Healthy, Wealthy, & Wed
Like exercising and eating right, getting married, says Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, is another step toward living longer and better.
While pundits, politicians, and moralists weigh the pros and cons of gay marriage, Linda Waite is still focused on traditional American couples, countering messages from the “antimarriage” culture and championing marriage’s benefits: specifically, that marriage itself is good for your physical and mental health, good for your financial stability, good for your sex life, good for your kids—good for almost every aspect of what many Americans consider a happy life.
And Waite, the Lucy Flower professor in Sociology, is spreading the word. Her book The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better off Financially (Doubleday, 2000), cowritten by Maggie Gallagher of the Institute of American Values, has sold 25,000 copies. Although its title sounds like a socially conservative missive, its coauthor is a conservative columnist, and its message helped to inform President George W. Bush’s marriage initiative for welfare recipients, the book is not, Waite says, a right-wing tract. Waite, in fact, describes herself as a liberal Democrat. “I come at this from a researcher’s perspective.” What the slim 55-year-old with a short, no-nonsense haircut means is, she didn’t create the facts, she’s just reporting them.
Those facts refute much conventional wisdom. They show that married men, rather than trading their libidos for lawn mowers, have more sex than single men. And married women are less depressed than single women, contrary to feminist sociologist Jessie Bernard’s explosive 1972 book arguing that wives were more phobic, depressed, dependent, and passive—findings that have shaped cultural conceptions ever since. More recently Waite has shown that divorce does not make unhappily married people any happier. In a study released in July 2002 she and five colleagues analyzed data from the University of Wisconsin’s National Survey of Family and Households. When the adults who said they were unhappily married in the late 1980s were interviewed again five years later, those who had divorced were on average still unhappy or even less happy, while those who stayed in their marriages on average had moved past the bad times and were at a happier stage. After controlling for race, age, gender, and income, Waite’s group found that divorce usually did not reduce symptoms of depression, raise self esteem, or increase a sense of mastery over one’s life.
“The general pattern,” Waite says, “is that people who stay in an unhappy marriage are at least as well off as those who divorce, so there’s no benefit to leaving a marriage you’re unhappy with.” That argument—that people who at some point are unhappy with their marriage later become happy in the same marriage—is the subject of Waite and Gallagher’s forthcoming book, The Case for Staying Married, under contract with Oxford University Press.
Not that Waite’s exchanging her sociological expertise for a counseling certificate. “I don’t give advice,” she says. “All we can say is, the suggestion is that a lot of things that make people unhappy don’t stay.” She may not counsel couples, but she actively promotes her findings, organizing several conferences on marriage, sitting on the research board for the National Marriage Project, whose mission is to “strengthen the institution of marriage” through research and education, and advising the University’s Religion, Culture, and Family Project. The Case for Marriage, Waite says, is more than anything else a public-health argument. “It’s like exercise,” she says. “Studies show that, on average, people who exercise experience health benefits. The next step is to say that you should exercise.” Similarly, “a consistent body of work suggests to me that an OK marriage, one that isn’t terrible, causes improvements” in general well-being. And those studies, she notes, point to marriage not only as a sign of a longer, healthier life, higher income, and better sex, but also as a cause.
A 1990 study, for example, showed that unmarried women have a 50 percent higher mortality rate than married women, single men 250 percent higher than married men. Husbands’ greater health benefit, Waite and Gallagher write, “appears to flow from the fact that single men behave in particularly unhealthy, risky ways that single women typically do not,” such as drinking, smoking, and reckless driving—“stupid bachelor tricks” that, Waite notes, divorced and widowed men often return to. Wives tend to track their husbands’ health, scheduling doctor’s appointments and providing direct care. And husbands benefit from wives’ emotional support, making them more likely than single men to recover from a serious illness or to manage a chronic illness.
Wives also experience health gains, including their mental health. It’s true that married women with young children generally report feeling more “overburdened” than single, childless women, but studies have found that married women—and men—have better mental health than singles. Although women are more prone to depression than men, marriage doesn’t account for the gap.
For women the biggest marriage benefit, however, is not health but finances. With the higher incomes men often contribute to a relationship, married women can access better housing, safer neighborhoods, and often the security of owning their own homes. They’re more likely to have private health insurance—only half of divorced, widowed, and never-married women do, according to one study. Married men benefit financially as well—they make at least 10 percent more than single men do, Waite and Gallagher write, and perhaps as much as 40 percent more. Economic theory suggests that husbands earn more money because they are freer to specialize in money-making—while wives typically specialize in housework and child care. (But it does not necessarily follow, Waite and Gallagher note, that men make more money because they do less housework. “While time spent on housework does affect the earnings of wives, some evidence suggests that husbands who spend more hours on household tasks do not earn less money as a result.”)
Skeptics may wonder if it’s really marriage that makes the difference. Perhaps people who are happier and healthier to begin with are more likely to get married. Perhaps the divorced are sicker and die younger because marriages are more likely to break up from the stress of an illness. Perhaps men who make more money are more likely to attract (and keep) a wife. Certain “selection mechanisms,” Waite and Gallagher admit, do play a role in explaining married people’s better health and higher incomes. But in addition, they believe, marriage itself creates better lives. Accounting for initial health status, the married live longer. “Even sick people who marry live longer than their counterparts who don’t,” they write. And selection alone doesn’t explain married men’s higher earnings; “their wages actually rise faster while they are married” than single men’s wages do—even when occupation, industry, hours and weeks worked, and tenure are factored in.
Meanwhile, living together, or cohabiting, “does not confer the same protection as being married,” they write. “The big health difference is between married people and the nonmarried, not between people who live alone and those who don’t.” Waite’s own research of people in their 50s and 60s showed that single adults, “whether living alone, with children, or with others, described their emotional health more negatively than did the married people.” Those who divorce or are widowed regain many of marriage’s benefits if they remarry, and cohabitation provides some of marriage’s emotional benefits, but for a shorter term. Breakups are more likely with live-in couples than with married ones, and cohabitors, Waite and Gallagher write, are generally less happy and less satisfied with their sex lives than the wed. In fact, the National Sex Survey led by Chicago professors Edward Laumann and Robert Michael and another large sex study by University of Denver psychologists showed that married people have more sex than single people do, and they enjoy it more, both physically and emotionally.
Of course, not all marriages are happy, and Waite isn’t suggesting that victims of domestic violence or chronic infidelity should stay married. Rather, she’s targeting the relatively quick, no-fault divorces—people unhappy because one spouse works long hours, because they’re taking care of a sick child, because they have money problems, those who wonder if something better is out there, if they could be more satisfied, if the thrill from their newly married days could be rekindled with a new partner. Those are the kinds of issues, Waite and Gallagher learned in focus groups they held to complement Waite’s statistical analysis, that couples can move past if they decide to work on their marriages.
“Maybe by demanding perfection we’re setting our standards too high,” Waite says. “The very intense emotion people feel when they fall in love is physiologically, by definition, fleeting. To think that another relationship will make you feel that way forever dooms you because it’s not possible.”
The proclivity to leave results from the antimarriage culture, Waite believes, perpetuated by television and movies, athletes and other media stars, friends and relatives. If a struggling spouse heard “Hang in there, you’re doing the right thing” more often than “You don’t need to put up with this,” Waite says, “at the margin somebody’s going to listen.” But instead friends encourage each other to leave, “and then it’s easier for other people to leave because they have a role model.”
No-fault divorce, which California instituted in 1969 and all states have in some form today, has made it easier to leave a marriage for less-than-dire reasons. In a no-fault divorce a spouse does not have to prove the other’s wrongdoing, such as adultery, but only that there is no reasonable prospect of reconciliation. A spouse can receive a no-fault divorce even if the other spouse doesn’t want it, and the couple may divorce out of court. Advocates see the process as a boon for women who want to leave abusive marriages without paying court fees, while critics such as Waite view no-fault as another cause of society’s carefree attitude toward divorce. Then there’s Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, AM’71, PhD’76, who codirects the National Marriage Project and writes extensively on family and child welfare. Although no-fault divorce “has unintentionally led to a legal system of divorce on demand,” Whitehead wrote in the August/September 1997 First Things: The Journal of Religion and Public Life, a point/counterpoint piece in which she squared off with Waite coauthor Gallagher, she does not believe it should be eliminated, as legislators in some states have attempted. Restoring a fault requirement, rather than forcing couples to work harder on their marriages, Whitehead wrote, would among other consequences deter “socially isolated and timorous women, often battered wives, from seeking divorce.”
But no-fault, Whitehead concedes, has contributed to a culture more comfortable with divorce than it used to be. A 1998 American Economic Review study, Waite and Gallagher note in their book, showed that no-fault raised divorce rates by about 6.5 percent, accounting for 17 percent of the increase between 1968 and 1988. Today the chance that a marriage will end after 15 years—the figure widely cited as the “divorce rate”—is 43 percent, according to the National Center for Health Statistics’ provisional 2001 numbers. While legislators in states such as Iowa and New Mexico have introduced measures to eliminate no-fault, in 1997 Louisiana became the first state to institute optional “covenant marriages,” more binding unions that require premarital counseling, forgo the no-fault divorce option, and mandate up to a two-year cooling-off period before a divorce. That waiting period is something Waite advocates. Rather than running to divorce lawyers, she suggests, couples should first try counseling, or—because many men in her focus groups didn’t like the idea of paying someone they weren’t sure was committed to saving their marriage—seek out a religious leader or a marriage class.
After arguing so heavily for marriage and against divorce, it’s more than a bit surprising to learn that—years before she began research on the subject—Waite was divorced herself. Married as Michigan State undergraduates, she and her first husband split after four years. “We realized we wanted to live different kinds of lives,” she says. Which may sound like one of those flippant reasons to divorce, but for people married a short time who have no children, she argues, “it’s very different. You’re not leaving somebody who’s financially dependent, you haven’t built years of friendships, you don’t have kids, you’re not as much a working single unit as people who are married for a long time.” It’s what demographer Pamela Paul would call a “starter marriage,” which she defines in The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony (Villard, 2002) as a union lasting five years or less and producing no children. Census Bureau statistics show that in 1998 more than 3 million 18- to 29-year-olds were divorced. In 1962, Paul notes, there were 253,000 divorced 25- to 29-year-olds. In fact, a 2001 Center for Disease Control and Prevention report shows, 20 percent of first-marriage divorces now occur within five years.
Many of those marriages, like Waite’s first, are childless. But once spouses have children, the divorce outlook changes. Researchers disagree whether children of unhappily married couples are better off if the parents stay together or divorce. After analyzing the studies, Waite and Gallagher conclude that children are usually not better off when unhappy spouses divorce. Marital dissatisfaction, they write, “is probably not in and of itself psychologically damaging for children: what counts is whether, how often, and how intensely parents fight in front of their children both before and after divorce.” And while divorce may end marital conflict for adults, it doesn’t stop “what really bothers kids: parental conflict,” they write. Children of divorce also have less money, live in poorer neighborhoods, go to poorer schools, and do worse in school than children of married parents—even if those marriages have a high degree of conflict. Divorce-for-the-children advocates point to a 1991 study showing that kids with mental-health problems, such as anxiety or depression, are usually affected more by home conflict before the divorce than after it. But study author Andrew Cherlin, of Johns Hopkins University, re-examined the issue in two later studies and concluded, Waite and Gallagher write, that “the divorce itself does have additional long-term negative effects on children’s psychological well-being.” Twenty-three-year-olds whose parents divorced before they turned 16, Cherlin found, had poorer mental health than children from intact families.
Waite has two children with her second husband of 30 years, Chicago sociology professor Ross Stolzenberg, who does research on the effects of work, and is the editor of Sociological Methodology, the research methods journal of the American Sociological Association. Their 24-year-old daughter is married, lives in Israel, and has a two-year-old child. Their 18-year-old daughter lives at home and has cerebral palsy, which has strained the family at times. “When it was terrible we all had emotional responses,” Waite says, “but everybody has times like that.”
Waite didn’t begin promoting marriage because of an underlying ideology. She actually stumbled upon the topic. In the early 1990s she and a colleague studied the relationship between marital status and mortality for the National Institutes of Health. Controlling for age, they found that when both men and women became divorced or widowed, they were more likely to die than if they were married. Before writing up the study for a scientific journal Waite reviewed existing literature to see “what it might be about marriage that increases chances for living.” She found a lot of material on physical and emotional health related to marriage. Then in 1995 Waite was elected president of the Population Association of America, a society of professionals using population data, and was asked to give a “big-picture” address to the group. By then she was researching sexual behavior in different kinds of unions—couples dating, cohabiting, married. At the same time a colleague from the RAND Corporation, whose Population Research Center Waite had directed, was studying marriage and health issues, and Waite read additional studies showing that married men had higher earnings than other men. “I put all this stuff together and realized that the people working on wages don’t know anything about the sex stuff, and so on,” she says. “There’s a general pattern here that nobody’s noticed. All of the big things in life—good outcomes for children, health, long life—depend on marriage.” So marriage’s many rewards became her talk, which was published in Demography, the association’s journal. A Harvard University Press editor proposed she turn it into a book called The Case for Marriage.
A colleague suggested Gallagher as a cowriter, someone to help make the research accessible to lay readers. Waite had read Gallagher’s work and was “impressed by how carefully and accurately she represented the social-science research.” During the writing Gallagher “always deferred to me on the facts,” Waite says, and because of their differing politics they kept certain topics, such as gay marriage, out of the book altogether. “In some sense I was naive to think others would just listen to the arguments and evidence,” Waite says. “But some people inferred from [Gallagher’s] other life”—that is, as a conservative writer and activist—“that the book was political. But I wrote it, and I’m [professionally] apolitical.”
Then Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, read the book. Horn, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and past president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, which promotes responsibility and marriage, says Waite’s empirical research helped to provide a nonideological basis for Bush’s “healthy marriage” initiative for welfare recipients. “Linda’s research made the case that marriage matters for the community and for children,” Horn says. “Now we have to figure out what we’re going to do about it.” Bush’s measure, part of the welfare-reform package approved by the House and still winding through Senate committees in mid-September, would provide money to state or community governments or organizations for marriage-strengthening projects, such as conflict-management or marriage courses. Although it’s been portrayed as an effort to impose marriage on welfare recipients to solve their problems, the initiative, Horn says, would actually target people already considering marriage. More than two-thirds of unmarried urban couples with children are “actively considering marriage,” says Horn, “but we never ask them” about it and point them to resources that might help them get there. Funding different approaches in different places, Horn hopes some ideas prove successful and in time a good model might emerge.
So how does Waite feel about providing conservatives with more fuel for their traditional-family arguments? To Waite, it just so happens that a specific political movement has found in her a researcher whose message they like. As Horn puts it, “Marriage is not an institution that’s the sole purview of any aspect of the political spectrum. As a real empiricist [Waite] didn’t set out to prove an ideological point. She looked at the evidence and made a conclusion.”
Those pro-family conclusions have taken her far. Besides The Case for Marriage and its forthcoming sequel, she and fellow Chicago sociologist Barbara Schneider will soon publish a book on the Sloan 500 Family Study, which examined 500 American families—married and working parents with either adolescents or kindergartners. “Doing things with the family made parents more cheerful, friendly, and cooperative,” Waite told the Chicago Tribune. “Parents who spend less time with the kids and spouse are stressed, anxious, and angry.”
Again, the message seems plain. The benefits of family life, like those of marriage, are significant but require work. It’s a lesson Waite hopes, through her research, that couples will hear.