Why Marriage Matters

Churches have a particular role to play in promoting and proclaiming the goods of this primeval institution, not only as a path to temporal flourishing, but also as a concrete image of the Father’s love for his children.

“Marriage represents the keystone institution for most … human societies,” notes the anthropologist Joseph Henrich, “and may be the most primeval of human institutions.” Neither the Kung people of the Kalahari desert nor the Warlpiri of Australia’s Outback practice agriculture or build permanent settlements, but in both cultures, men and women unmistakably “marry and are given in marriage.” This universality is perhaps why marriage is the only human institution depicted in Eden, a fact which Christ himself exploited when the Pharisees appealed to Moses to justify their permissiveness about divorce: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?’” (Matt 19:4–5, Gen 2:24).

Given marriage’s centrality for our species across time and space, it is no surprise that it continues to be a critical pathway to flourishing for men, women, and children alike. One recent study from our team at the Human Flourishing Program examined the long-term effects of the decision to marry in about 12,000 female nurses. Even after controlling for the risk of adverse outcomes from marriage itself (e.g., divorce), marriage was associated with greater life satisfaction, greater mental and physical health, and even a 35 percent reduction in death for any reason over the 20 years of follow-up. A 2020 meta-analysis, of longitudinal studies of how marriage affects health, found substantial protective effects for both sexes, but stronger reductions in all-cause mortality for men (32 percent) than for women (18 percent).

As the economist Melissa Kearney argues in The Two-Parent Privilege, marriage is also “the most reliable institution for delivering a high level of resources and long-term stability to children.” Part of the story is paternal investment: “Within six years of their parents separating,” Richard Reeves notes in Of Boys and Men, “one in three children never see their father, and a similar proportion see him once a month or less.” Marriage powerfully promotes children’s economic mobility. In a study of over 40 million children and their parents, economist Raj Chetty and his collaborators found that “the strongest and most robust predictor [of intergenerational economic mobility] is the fraction of children [in a neighborhood] with single parents.”

The data

Marriage is associated with a 35% reduction in all-cause mortality (over a period of 20 years) for women and a 32% reduction in the risk of death for men (over a decade or more of follow-up).

The fraction of children living in single-parent households accounts for 58% of the variation in economic mobility across U.S. zip codes.

The annual marriage rate declined from 64 per 1,000 American women in 1960 to 14.9 per 1,000 women in 2021.

Unfortunately, the institution of marriage is in steep decline across the developed world. In 1960, the annual marriage rate was 64 per 1,000 American women, but by 2021, that had fallen to 14.9 per 1,000. The same period has seen a sharp rise in the rate of out-of-wedlock births (from five percent in 1960 to 40 percent in 2022), despite the fact that 87 percent of women still say they would prefer to be married before having children. If you’re well educated and well off, you might not recognize these trends from your own community. As the psychologist Rob Henderson notes in his new memoir, Troubled, “In the United States, while 85 percent of children born to upper-class families are raised by both of their birth parents, only 30 percent of those born to working-class families are.”

The modern collapse of marriage has many causes. Some are cultural: American elites are prone, as Brad Wilcox puts it, to “talk left but walk right,” prioritizing stable marriages in their private lives but marginalizing or actively denigrating marriage in the novels, films, and op-eds they produce. Economic factors have taken their toll as well, notably the declines in American manufacturing that have left less-educated men in particular with fewer opportunities for stable and well-paying jobs, which in turn makes them less attractive as potential husbands. And the advent of hormonal birth control, first approved for sale by the FDA in 1960, gave us the hitherto unimagined ability to more or less reliably decouple sex from procreation, to imagine marriage as merely one of many boutique lifestyles rather than a load-bearing institution at the heart of social life.

Reviving the failing fortunes of marriage would require sustained, collective efforts to address the effects of these and other factors. Still, as Wilcox shows in his recent book, Get Married, religious communities are now home to America’s strongest and happiest marriages. Given that, churches have a particular role to play in promoting and proclaiming the goods of this primeval institution, not only as a path to temporal flourishing, but also as a concrete image of the Father’s love for his children and Christ’s love for the church.

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