Saturday, September 17, 2005

The Most Encouraging Family Statistic I Know

3/4ths of unhappy marriages will get happier if they just stick it out.

Every marriage goes through rough spots. Whenever you survey a bunch of married people, some fraction of them will report that they are unhappy in their marriage. You might think that that would be enough to predict divorce. You might even think that unhappiness is enough to justify divorce (though I don’t). The good news, though, is, as Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher report in The Case for Marriage, that three quarters of couples who say they are unhappy in their marriage now, will say that they are very happy in their marriage five years later – IF they hold on and work it out.

Still, the rough patches can be pretty rough when you are living in them. Some marriages are “high conflict” – the couple fights often, sometimes violently. BUT these are a small minority of marriages, and are only a third of marriages that end in divorce. Most divorces – about 2/3rds – come from low conflict marriages. They don’t hit each other, they don’t even fight all the time, they are just unhappy. They imagine that if they were apart, if they could somehow start over again, they might get happier.

SO let’s put these two statistics together:

2/3rds of divorces come from low conflict, merely unhappy marriages.
3/4ths of merely unhappy marriages will be very happy if they just stick together.
2/3 times 3/4 = 1/2.
Half of what? Half of the unhappy marriages that end in divorce would get happy if they just stuck it out another five years.

People who hate and hit each other will still divorce – and some probably should.
People who love and cherish each other won’t divorce – and society and their children thank them for it.
The large center of married people who are unhappy at one time can take heart – just hold on, keep working at it, and the great majority of you will see it work out just fine in the end.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Massachusetts Gay Marriage: the Wrong Way and the Right Way

In May 2004,the Massachusetts Supreme Court made gay marriage the law of the land. By a handful of votes, the court undid centuries of law and custom. In fact, anticipating this possible ruling, the state legislature had voted two months before for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. This is exactly the kind of judicial activism that mobilizes conservative and moderate voters. When conservatives say that arrogant elites from the coastal cities are imposing their views on everyone else, this is what they are talking about. I believe that this issue tipped the 2004 election from a close race to a Republican walk. Deciding major social issues through the courts is wrong 99% of the time. Debating social issues is what we have legislatures for. This includes the inevitable compromise and “sausage making” that legislatures must do, and often must do behind closed doors.

Now the Massachusetts legislature has voted again on a moderate constitutional amendment, which would ban same-sex marriage, but create very similar civil unions. To the surprise of many, the amendment failed, 157 to 39. Part of the failure was because conservatives voted against it as too much of a compromise. They are working an amendment for the 2008 ballot, which would ban same-sex marriages with no civil union softener. The main reason the amendment failed this time, I think, is because the moderate center of the legislature didn’t have the stomach for the ban. They think marriage really is about a man and a woman uniting for life, especially to raise their children. But they also think that letting the small number of homosexuals who want to marry wont really hurt the commonwealth of Massachusetts. The great majority of people can still marry and live in the usual way even if a few do it another way.

Now, this is not the way it will play in all states, or even in most states. If, for example, the Kentucky legislature were forced to vote on a constitutional amendment to keep prohibiting gay marriage, I am sure it would pass, and would be a popular measure in the state. The fifty nifty states are different from one another, and a good thing, too. Moreover, public opinion, even in the most extreme states, changes over time. Massachusetts was very hot about gay marriage when it was first imposed by the court, but the ardor is cooling. I think it likely that, when it comes time to certify the proposed total ban over the next few years, there may not be enough votes in the legislature to even get the amendment on the ballot. Time and democratic competition will tell.

I believe that we are all better off when these changes are debated, compromised, and enacted in the legislature, not in the court.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Parents Believe in Sex Differences

One reader of the Gruntled Center replied offline with something that I often hear from parents:

“I don't see how you can seriously believe that there aren't innate sex differences. Having been raised in the "environment" outlook, and living though the 'achieving my potential in a male-dominated profession' and then getting into real living and important work, i.e., family and motherhood, including raising children of both sexes, I feel that I have solid empirical evidence to underpin my conclusion that of course there are basic differences between the sexes, and that IMHO, most of the propaganda I was fed is unscientific rubbish.”

My wife and I attended one of the great centers of egalitarian (men and women are really the same) feminism, Swarthmore College. At that time “politically incorrect” was still a joke that the Left told about itself. In fact, as I recall, most of the jokes about being politically incorrect turned on acting men acting masculine and women acting feminine (“I let him hold the door for me – and I liked it! Oh, no, politically incorrect!”). Along with most of our classmates, we were strongly committed to the view that gender differences were due to socialization, and that we were going to raise our children differently.

Well, after trying to interest the girls in trucks as much as dolls, and having to restrain the boy from pulling himself out of the stroller to chase a backhoe in preference to social play, we have come to the conclusion that most parents of my acquaintance have, as well: boys and girls are born different.

Having once been of the school that said gender differences were 1% nature and 99% nurture, I am now trying to hold the line at 50/50.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

“Only Marry a Good Man” vs. “The Power of the Vow”

There is an excellent new ethnography of family life: Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Edin and Kefalas spent several years as participant-observers with poor single mothers in the most blighted neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. They found that poor women thought kids were essential, but marriage was a luxury. They wanted to have children, and thought it made most sense to have them before they were 25. Marriage is a dream for the future, like a steady job, a car, and a house with a picket fence. They didn’t want to marry a man until they had lived with him for some years, raised several children together, and tested whether he would be faithful and (in a very modest way) a provider. The women Edin and Kefalas got to know thought that they should wait to marry until they were about 40. Before that, men were just too wild and unreliable.

This is fascinating in itself, and helps people (like me) with bourgeois expectations of marriage, children, and work, make some sense of the “through the looking-glass” world of poor single mothers.

BUT, the marriage movement turns on a critical, opposing point: it is marriage and fatherhood which makes men become responsible and self-sacrificing grownups. Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, in The Case for Marriage, call this “the power of the Vow.” If women give men all the advantages of marriage – sex, kids, room and board, companionship, comfort, etc., etc. – without requiring any of the responsibilities, then of course many men will never grow up, or even stay. Even the poorest women, with the most uncertain marriage prospects, would be better off waiting for sex and children until after their boyfriends demonstrated some real capacity to be husbands, fathers, protectors, and providers. Planning to be a single mother and hoping to someday marry may seem like a lower risk strategy, but it just multiplies the family disaster of poor fatherless families.