Marriage is a uniquely stabilising force: are liberals finally getting the message?
Credit: Suzanne Plunkett/PA Archive   

Is marriage just another lifestyle choice?

For decades, social conservatives have insisted that the institution provides a uniquely stable foundation on which to raise a family. It hasn’t always been a popular message, but at least it’s been delivered from the summit of a growing pile of supporting research.

There’s no denying the evidence – and a recent Economist article on the subject doesn’t try:

“You could make enough confetti for a summer of weddings with all the academic papers that show how much children gain from being brought up in stable, loving families, and how much they suffer when those families break down.”

Yes, that’s right, the Economist – the international house journal of the economically-and-socially-liberal – appears to accept what conservative types tend to know in their guts.

Marriage works, if not for every couple, then for society as a whole:

“Analysis of one large American data set by Kathryn Edin and Laura Tach, two sociologists, shows that 27% of marriages broke down within nine years of a child being born. By contrast, among couples who were merely cohabiting when a child appeared, 53% separated within nine years—and most of the remaining 47% were married by that point. Among couples who were dating but not living together when the child was born, 81% had split up.”

Ah, but what about the ‘selection effects’?

“Statistical controls are important. Some people are more likely to choose to wed than others. Married people tend to be not just more highly educated than unmarried ones but also wealthier, older, more religious, more cheerful and more likely to own a home…

“Studies that have wrestled with this problem have concluded that the greater the number of personal characteristics you control for, the less magical wedlock appears to be. Yet the effect of marriage cannot quite be controlled away to zero.”

According to the article’s reading of the evidence, two-thirds of the difference between the most stable (i.e marriage-before-children) families and the least stable families are attributable to personal characteristics like “education, employment, criminal history and women’s feelings about men”:

“But that still leaves almost a third of the difference attributable to marriage or to other, unmeasured factors.”

What could possibly account for the residual effect? It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to attribute it to values embodied and inculcated by the institution of marriage itself. The anonymous author of the Economist article writes somewhat flippantly about the supposedly “magical” effects of marriage, but perhaps that isn’t such an inappropriate word. The solemn and public ritual of matrimony stands in stark contrast to the privatised informality of the rest of our lives. Even if you doesn’t believe in it as a divinely ordained sacrament, you can still feel its power.

It was the founder of the Economist, Walter Bagehot, who wrote of the ‘efficient’ and ‘dignified’ parts of the British constitution, recognising both were essential to the stability of the state. Surely, the same could be applied to the way in which we form families – with marriage providing the dignified part of their constitution.

Our anonymous author seems to get the idea, if only in part:

“People fall in love with and marry people who are just as highly educated as themselves. They define and express their shared values through expensive wedding celebrations. After marriage, they continue to fine-tune their relationships and pool their resources. When children appear, they put their accumulated social and cultural capital to work. Married couples engage in a demanding four-handed juggling act that prepares their offspring for success at school, university and the most demanding jobs. Their children marry well, and the cycle begins again.”

This is a rather mechanistic account, but one that shows that marriage is even more important than the dry statistical analysis would suggest. Two-thirds of the “magical” effect of marriage may well disappear if you control for beneficial “personal characteristics” – but how are these habits of responsibility formed in the first place?

People aren’t just shaped by their own marriages, but by the example set by other marriages – those of parents especially, but also within wider circles of family, friendship and community.

Marriage forms not only families; it also forms culture – to the benefit of all, married and unmarried. It communicates at a deep and resonant level that promises matter, freedom has limits and that a life well-lived is an ordered one.