Thursday, December 01, 2005

College Graduates Have Happier Marriages Because They Apply Family Sociology

College graduates are more than twice as likely to report that their marriages are very happy as are married non-college graduates. “With This Ring,” the marriage survey of the National Fatherhood Initiative that I have written about before, notes that college graduates are more likely to be pro-marriage in general, to oppose cohabitation, and to believe that parents should stay together at least while the children are young.

Maggie Gallagher, in a recent column, cites another study by sociologist Stephen P. Martin at the University of Maryland. He found that divorce rates among the college educated have dropped to half of what they were in the bad years of the late 1970s. Martin discerns a “divorce divide” growing along educational lines.

Gallagher notes that college graduates have more successful marriages, in part, because they are more secure financially. She also raises the interesting possibility, though, that college graduates are improving their family behavior because they are taking in the new social science research about the importance of strong marriages.

Sociologists call the process of feedback from research to changes in social behavior “reflexivity.” Anthony Giddens, one of Britain’s most eminent sociologists and former Director of the London School of Economics, has argued that modern societies are so complex that they must produce a continuous series of information about how the system is working. Moreover, this information is not simply an observation that runs along side a running social system, but is continuously fed back into the system itself. The inflation rate, for example, is not simply esoteric information swapped within the walls of the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve Bank, but is intensely sought by many economic actors, and its release quickly affects everyone.

Today there is a significant industry collecting family data and translating it into popular and useful knowledge. The market for the popular books, magazines, talk shows -- and blogs -- about marriage and family life is especially rich in educated married mothers.

College classes in sociology and family studies can be a great way to transmit to students the research showing that marriage is good for men, women, and children. I have seen this happen in my own classes every year. In fact, the single finding that has the biggest impact on my students in Waite and Gallagher’s report, in The Case for Marriage, that cohabitation is not a good trial marriage, but instead is likely to lead to higher break-up and divorce rates. Many students who had been planning to cohabit after Commencement change their plans. It is too soon to tell whether this will produce happier and more stable marriages, but I am planning on it. And so are they.


laura said...

I agree with the last section of your article about cohabitation. Though, I notice in my generation (I'm 24) that a lot of "spending the night" occurs - not necessarily even sex, but sleeping in the same bed at one or the other's apartment, keeping clothes, make-up, toothbrushes, but still separately paying rent. Where is the line drawn between cohabitation and spending the night for couples to be less likely to divorce?

On Lawn said...

Interesting question.

I think there is a danger in cohabitation that isn't exactly intrinsic to sexual activity. Call it fear of commitment, or convenience, or I'm not sure what; but now-a-days I see the line much clearer.

Its between being married and pretending to be married.

This is after many relationships where I found myself, out of comfort acting more and more like we were married. I'm not sure what exactly was wrong with it, there certainly wasn't sex involved but it still put a drag on the relationship.

When it came time that I finally decided to get married, I knew the line. If ever I felt I was pretending to be married I either cut it off or (in the case of my wife) got married.

My oldest brother who got married 15 years before I did seems to have reached the same conclusion, I wish I saw it earlier in his advice to me. Would have saved a whole lot of grief. He said he knew it was time to get married when there were things he wanted to talk about and the only appropriate place to talk about them was in matrimony.

A funny story I like to say that illustrates this point is when I was dating my wife and we wanted to start talking about marriage I told her,

"I'm not like other guys. I'm not going to ask what you'll do if I ask you to marry me. I'm not going to pretend to be engaged only to have some formal engagement ceremony later. I don't plan on suprising anyone, but I'm not going to do this half-asked".

I think in many respects co-habitation is simply being half-asked about marriage. And that wierd state of semi-but-not-sure commitment is nothing but trouble, if my life has any lessons to be learned from it.

Gruntled said...

Laura, I don't think anyone has researched the line between sleeping over and cohabitation. Do you think people do that because they don't want to be cohabiting?

On Lawn, what I have been reading and hearing is that in cohabiting couples, after awhile, she is waiting for him to commit. The delay, or ambivalence, or sheer obliviousness, is usually on his side. I think it makes for clearer thinking all around if living together is the bright line between dating and permanent commitment, and living together does not amount to permanent commitment unless he is really married.

On Lawn said...


Thank you for the comment.

I never co-habited, but once had a relationship with someone downstairs in my appartment building. We probably fit the picture not co-habiting but still pretending to be married. We even had a meal schedule worked up of who would cook dinner each day of the week.

I think that is why to me it was most useful to draw the line at dating vs pretending to be married, rather than the more confusing line that I was pondering then (which is what Laura's comment reminded me of). It is more subjective, but for me it wound up far more clear and emotionally healthy.

Just my .02c

katiefegley said...

I think Laura's observations are very astute. Thoughts on why folks are merely long-term hotel residents rather than cohabitants...
I think this observed trend might be reflective of the dilemma of educated young people: there are so many options, so much encouragement to take advantage of them, and so little glamour in "settling" for a mate that (who knows?) may not be the best thing going that one could conceivably get. The e-bay free-for-all marriage market has opened but there are not many buyers...everyone seems to be waiting for a better deal. Perhpas even cohabitation is too big a commitment?
Of course, we are in the SOUTH... perhaps social conventions still hold sway. You can spend the night but keep a separate address for your grandma to write you at.

SPorcupine said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
SPorcupine said...

On Lawn's brother's standard was: "it was time to get married when there were things he wanted to talk about and the only appropriate place to talk about them was in matrimony."

On that standard, what should one think of a pair of 19-year-olds who worked out names for children just two weeks after their first kiss?

Gruntled said...

Which choices don't seem like "settling"? Which things have you chosen that just seem like establishing the necessary conditions for something you really want to do?

(As to Sporcupine's post; I take the Fifth).

Anonymous said...

Without sounding overly dubious about the benign effects of undergraduate sociology courses, I think that the difference between the happiness of married college grads and married non-college grads might owe more to the increasing socio-cultural identification of a college degree as a prerequisite to happiness. It is not only quite difficult to find a decent job without a college degree, but the lack of a degree is becoming a stigma in itself.

laura said...

Perhaps the sleep over plan works because people don't necessarily want to cohabitate - in the cases I can think of, that seems the most likely reason (whether it be for grandma or for their own personal peace of mind - because with sleep overs, they're still technically sticking to their convictions).
Financial reasons may enable college educated folks to more easily participate in the sleep over stage, because they are able to afford paying rent at their own apartments.
I guess, to me, I don't see much of a difference between the regular sleep overs and cohabitation... except that sleep overs seem like "Cohabitation Lite" (the next major beer?)

Gruntled said...


It is remarkable, really, how much a college degree retains its market value. I think colleges are also better marriage markets than they have ever been. This makes it more likely that college graduates will find compatible single people at an age more conducive to mature marriage than the high school-only set gets to find a mate in. Worth further parsing, though.

Laura: Cohabitation is already Marriage Lite. If sleepovers are Cohabitation Lite, what is left? How is that different from just hooking up?

laura said...

"Hooking up" (in my understanding) implies no context of relationship - just a fling/one-night-stand. Whereas sleeping over is like cohabitating (there is a relationship), but the people maintain separate residences. I don't know what else is left!
I guess my question is more like (not to sound like our former president, but...), "What is the meaning of cohabitation?" Is it acutally about sharing a physical space? Is it about the time one spends with his or her significant other? Is it about responsibilities?
What do you think, Dr. Weston?

Gruntled said...

I think cohabitation is living together. I suspect that many cohabiters would keep separate living places and just sleep over when the mood struck them, but it is too expensive, once one gets out of a dorm, to pay for a house you don't live in.

On Lawn said...


On Lawn's brother's standard was: "it was time to get married when there were things he wanted to talk about and the only appropriate place to talk about them was in matrimony."

And a wise brother is he, wouldn't you agree? Many relationships become what can be affectionately called, "beating your head up against a wall". That wall being just how much commitment are two people going to have to support their inter-personal trust.

Reading more comments I can see that is the wall Laura is bumping up against. People don't want the ramifications of marriage so they co-habit. Some don't want the ramifications of co-habitation so they sleep over. What was once a hot-romance is now just a game of searching for comfortable tepidness.

On that standard, what should one think of a pair of 19-year-olds who worked out names for children just two weeks after their first kiss?

I'm not sure what the two have to do with each other. An inexperienced child playing house wouldn't even equate "what are we going to name the baby" with the intimacy that preludes marriage.

Perhaps you could find a less sarcastic, more direct way of making your point?

SPorcupine said...

On Lawn,

I promise I meant no sarcasm at all. I married the other 19-year-old three years later, and that was 24 years and three chldren ago. We've always assumed the first conversation was mostly foolishness, with a small flicker of realization that something serous might be starting. :)

On Lawn said...


Sorry. I appreciate the correction then.

I'm pretty much with you there, I was dating my wife when she was 19, and it was about a month later that we realized we had something going and the conversation was going in that direction. And then remembering how I misplayed that situation in the past I told her I wasn't going to do anything half-asked about marriage again.

That relationship was different, we didn't kiss for many months (I had already put money down for a ring at that point) and we didn't do any sleep-overs or co-habitation. Cooking dinners was rare and purely romantic endeavor. We refused to talk about marriage but somehow we were expecting and preparing for it with each other anyway.

I suppose if there is any misunderstanding of my Brother's advice it is, as most juviniles do, becomes rationalization. For me it meant that I needed to either marry this person or sevierly retool my fantasies about what was going on.

So, yeah, I'm in that boat pretty much with you there. Thanks for the correction and the excuse for a trip through Memory Lane.

SPorcupine said...

On Lawn,

I thank you (and even though Gruntled took the fifth earlier, I thank you on his behalf). I think your experience and mine are stories worth sharing with the occasional 19-to-22-year-old. If anything, today's youngest adults ASSUME they're too young, and a few tales that turned out happily might help them realize that they may really be on a path that can shape their lives. Plus, in the research shared elsewhere at the Gruntled Center, broad data as well as two stories suggests that marrying in the early 20s can lead to happiness.

Gruntled said...

Anecdotally, there has been a boomlet in engagements at Centre College in the last few years.