the body politic

The Return of the Marriage Plot

Why everyone is suddenly so eager for men and women to get hitched.

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

In my neighborhood this past spring, the Parks Department was digging up and distributing spent tulip bulbs to anyone who wanted them. I got in line next to a woman who looked to be about 60. As we waited for our bales of bulbs, she cheerfully recounted to me the story of how she had first planted tulips one fall day when she was pregnant with her first child some 30 years earlier. She’d been on hands and knees, digging in the ground, when her husband had come outside and seen her. He’d scoffed meanly, she remembered, and told her that she looked like a bus — ugly and base, down in the dirt like that.

By the time the tulips bloomed the next spring, her baby had arrived and she had left her husband. Tulips always made her smile, she told me, her arms now full of a new bunch of them. They reminded her of how she had come by her liberty.

I have thought a lot about that woman since I met her a few months ago, as I have observed with dismay the building wave of solemn advice from social scientists, pundits, and politicians that the answer to the assorted ills of single American men and women (but especially women) is marriage.

I remembered the tulip lady in August as I read perhaps the funniest iteration of this recent period of marital revivalism in New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s review of Barbie, in which he expressed his concern for the movie’s titular heroine and her foil, Ken. Citing a July paper published by economist Sam Peltzman that explored Americans’ declining levels of happiness over the same decades in which they have married less often and at older ages, Douthat presented “the simplest possible explanation for declining happiness: For women maybe first, and for men too, eventually, less wedlock means more woe.”

In fact, Douthat continued, “nothing may matter as much to male and female happiness, and indeed, to the future of the human race,” than whether Barbie and Ken can make their connection “into something reciprocal and fertile — a bridge, a bond, a marriage.”

Let’s linger on Douthat’s claim: The future of happiness and the human race depends on Barbie, a Mattel doll whose primary cinematic concerns include the looming specter of death, retaining ownership of her home, and gaining access to reproductive-health care … marrying Ken, a man whose interests include horses and beach and whose company — crucially — Barbie does not seem to enjoy. At all. At any point in the movie.

The column would have been funnier had it not been so analogous to the way that lots of kids were taught to take the genitally undifferentiated nakedness of Barbie and Ken and simply smash them against each other, as if that’s what sex, love, connection is: some brute coupling of “man” and “woman” without regard to whether these two dolls actually fit together. Funnier still if that kind of crude, compulsory coupling did not mirror how policymakers have routinely imposed marriage — as if it were a smooth, indistinct entity — as a cure for the inequity, dissatisfaction, and loneliness that plague this nation.

“Take a Wife … Please!” begged the headline of an August Atlantic story jumping off from the same Peltzman study Douthat cited, while the TimesDavid Brooks implored readers to “please respect the truism that if you have a great career and a crappy marriage you will be unhappy, but if you have a great marriage and a crappy career you will be happy.” Brooks extolled the virtues of a forthcoming book by Brad Wilcox, head of the University of Virginia’s National Marriage Project, called Get-Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization. In September, the Times columnist Nick Kristof entered from center-left, proclaiming that liberals “have had a blind spot” and “rarely discuss” the advantages of two-parent married households — a bold claim from a paper that ran three columns on this blind spot in six weeks alone. Three days later, the Times published a column by Melissa S. Kearney, author of the new book The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind. An excerpt from her book then appeared in The Atlantic, followed by Megan McArdle giving it the column treatment in the Washington Post.

It’s not just the think-tank-economist-columnist class prescribing the marriage cure. It’s also hard-right commentators and politicians pushing policies aimed to re-center (hetero) marriage as the organizing- principle of American family life by reversing the progress — from legal abortion to affirmative action to no-fault divorce — that has enabled women to have economic and social stability independent of marriage. This desire was voiced most evocatively last year by conservative radio host Steven Crowder, who bemoaned the fact that his ex-wife had “decided that she didn’t want to be married anymore, and in the state of Texas, that is completely permitted.”

None of this is new, precisely. Over centuries, everyone from clergy to presidents has surveyed the challenges facing this country — income inequality, housing shortages, struggling children, chronic unhappiness — and presented marriage as a panacea, one that has conveniently contained women and conferred additional benefits on men.

The contemporary marriage fervor emerges from a 50-year shift that, for the first time in American history, has resulted in a narrow majority of middle-aged adults living unmarried. In 1950, nearly 80 percent of households in the United States were composed of married couples; in 2020, that proportion of households had fallen to just below 50 percent. The share of married American adults between the ages of 18 and 34 fell from nearly 60 percent in 1978 to nearly 30 percent in 2018.

It’s not simply that people aren’t getting married: Many are marrying later, marrying multiple times, marrying people of the same gender, living unmarried with romantic partners, raising children on their own, or some combination of these things. It is also not that the masses are rejecting marriage on principle or that women have been ensorcelled by a coven of man-hating feminists. As consumers of every conceivable strain of popular narrative will recognize, many people very badly wish to get hitched and feel judged or pitied when they do not.

Rather, it’s that you cannot just conjure stable and rewarding romantic commitments on command. Furthermore, the civil-rights advances of the past 75 years mean that if an excellent match does not appear, it is now possible for people to nonetheless live full sexual, social, familial, and professional lives outside marriage.

Which is why there are efforts underway to once again make (straight) marriage ubiquitous, including an all-out Republican offensive against the liberalized divorce laws of the late-20th and early-21st century.

More than two-thirds of hetero breakups are sought by women. No-fault divorce has not only eased their exit from unhappy unions but also dramatically altered the landscape of domestic abuse, since “potential abusers knew that they were more likely to be left,” as the economist Betsey Stevenson has argued. In 2023, Texas Republicans called for an end to no-fault divorce in their platform, while the Nebraska Republican Party issued a statement asserting “no-fault divorce should be limited to situations in which the couple has no children.” Arguing for the elimination of no-fault divorce in Louisiana, Republican Nicholas James claimed that “the destruction of marriage has resulted in widespread child poverty in Louisiana” (a state where the minimum wage is $7.25 an hour).

During the 2022 midterms, Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer’s opponent Tudor Dixon suggested that some books about divorce be restricted in schools and accused Whitmer — who is married and the mother of two — of having a “dream for women” that is “single women working.”

It’s clear that at least some of what is motivating conservatives is the threat of women in positions of power. When Roe was overturned, Ohio’s J. D. Vance, then running for the Senate, tweeted that “if your worldview tells you that it’s bad for women to become mothers but liberating for them to work 90 hours a week in a cubicle at the New York Times or Goldman Sachs, you’ve been had.” The sentiments, like Brooks’s plea to Times readers to focus more on weddings than careers, give away part of the game: the fantasy that a return to a traditional family structure would take high-achieving women out of the job market.

Kearney, an economist who has expressed fear that her position will be understood as reflexively conservative, acknowledges in The Two-Parent Privilege that certain economic policies, including a child tax credit and subsidized child care, would increase families’ stability. But her thesis is “that two parents tend to be able to provide their children with more resource advantages than one parent alone” and that “a two-parent family is increasingly becoming yet another privilege associated with more highly resourced groups in society.” Kearney’s argument is in line with that of the more openly reactionary Wilcox, whose new book’s subtitle about “defying the elites” offers evidence of how the language of class warfare is being used for explicitly conservative aims. Stick it to the elites by getting married — rather than, say, taxing them, or unionizing, or redistributing their wealth via the closing of corporate loopholes.

Both Wilcox and Kearney are correct that marriage, in the decades that it has been increasingly optional, has become the purview of the wealthy. It is an institution that allows the already economically stable to become even more stable by combining their resources. Marriage, once a narrow entrance into adulthood, now more frequently serves as a rewarding capstone life event, agreed to by two well-resourced people who have the advantages of sexual liberation, educational attainment, professional achievement, and economic security under their belt as well as the freedom to exit their unions should they turn out to be unsatisfying.

But where Kearney and Wilcox are wrong — incredibly, monumentally wrong — is that the solution to this structural inequity is simply encouraging more marriage for more people. They confuse cause and effect and are incorrect in the claim that marital privilege is the cause of the inequity rather than a further symptom of it.

Exploring the Peltzman study in her Atlantic article this past summer, Olga Khazan noted that one line of thinking suggests it’s not that marriage makes people happy; it’s that happy people are more likely to get married. I’d add that because marriage is no longer obligatory, it’s often entered into for happy reasons — that you are in love with a person who seems to be a good fit — and not because, say, you are young and pregnant and your community demands it.

It’s easy to see why the marriage solution is so appealing. Like telling people that it’s their responsibility to address the climate crisis by using paper straws, or advising Black men that they need to pull up their pants and be better fathers, it off-loads the responsibility for broad and systemic reform by tsk-tskingly placing it on individuals and their intimate behaviors.

In addition to being regressive, telling people to get married — as both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations did through billion-dollar marriage-education programs — doesn’t even work. But the kinds of benefits that can be legislated and would help to address the crises of contentment and inequality — expanding social safety nets, strengthening labor laws, changing our tax code, overhauling housing policies, making education affordable, passing paid leave and child care, reimagining the criminal-justice system, restoring reproductive autonomy — all of that … it’s a daunting prescription. And, of course, it’s completely at odds with the conservative agenda, which is to revert this country’s power structure to what it was before the upheavals of the mid-20th century.

Contra Kearney and Wilcox, plenty of researchers have found that a two-parent family structure does not in and of itself confer economic benefits for families. As Harvard sociologist Christina Cross wrote in 2021 of her own research into educational outcomes for Black students in particular, “There were no differences in the earned grades, likelihood of grade level repetition, and rates of suspension between Black youth from low-income, two-parent households and their peers raised in low-income, single-parent households. However, Black youth from well-off, two-parent families earned better grades, were less likely to repeat a grade, and had much lower suspension rates.”

Meanwhile, Deadric Williams has argued that the focus on family structure as an explanation for economic stratification has worked to obscure the racial wealth gaps and racist policy decisions that leave Black and Latino families economically disadvantaged regardless of whether they are headed by married couples. He notes that Black and Latino couples with children “had significantly lower median wealth ($16,000 and $18,800, respectively) relative to white couples with children ($161,300).” In 2014, he notes, “Black children with married parents were three times more likely to be living in poverty than white children with married parents, while Latino children with married parents were four times more likely to be living in poverty than their white counterparts.” And David Brady, Ryan Finnigan, and Sabine Hubgen have argued that what increases poverty rates for single-parent households in the U.S. isn’t the family structure; it’s economic policies that penalize single-parent households: “Our political choices result in families headed by single mothers being 14.3 percent more likely to be poor than other families.”

It’s not marriage — it’s money, and the racist and economically unjust policies that leave some Americans with less of it to begin with, regardless of their marital status. For those who have money, marriage is likely to help them to have even more of it; for those who find a good match, there are many emotional and societal rewards of partnership. But you need stability first; you need the money, jobs, housing, and health care first. And these are the things that the American government, particularly the American right, does not want to offer its people.

Which, by the way, is tied directly to conservatives’ presentation of marriage as a fix-everything patch. Because those single women that Republicans rail against? They vote against Republicans. And Republicans know it. On Fox News, in the days after 2022’s midterm elections, Jesse Watters was explicit: “Single women are breaking for Democrats by 30 points … So we need these ladies to get married. And it’s time to fall in love and just settle down. Guys, go put a ring on it.”

Or, to paraphrase Ross Douthat: Go on, Ken. Make something reciprocal and fertile. A bridge, a bond, a marriage, and while you’re at it, another Republican voter.

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The Return of the Marriage Plot