IF YOU TAKE a long, wide view, marriage and personal relationships are in fine shape. Parental coercion is weakening; marriages are becoming more egalitarian; enormities such as child marriage are fading. Even in countries where divorce is common, most marriages last. A couple who tied the knot in England or Wales in 2012 can be expected to stay together for 32 years, according to the Office for National Statistics. By contrast, the average pre-industrial English marriage endured for just 15-20 years before one partner perished. The vows in the Anglican wedding service, in which couples promise to love and cherish each other “till death do us part”, used to be laden with doom.
Nor, if only the couples are considered, is the spread of cohabitation anything to worry about. Fewer people have jobs for life these days, or even careers for life, so it seems odd to expect them to leap into lifelong romantic commitments. Demographers used to argue that living together before marriage raised the risk of early divorce. But couples who move from cohabitation to marriage often start living together when they are quite young, and what is risky is not sharing a bedroom before marrying but living together in young adulthood, whether or not you have a wedding ring when you embark on it.
However, there is one big reason to worry about the quality and longevity of people’s intimate bonds. It is that relationships often produce children, and children are profoundly affected by how their parents get on.
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. Culture and customs make little difference. In Japan, four-fifths of single-parent households emerge when couples divorce—a much higher share than in the West, where people usually slip into single parenthood without marrying. Japanese children living with only one parent nonetheless perform significantly worse in school tests, just as children from single-parent families do in Europe and America. In poorer countries, family breakdown can kill. According to one recent estimate, the chance that an African child will die before turning five is about 25-30 per 1,000 for those born into stable families, but 35-40 per 1,000 for the children of single, divorced or widowed parents.
Marriage is not always good for children. They do not benefit when a parent marries somebody who is not their mother or father, and seem to suffer if the parent they live with cycles through several relationships. What they seem to need most is for their biological parents to stick together. And one strong claim that can be made for marriage is that it appears to glue parents together more tightly than any other arrangement.
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.
Again, this pattern runs across national and cultural borders. Cohabiting couples behave a bit more like married couples in countries where giving birth outside marriage is very common, such as Estonia and Norway. But they seldom attain the same level of stickiness as married couples, even after controlling for the mother’s level of education.
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. Many of these characteristics are also associated with happy, successful children.
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. Ms Edin and Ms Tach found that more than two-thirds of the difference in the nine-year break-up rate between married parents and those who are only dating when a child is born can be explained by personal characteristics (such as 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.
Another researcher, Rebecca Ryan, adds an intriguing wrinkle. After controlling for various selection effects, she finds that the children of married parents at age three do better on a standard picture vocabulary test (which might ask them to point to a drawing of a mouse or a laughing person). But this is only true, on average, for the children of married parents whose background suggests they were likely to marry. So cajoling young, poor couples into marriage might not help their offspring.
As some researchers grapple with the slippery question of what marriage does, others are studying how parents bring up children. They find huge differences not just between well-educated, privileged people and others but between modern parents and past ones. When their conclusions are set next to those of the marriage researchers, the consequences of marriage become a little clearer.
Committed to the cause
With apologies to older readers of The Economist: parents these days take a lot more trouble over the job, or at least middle-class parents do. One analysis of 11 rich countries estimates that the average mother spent 54 minutes a day caring for children in 1965 but 104 minutes in 2012. Men do less than women, but far more than men in the past: their child-caring time has jumped from 16 minutes a day to 59.
At the same time a gap has opened between working-class and middle-class parents. In 1965 mothers with and without a university education spent about the same amount of time on child care. By 2012 the more educated ones were spending half an hour more per day. (The exception is France, where the stereotype of a bourgeois couple sipping wine and ignoring their remarkably well-behaved progeny appears to be accurate.) In America, another analysis shows that black children under two on average receive one hour a day less attention from parents than white children. The explanation seems to be more poverty among blacks.
Privileged parents also give their children a different kind of attention. They play more. They tend to respond to children’s questions with questions of their own. They fill their children’s waking hours with music lessons, organised sport and assorted mind-sharpening activities. Some parents have schedules for their offspring stretching 18 months into the future, known in America as “mom planners”. In short, they engage in what Annette Lareau, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania, calls “concerted cultivation”. And still their children complain of being bored.
Though this style of child-rearing is easy to mock, the problem with concerted cultivation is not that it is ridiculous, but that it is extremely effective. Affluent children raised in this way are exposed to many more words and complex ideas than poorer children. Ms Lareau, who studied a dozen families over many years, found that the upper-middle-class children became far better at negotiating with institutions to get what they wanted—skills that helped them later in life.
This style of child-raising requires a lot of time and cultural knowledge, though, not to mention a lot of money. Working-class parents, who love their children no less, tend to lack these things. They also lack the institutional awareness and the powerful friends that would help them take on a teacher when things go wrong for a child at school. Their approach to child-rearing tends to rest on the idea that children grow up by themselves, and need above all to be kept happy and safe.
In this context, the true purpose of middle-class marriage becomes apparent. 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.
All this can be done by couples who are not married; it can also be done by single parents. But it is probably a little easier with the additional glue and social recognition that marriage brings—and the sharp-elbowed middle classes will take any advantage they can get. As well as promising to love and cherish, marrying couples might as well vow to transmit every one of their social advantages to their children—though somehow that sounds a little less romantic.
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This article was published and provided by The Economist.