Ball and Chain

Women want marriage and men want sex, at least that’s how the popular thinking goes. From cake toppers showing brides dragging reluctant grooms to the altar to jokes about the “old ball and chain”, marriage is socially treated as something men are suckered into, a misfortune they tolerate for the sake of their woman partner. These gendered notions of desire usually assume a “straight” or male-female pairing. When they are applied to same-sex couples, it’s usually with the idea that gay men don’t want commitment and lesbians want too much (U-haul jokes anyone?) Today I’m addressing primarily male-female relationships (which may include straight people or bisexual/pansexual people) and the cultural attitudes around them.

Over the years a lot of studies have been done on the relative happiness of single and married people. The biggest, most common flaw in these studies is to lump all single people together – those who never married, those who are widows or widowers, and those who have gone through a divorce. These groups are very different and people in the widowed or divorced categories have been married in the past. Moving divorced people out of the “married” category artificially biases the category to have more “successes”. Yet even when studies are set up to favor marital happiness, the results don’t show it. A meta-analysis of 18 longitudinal prospective studies found no real change in happiness levels before and after marriage, or as the years of marriage racked up. Life satisfaction and relationship satisfaction both steadily declined, however.

Studies on marital happiness that look at gender find that, if marriage does make anyone happy, it’s men. Men are happier in their marriages than women, and married men seem to be happier than unmarried men (including never married, widowed, and divorced). While the cultural myth of men not wanting marriage persists, Pew Research surveys show that roughly equal numbers of never married men and women want to get married (61%), while more divorce men than divorced women want to remarry (combined 29%).  Two-thirds of divorces in the United States are initiated by women, and men tend to report greater rates of depression following divorce than women do. The introduction of accessible no-fault divorce led to a dramatic decline in suicides and suicide attempts among married women. Why do men enjoy marriage more?

It might a question of labor. Among male-female couples where both partners work, whether they have children or not, the wives do a greater share of household chores, cooking, and cleaning.  A University of Michigan Institute for Social Research study found that married men and single women did roughly equal amounts of housework (14 hours and 13 hours a week respectively) while married women devote an average 17 hours a week to the task, often on top of childcare or work responsibilities.

Based on a representative sample of all U.S. families, a recent study of housework trends revealed husbands create an extra seven hours a week of housework for wives, but wives save husbands from about an hour of housework a week.

– National Science Foundation

Parenting in a male-female marriage falls largely to women, with women spending more time with their children directly and also being charged with the majority of intellectual and emotional labor involved: finding pediatricians, hiring nannies or choosing a daycare, registering for school, meeting with teachers, buying or making cupcakes for the bake sale, knowing who to invite to birthday parties which moms plan, shop for, cook for, entertain at, and then clean up after. Married men are unlikely to find their time significantly curtailed by having children, and they are more likely to be promoted if they are working fathers. Meanwhile working mothers are less likely to be promoted. Many people don’t want mothers working full time at all, especially if they are married to someone else who can do that job. Pew Research found only 16% of adults think it is ideal for a child to have a mother who works full-time.

When illness strikes, husbands and wives are not equally there for each other. “In sickness and in health” appears to mean a lot more to women than it does to men.

A 2009 study published in the journal Cancer found that a married woman diagnosed with a serious disease is six times more likely to be divorced or separated than a man with a similar diagnosis. Among study participants, the divorce rate was 21 percent for seriously ill women and 3 percent for seriously ill men. A control group divorced at a rate of 12 percent, suggesting that if disease makes husbands more likely to split, it makes wives more likely to stay.

While differences in emotional labor, childcare, housekeeping, health nurturing, and other tasks of married life may account for some of the happiness gap, domestic violence and abuse is certainly also a factor for the marital happiness – or unhappiness – of some married people. Women married to men are significantly more likely to experience all forms of intimate partner violence, including birth control sabotage, physical, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse than men married to women are. They are also more likely to see their children experience violence at the hands of their spouse.

In summary: marriage doesn’t generally make people much happier than they were to begin with. The people marriage does make happier are usually men. The social and financial benefits of marriage are conferred mostly to men, with social and financial penalties of marriage conferred to women. Women initiate most divorce. The studies on marriage happiness are usually heavily biased in favor of marriage but still don’t yield strong results.

If you want to get married, get married. If you don’t want to get married or if you’re tired of being told that marriage will make you happier, take heart. Both single and married people were happiest when they had close friendships with others and a social network beyond their immediate nuclear family. Let’s end the myth that women are dragging men down the aisle and dragging them down in the process. Marriage tends to be good for men, sometimes at the expense of the women married to them.

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