long-term ill effects. True, as Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite point out in The Case for Marriage, we have a wealth of evidence that shows that married persons are, on the whole, happier, healthier, and wealthier than single, cohabiting, or divorced persons. But as Hetherington’s research indicates, compared to children of divorce, adults are much less vulnerable to family fragmentation.
In light of all this, one might protest that an inevitable implication of returning to the institutional model of marriage would be a greater proportion of adults who resign themselves to unhappy marriages—whether it’s for the sake of the children, paying off the mortgage, or other pragmatic reasons. Or, one could press, why should one not divorce when the children are grown, or if the couple is childless?
Surely anyone interested in the health of marriage will take these objections seriously—after all, they get to the heart of a crucial question: is the institution of marriage good for adults, and if so, why? For the purposes of this essay, we can narrow the question even further: apart from any social scientific evidence, can we make a rational argument for why the institutional model of marriage conduces to adult flourishing? If we cannot articulate a principled reason for why marriage is objectively good for adults, we are at the mercy of mumbling dismissive responses like “just get and stay together for the sake of the children” when our culture asks “why marriage?” Stated otherwise, if marriage is only a means to the end of securing child well-being, we are left with a utilitarian case for marriage—and adults are right to protest why they, rather than children, should be treated as means rather than ends.
So is the institutional model conducive to adult flourishing?
Let’s take a closer look at the institutional model, and how it differs from the soul-mate model. For one, it recognizes that marriage is more than a private relationship between two consenting adults; it’s a social institution that directs otherwise volatile sexual desires towards another person for life, and in doing so links parents to the fruit of their union, their children. The institution of marriage does what a purely private relationship can never do: it creates expectations of commitment; it reminds lovers that their love extends to the next generation and, for good or ill, influences the larger community. With this understanding, marriage is not primarily about two adults looking for emotional satisfaction through a “soul-mate,” but an estate that prescribes particular norms and obligations.
With all this talk of institutions, norms, and obligations, you might be wondering: “And where does love fit into the picture?” Thomas Cranmer provided the best response in The Book of Common Prayer, when he directs marrying couples to promise to love and care for each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” In this vow, the marriage is bigger than the couple—it’s an institution with its own norms and obligations. This elevation of marriage to the status of institution is not a belittling of human love but a tribute to its peculiar power and goodness. Cranmer’s lofty marriage vow upholds what the Western legal tradition has commonly recognized as an equally lofty good of marriage: a union of mutual support. In other words, marriage is friendship.
But not just any kind of friendship—in particular, the institutional model seeks to create what Aristotle called “the best kind of friendship.” Aristotle argued that there are three kinds of friendship: for the sake of pleasure, utility, or good. The highest kind of friendship, for good, is one in which each wishes the other well for his own sake. In this kind of friendship, friends are bound together not because they seek to use the other person, whether it’s for pleasure, a better social position, or economic benefit—no, they are instead bound together by virtue. Because of their good character, they love each other not because of any “benefits” but because of the intrinsic good of the other person. Obviously, then, this kind of friendship is possible only between good persons. As Aristotle explained, “mutual love involves choice and choice springs from a state of character.”
How does the institutional model of marriage seek the best kind of friendship? By enjoining a lifelong, monogamous union. In demanding that spouses commit themselves to each other “for as long as they both shall live,” marriage implicitly invites married couples to become good persons. Only a good man can remain faithful to his wife even as his sexual desires direct him elsewhere. Only a good woman will stand by her husband through sickness and poverty. Happily, precisely by becoming good the married couple can now participate in marital friendship for the sake of good. In this way, the institutional model of marriage is aspirational: it seeks to make men and women good, and thus enables them to partake in the highest friendship.
No small accomplishment there. As Aristotle argues, good friendships are a constitutive ingredient of human flourishing. Friendship, Aristotle believed, is the “greatest of external goods,” asserting that “no one would choose the whole world on condition of being alone, since man is a political creature and one whose nature is to live with others.” Since man by nature associates with other people, the question is not “Does one have friends?” but “What kind of friendships does he have?” The good man will have the best kind of friendship, in which he truly looks out for the other’s well-being.
But what if that friendship fails? What if, for example, a husband beats his wife? Or if a woman cheats on her man and moves in with her new lover? Opponents or skeptics of marriage will often point to such examples as proof that strengthening marriage as an institution will do more harm than good. And indeed, in the above-described scenarios, very few people would maintain that that particular marriage somehow enables the suffering spouse to flourish. But those actions are an abuse of marriage. To use the terms of logic, they are accidents, and not a part of the essential definition of marriage. Just as an irresolvable dispute between friends does not negate the good of friendship, so a bad marriage doesn’t negate the good of marriage.
Incidentally, the social scientific evidence clearly shows that the vast majority of divorces occur in relatively low-conflict marriages. Contrary to many people’s assumptions, marriage is hardly a breeding ground for domestic violence. As Waite and Gallagher point out in The Case for Marriage, a 1994 Justice Department report found that single and divorced women were four to five times more likely to be a victim of domestic violence than married women. Further, one study by family scholars Paul Amato and Alan Booth found that more than two-thirds of divorces occurred in “low-conflict” marriages. The General Social Survey, a representative sample of the nation that tracks Americans’ attitudes, bears this out: from 1972-2006, a cumulative of 2.9 percent reported that they were “not at all happy” with their marriage. The overwhelming majority said that they were either “very happy” (63.3 percent) or “pretty happy” (33.8 percent). It’s not surprising, then, that as family sociologists Frank Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin found in one study, four out of five marriages ended against one spouse’s will. We shouldn’t use the social evidence on this score to dismiss domestic violence and high-conflict marriages—they are all too real for too many people—but the relative happiness of most married couples does suggest that naysayers who say we should give up on marriage because it’s beyond repair are holding up a straw man.
Perhaps one concedes that the law should channel and the culture should encourage the currently married to stay within the institution of marriage—but that we should send a more mixed message to the wider culture. Cherlin appears to endorse such a mixed message in his new book, The Marriage Go-Round. While giving a perfunctory nod toward promoting marriage, he argues that Americans should “slow down” in their relationships—a message that “shifts the focus from promoting marriage to supporting stable care arrangements for children.” And why shouldn’t we, in light of the decline of marriage in the last four decades? For instance, according to the new Marriage Index that tracks five “leading marriage indicators,” marriage today is receiving a failing grade of 60.3 percent.
But while “slow down” may be an appropriate message for the recently divorced and serial cohabiters, it’s a dead-on-arrival proposal for most young people, who seek lasting attachment and the chance to raise a family. According to a report by the National Marriage Project in 2008, 82 percent of high school senior girls and 71 percent of high school senior boys—many of whom have experienced firsthand the hardships of family fragmentation—say having a good marriage and family life is “extremely important.” Emphasizing to our teens and young adults the perils of marriage and family life is an understandable response to marriage decline—but it’s a losing proposition. The best antidote to the saccharine “friendship” promoted by the soul-mate model—which is responsible for much of the “marriage go-round” that Cherlin so aptly describes—is not “slow down” but a superior understanding of friendship, one “for better for worse, for richer for poorer.”
Of course, even a significant strengthening of the institutional model of marriage would nonetheless translate into at least some married persons reporting miserable marriages and staying together for the sake of the children only. But we should strengthen the institutional model because always latent within it is a startling invitation to practice the best kind of friendship—an ideal we sacrifice at our own peril. The institutional model doesn’t guarantee that every married person will thrive, but it does secure marriage to a more solid foundation than utility or pleasure. For adults searching for love, then, the institutional model of marriage is hardly a sentence to slavery, but rather an invitation to the good life.