Insight Magazine


Q: Does it pay for men in America to marry and raise children?

Yes: Married men have longer lives, better health and higher earnings than single men.

No: High divorce rates and biased laws have made marriage a gamble for too many men.

Yes: Married men have longer lives, better health and higher earnings than single men.

By Steven Nock
Insight Magazine

Married people are healthier, live longer, earn more, have better mental health, better sex lives and are happier than their unmarried counterparts. Married individuals have lower rates of suicide, fatal accidents, acute and chronic illnesses, alcoholism and depression than other people. Such differences are not the result of self-selection. Rather, marriage changes people to produce such benefits.

Marriage is good for men and women. Yet men reap greater gains than women for virtually every outcome affected by marriage. When women benefit from marriage, it is because they are in a satisfying relationship, but men appear much less sensitive to the quality of their marriages and gain simply by being married. Marriage itself improves men’s lives; the quality of the marriage affects women’s lives.

What is it about being married that matters for men? And why would the quality of the relationship be less important for husbands than for wives? The answer to both of these questions, I believe, is that marriage is a social institution. That means there are conventional expectations associated with it, customary ways to be a good husband. In this sense a man does more than simply marry a woman. He also binds himself to a system of rules, many of which are quite formal, but many of which are little more than conventional expectations. As a husband, a man becomes the subject of many expectations held by others and will be expected to do things differently than he did as a bachelor. When children are born, he automatically will be assumed to be the father and his responsibilities and obligations to his children will begin immediately.

By their marriages, husbands and wives accept an obligation to be faithful, to give and receive help in times of sickness and to endure hardships. Not all will be able to remain true to such vows. However, it is more difficult for a married than for an unmarried person to break such promises because they are part of our laws, religions and definitions of morality. Others have taken identical vows throughout history. Collectively, society enforces these ideals both formally and informally. Nothing of the sort can be said about any other type of intimate relationship between two adults.

Marriage is so highly valued by Americans as to be virtually ubiquitous. In 1998, nine in 10 individuals older than 35 had married at least once. The Census Bureau projects similarly high rates of marriage at least until 2010. Even those who divorce remarry at very high rates (about 70 percent). Indeed, remarriage is so common that almost half (46.3 percent) of all marriages today involve at least one previously married person.

There is widespread concern that American marriages are weak and troubled. How can marriage be so good for people when they perceive it to be so bad? The answer is that marriages are not that bad. First, a sizable majority of all marriages endure until death. The United States has never had a 50 percent divorce rate. Demographers made such predictions 10 or 15 years ago when divorce rates were increasing. Now that divorce rates have been dropping consistently for more than a decade, the most reasonable projections are that as many as 42 percent of recent marriages may end in divorce. Were this to happen, 42 percent would be the highest divorce rate we have ever experienced. Second, the overwhelming majority of married people describe themselves as very happy. And finally, even for the troubled partner whose private married life is unhappy, there still are benefits of being married. A husband is a married man regardless of the quality of his marriage. Marriage is part of an identity. To appreciate this aspect of marriage means that we must consider how people understand the institution.

I developed a definition of the institution of marriage by consulting domestic-relations law, public-opinion surveys and religious doctrine. Together, these three sources provide a balanced view of what Americans think about marriage and how they believe it should operate. Americans are in general agreement about six dimensions of marriage. Together, these constitute an ideal definition of marriage. They define what marriages should be. Not all married couples conform to such ideals and not all wish to. Still, these simple expectations are how marriage is understood in America:

1. Marriage is a free personal choice, based on love;

2. Marriage presumes maturity on the part of both partners;

3. Marriage is a heterosexual relationship;

4. A married man should work for pay;

5. Marriage presumes sexual fidelity and monogamy; and

6. Marriage involves children.

Consider the expectation that to be a married man in America means that a husband is expected to earn a living. The husband who cannot do so may be pitied. But the husband who will not work is scorned. This simple observation contains the key to understanding much about marriage in men’s lives. That key is the connection between marriage and conventional ideas about masculinity. Masculinity requires three things from married men: They should be fathers of their wives’ children, they should be providers for their wives and children, and they should protect their families. The man who refuses to provide for or protect his family not only is a bad husband, he is less than a man.

In marriage men do those things that culturally are accepted as basic elements of their adult masculinity. The model of marriage outlined above requires and venerates behaviors that are central to cultural definitions of manhood. In fact, marriage is the only way by which most males can become “men” — regardless of the quality of their marriages.

Cultures differ in how they recognize and foster masculinity. In some, elaborate rites of passage mark the transitions along the route to adult masculinity. In others, such as our own, there are few public markers. At what point is a young male a man? And how do we know? The answer is that marriage is a rite of passage into manhood. Once married, a man is a different social and legal person and is held to different standards and accorded different treatment by others.

Married men arrange much of their lives in accordance with expectations of them as husbands. The traits expected of married men as husbands are the same as those expected of husbands as men. In this sense, marriage is a metaphor for much else in men’s lives. Good husbands are mature, faithful, generous fathers and providers. Good husbands are expected to achieve, to help others and to remain true to their promises. As such, good husbands are good men. Married men benefit enormously by these assumptions others make about them. But those assumptions are justified.

I studied approximately 6,000 young males who were interviewed annually for 15 years beginning in 1979. First, I compared men before and after they got married to assess how various dimensions of their lives changed. Second, I followed these married men as they experienced changes in the basic dimensions of marriage. I focused on three aspects of men’s lives: achievement, social involvement and generosity.

The results are consistent in showing how marriage changed these men. Once married, men earned more (about $4,500 in annual income, on average), worked more (a little more than two hours per week) and achieved more (modest gains in occupation). Once married, men saw less of their friends and dropped memberships in relatively unstructured types of organizations (such as health clubs). They were much more likely to participate in organized, formal relationships governed by clear standards of performance and membership (e.g., church). They spent more time with relatives, at church and with coworkers and less time at bars and taverns. And, once married, men were more likely to contribute money or assistance to relations by blood or marriage. Moreover, during the course of time when men’s marriages changed, there were comparable shifts of the sort just described. Changes toward more-traditional arrangements were associated with gains in achievement, shifts in friendships and memberships and increases in generosity to relatives.

American marriages are changing in consistent ways. Most generally, what it means to be a married woman today is very different than it was in the recent past. Increasing rates of female employment, delayed marriage, reduced fertility and higher chances of divorce all require changes that signal a departure from some aspects of traditional marriage. These changes have significant implications for men and women. But the biggest challenges in the future will confront men because the institutional framework of matrimony largely has been organized around husbands. That is changing rapidly.

The newly emerging model of marriage is not very different from the older model already outlined. The expectation for married men is that they must provide for their wives and children. This means that wives and children are their dependents. But it no longer is true that husbands are expected to do all the providing. That task now is shared and will be increasingly. Most wives work for pay. And working wives produce about a third of household income. This does not abolish the wife’s dependence on her husband. But it does mean that husbands are dependent on their wives.

Married couples are defining marriage as an arrangement that depends on the combined resources generated by both partners. For the vast majority of people, neither husband nor wife alone is able to afford any other arrangement. Such shared dependency is a powerful bond that stabilizes marriage. In this sense, Americans are returning to a more traditional form of marriage. The typical marriage in the first half of the 20th century was an unusual one. Until the turn of this century, and since about 1970, most married couples relied on a combination of economic efforts by both spouses to keep the household going. Contemporary marriages more closely resemble earlier arrangements than those of the early 20th century. Such marriages still require that husbands provide for wives and children. But they also require that wives provide for husbands and children.

The model of marriage that now is emerging will be just as good for men as the traditional model was. It may be superior because it will be better for wives. That may explain why divorce rates already have begun to drop in recent years. Anything that stabilizes marriage is great news for men.

Nock is a professor of sociology specializing in demography at the University of Virginia, director of the Marriage Matters project and author of Marriage in Men’s Lives.

No: High divorce rates and biased laws have made marriage a gamble for too many men.

By Jed. H. Abraham
Insight Magazine

If you’re like most men, you’re married or you hope to marry some day. You think you deserve to live happily ever after but, if things don’t work out that way, you’ll get a civilized divorce and move on. You’ll stay pals with your ex-wife and you’ll see your kids as often as you want.

You have no idea what you’re getting into.

The odds are 40 to 50 percent that your marriage will end in divorce. The odds are 70 percent that your divorce will be filed by your wife. The odds are 80 percent that your wife will get custody of your children — plus child support, alimony and/or a hefty chunk of your property.

From the moment your wife files for divorce, the state, acting through the court, will assert authority over everything you own. The court then can give a major share to your wife by applying the law of “equitable distribution.”

The law of equitable distribution is based on the “partnership theory of marriage.” This theory holds that your marriage is a business partnership. Everything you earned during marriage you earned for the partnership. Therefore, upon divorce, all your accumulated assets must be split “equitably” between you and your “partner.”

The theory also holds that if the property your ex is awarded at divorce doesn’t yield enough to support her at the standard of living you established during the marriage, then you should “equitably” pay her the difference in alimony until she becomes self-supporting — in most states, even if the breakdown of the marriage was her fault.

The partnership theory of marriage doesn’t quite cover everything you made during marriage: It doesn’t cover your children.

Even though you and your ex were partners in the creation of your children, and even though you each contributed “equitably” to their upbringing, these considerations will carry little weight in court. Yielding to precedent and preconception, the court commonly will decide that it is in the “best interest” of your children to be in the sole custody of their mother.

As sole custodian, your ex will acquire primary parental authority to live with your children and to determine their general development, including their health care, education and religious training.

You may “visit” with them on scheduled weekends.

After the court awards your ex the sole custody of your children, it will award you something very special also: the obligation to pay child support.

Your child-support obligation will not be determined by your children’s basic needs. The court first will calculate your income, which it then will proceed to tax at a predetermined “guideline” rate set by law. The guideline rate will vary according to the number of your children. It also may vary according to your income level and that of your ex.

At your child-support hearing, you’ll be permitted to introduce evidence that the guideline rate is too high — that it will generate more money than is needed by your children or that it will leave you with too little to live on. But the law strongly presumes that the guideline rate produces the correct minimum amount of child support. The burden of proof will be on you to overcome this presumption. The court won’t reduce your guideline rate, except in extreme circumstances.

You also may owe your ex one further payment: part or all of her “reasonable” attorney’s fees.

The court will try to eliminate any financial advantage you have in selecting a lawyer. It will not make her fritter away her equitable share of your property on something so inequitable as her attorney’s fees. It will make you fritter away your share. Equitable distribution, alimony and child-support law produce a net transfer of assets from you to your ex. Child-custody law produces a net transfer of custody from you to your ex.

From an economic point of view, divorce is a wealth-redistribution racket that forces fathers to make payments to mothers. From a social point of view, it is a family resocialization scheme that turns mothers into state-sponsored single parents and fathers into infrequent visitors of their estranged children.

When the economic and the social aspects of divorce law are netted, fathers are two-time losers. They must pay for the maintenance of women to whom they no longer are married and for the support of children to whom they no longer are full-time parents — all the while having to carry the costs of their own new households.

This skewed regime spawns strong reactionary forces. The strife which the divorce should have ended indeed has only just begun. Your ex will warm to calling all the shots. She may cancel your visitation now and then. If she’s truly mean-spirited, she’ll go much further. Under the cover of her court-appointed role as sole custodian, she’ll systematically sever your relationship with the children: she’ll badmouth you to them; she’ll schedule their extracurricular activities during your visitation time; she even may accuse you of domestic violence and child abuse.

The authorities will act quickly to “protect” your children from you: They’ll curtail your visitation during their investigation, you’ll be restricted to being with your children only in the presence of a supervisor, and you’ll be ordered to pay the supervisor’s fees.

In the end, your children themselves will refuse to spend any time with you. Their brainwashing will be complete and irreversible. They will be alienated from you — forever.

More efficiently, your ex may simply move with the children to a distant community, with the law’s acquiescence.

As the struggle wears on, your frustrations will deepen. You’ll pass up overtime work rather than earn extra income for your ex. You’ll be tempted to “do a fade”: to flee the jurisdiction and disappear.

Your health will deteriorate. Your sleep will be disturbed. You’ll feel fatigued and distracted. You’ll sweat a lot. You’ll develop elusive internal pain. The tests will rule out a tumor. The pills will help a little, but the pain won’t go away.

While the law pits your ex against you, its ultimate victims will be your children. Your sons will be battered by the absence of their most important role model. Your daughters will be gutted by the loss of their primary standard for opposite-sex comportment. They’ll seek compensation elsewhere — in aggressive, seductive or rebellious behavior. They’ll develop deep-seated psychological problems. They’ll drop out of school, lose their jobs and get into trouble with the police.

You’ll know no peace for a generation.

The odds are high that your marriage will end in divorce. The odds are daunting that your divorce will disrupt your well-being. You’ll lose your children and your property. You’ll pay alimony, child support and attorney’s fees. You’ll be subject to state scrutiny over employment and spending decisions. You’ll have chronic health problems. You’ll watch helplessly as your children carry deep emotional scars into adulthood.

The odds are it doesn’t pay for you to marry and have kids.

And the odds are that you will.

Abraham practices family law in Evanston, Ill., and is the author of From Courtship to Courtroom: What Divorce Law is Doing to Marriage.

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