Debates over the science of marriage and happiness are really about whether marriage is best understood as a vehicle for individual growth or as a community of love. Each side claims the authority of science. Many are critical of the science on which the individualist vision of the family rests. Arguments will gain public purchase when sound science serves the larger ethical truth about the nature of marriage. Married people are happier because marriage responds to a deep human need for love and community.
This dynamic helps explain why reams of scientific literature about how detrimental broken homes are for children―studies produced consistently over the past forty years―have not moved liberal public intellectuals or policymakers to defend the family as the most essential, basic unit of society. It also explains why some scholars resort to manipulating the data.
Indeed, this spring brought another episode in the annals of liberal pseudo-science. Marriage benefits men, but it makes women “flipping [sic] miserable,” claimed Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics. This claim hijacks the science for ideological reasons.
Speaking at London’s Hay Festival and promoting his new book, Happy Ever After, Dolan offered the following: “We do have some good longitudinal data following the same people over time. . . . [I]f you’re a man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother.” Men “calm down” and learn the habits of success, on the backs of their women who serve as a second parent, work a second shift of housework, and as a result are miserable. “The healthiest and happiest population sub-group are women who never married or had children,” he said. The message: stay single or, as a second-best option, transform marriage so that women can approximate the independent, single life within marriage.
Scholars―such as Nicholas Wolfinger at Quillette and at the Institute for Family Studies blog, and Gray Kimbrough―have exposed Dolan’s claims as fraudulent. Dolan’s data, Wolfinger writes, contradict decades of “data that consistently show that married people are happier than their unmarried contemporaries.”
Yet Dolan has issued no retractions. Nor has the Guardian issued a correction. Such “academic malpractice” could, Wolfinger worries, bring disrepute on the profession. Perhaps we should instead worry more about the damage that this error, frequently repeated and popularized, does to marriage, more than about how it affects the crumbling credibility of our corrupt academic institutions. “Academic malpractice” has become everyday “academic practice” in the service of broader ideological ends.
Dolan’s story and advice are sewn into the project of academic feminism. Feminists do not allow mere scientific refutation to deter their project, in part because their ideology allows them to explain away inconvenient findings. “Scientists” such as Dolan are implacable ideological opponents of a marriage community. They must be rebutted for their impoverished vision of marriage.
This is an old story. Feminists like Dolan have long contended that marriage benefits men and harms women. Jessie Bernard published The Future of Marriage, once considered a “breakthrough book” that introduced America to “His and Hers marriage,” in 1972. Based on what purported to be solid social science, Bernard sought to prove that marriage is good for men physically, socially, and psychologically, while marriage makes women sick, isolated, and unhappy when it does not lead to early death.
Wives suffer from “poor mental health and emotional health” when compared to married men and unmarried women, Bernard asserts. The “psychological and emotional costs . . . show up in the increasing unhappiness of wives with the passage of time, and in their increasingly negative and passive outlook on life.” Married men always enjoy an “impressive superiority on almost every index” over never-married men.
Bernard acknowledges that surveys show that married women are consistently happier than never-married women and that never-married women are consistently unhappier. Yet in order to “prove” her underlying ideology and obscure the facts of social science, Bernard claims that married women are brainwashed into thinking that they are happy. Their happiness reflects their “conformity.” Women have “so completely internalized the norms prescribing marriage that the role of wife seems the only acceptable one.” Their minds are deformed—just as the Chinese deform the feet of young girls.
Bernard would replace the old brainwashing with a new brainwashing, emphasizing individual self-fulfillment and what I elsewhere call the career mystique. The new marriage rejects the old vows of “for better or worse, in sickness and health.” Future spouses in Bernard’s new marriage will, among other things, “continue to grow, each in his or her unique way”; “retain future choices about our relationship, recognizing that the risks of growth include the risks of growing apart”; “give room for the process of growth”; and “provide a climate that stimulates and invites growing.” No thought of children, enduring love, building a beautiful life together, or two becoming one for Bernard’s new marriage.
According to such feminists, there is no problem with marriage that cannot be solved by encouraging women to act and think more like singles. The more single, the better. Thus academic feminism holds fast to the beauty and honor of the independent woman and sees marriage as a compromised vehicle for self-fulfillment.
Is there any scientific evidence that could convince feminists that marriage for self-fulfillment is bad for human beings in general, and for women in particular? The Dolan and Bernard episodes (one preceding the other by fifty years) show that the conclusions of feminism are not scientific claims, but rather are assertions about public justice and private advantage.
The feminist vision of marriage that approximates the independence of single life must be met on a level above science—on the level of human nature and social vision. The feminist vision, however, misses crucial human motives and misunderstands the reality of marriage.
The feminist’s vision ignores the deep human desire for love and redefines love out of existence. Love implies that both people are incomplete on their own and look to become complete by joining their lives together. Love implies the dependence of one person on the other. The effort to see men as independent within marriage and women as dependent is among the most risible simplifications in the history of academic feminism’s risible simplifications.
In their effort to see marriage as a power play whereby men get the upper hand on women, feminists depreciate how men depend on women at least as much as women depend on men. Marriage is not and has never been about power—this is a feminist lie, frequently repeated. It has always been about melding the interests of men and women together so that “his” and “hers” cannot easily be understood without “ours.”
The feminist deconstruction of marriage ignores the beauty of a man and a woman becoming one through marriage and building a life together. Men and women experience marriage differently, but that is only because they have somewhat different personalities and priorities, and because they make different contributions in the main to the marriage. Of course there is a his and a her marriage, but there is also a shared marital community that grows over time between a man and a woman.
What grows in marriage is not each individual; rather, the people in marriage grow together.
All the science in the world does not answer the deepest questions of political importance. The “science” in immigration really concerns what kind of political community we are going to be, for instance. Political debate involves ranking goods in political life and choosing among them. Pretending that questions of political priority are merely technical or scientific questions is the lie of modern times. Rebutting ideological science makes room for wisdom on these matters, but is not itself wisdom. Conservatives must relearn this lesson in order to defend essential public goods like marriage and the family.