Why Marry? (Part 1): A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: mazaletel)

(Photo: mazaletel)

This week’s episode is called “Why Marry?” (Part 1). (You can subscribe to the podcast at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.)

This episode is about all the ways that marriage has changed over the last 50 years. We begin by challenging some of the myths of modern marriage. For instance: does marriage make you happier? Is divorce as common as we think? The discussion then moves on to how the institution of marriage is perceived these days, and to what degree it has outlived its original purpose.

We begin by hearing the voices of people all around the country, talking about why they got married or want to. As you might imagine, their reasoning runs from pure romance (love!) to hardcore pragmatic (a visa, a pregnancy, to conform).

Stephen Dubner spends a lot of time talking with Justin Wolfers, an economist at the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution. Along with his partner/co-economist Betsey Stevenson, Wolfers has done significant research on marriage, divorce, and family. He explains one dramatic change to marriage over the past half-century — from a factory-style model of “production complementarities,” where the mister went off to work and the missus ran the household, to something very different:

WOLFERS: We’ve moved to what economists would call consumption complementarities. We have more time, more money, and so you want to spend it with someone that you’ll enjoy. So, similar interests and passions. We call this the model of hedonic marriage. But really it’s a lot more familiar than that. This is just economists giving a jargon name to love. So you want someone who’s actually remarkably similar to you or has similar passions that you do. So it fundamentally changes who marries who.

But this new model hasn’t just changed the way marriage looks; it has also changed the numbers. In 1960, two-thirds of all Americans aged 15 and older were married. By 1990, that number had fallen to 58.7 percent. Now? It’s dropped to around 50 percent. Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who has done extensive research on women’s career and family attainments, tells us what accounts for this drop:

GOLDIN: In the U.S., one group of individuals who eventually marry, marry late. And one group is not marrying — the lower-educated, lower-income Americans are not marrying for lots of different reasons. So I wouldn’t say that marriage is still the institution that it once was.

So if marriage isn’t the institution it once was – what does that mean? How does this affect the rest of society? And if the old model of marriage is less attractive, how about a new model? Those are some of the question we’ll try to answer on next week’s episode, Part 2 of “Why Marry?”

Audio Transcript

This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast "Why Marry?, Part 1."

[MUSIC: Arturo Sacchetti, “Canon & Gigue in D” (from Organ Festival)]


Stephen DUBNER: Marriage -- or, as it’s sometimes called, “mawwwiage” – is what brings us together today. It is an institution unlike any other in human history. One could imagine there are countless reasons why two people would marry. We asked some people – in New York City, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and San Francisco – why they got married, or want to get married:


WOMAN: We got married because we love each other.

MAN: To have a family, continue tradition from ancestor to ancestor.

MAN: It’s great, it’s liberating. there’s a whole world out there that unmarried people don't realize.

MAN: To experience life with.

MAN: To be happy.

MAN: Being part of a community, household, marriage.

MAN: I just think it’s just the right thing to do.


[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “Leave Me Alone” (from The Jaguars)]


WOMAN: I was 17, when I got married. I didn't know any better. I think it was what I was supposed to do. Thankfully I haven’t regretted yet.

MAN: In India it is a social thing to get married.

MAN: I’m Catholic, so tradition is a big part of our lives.

WOMAN: I guess I don’t really see why I wouldn’t get married.

MAN: It was the right thing to raise family I thought.        

WOMAN: Finances is a big part of it, especially living in tri-state area, because it’s so expensive

WOMAN: His visa was expiring, and so it was either pay for him to go out of the country to get a new visa, or we could get married and have a party.

MAN: We were in love and then she got pregnant and it seemed like the right thing to do.

MAN: She was a Lithuanian girl. Not exactly green card, but it was a decision...I had to make up my mind quick.

WOMAN: We came from broken families, so we were sort of determined not to repeat mistakes both our parents made. *She’s a surfer chick from LA and I liked her.

WOMAN: We just finally decided it would be easier to conform.

MAN: Uh, why should I marry? Ooo, yikes. That’s what my mom asks me all the time!



ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


[MUSIC: Donvision, “Flip Flop”]

DUBNER: On today’s program, we’re talking about an institution that Americans in particular love:

Justin WOLFERS: Americans love marriage.

DUBNER: That’s Justin Wolfers. He’s an economist at the University of Michigan and the Brookings Institution. Wolfers says that Americans, especially when you compare them to Canadians, the French, the Germans, the Italians, the British, and the Swedes – oh, especially the Swedes! – compared to all of them, Wolfers says, Americans …

WOLFERS: They marry earlier, they marry more often, and more of them get married.

DUBNER: So does this mean that marriage is more popular than ever in the U.S.? It most definitely does not! We’ll get into that later. For now, let me note that Wolfers himself is, importantly, not married – technically at least.

WOLFERS: It could be my essential Australian-ness. There is actually quite seriously in countries, in many other countries, there is a competing institution to marriage, cohabitation. And it’s a huge competitor to marriage in countries like Sweden. And increasingly in Australia as well. Many of my high school friends are not formally married but they live as husband and wife.

DUBNER: So Wolfers, an Australian who’s lived for many years in the U.S., is one of those cohabitors, with children. The person he cohabits with happens to also be an economist, Betsey Stevenson, who’s currently serving on President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers.

WOLFERS: So I met Betsey while I was in graduate school. You know, it’s a very standard thing that happens in economics, you see that cute girl across the room at the labor economics seminar. That’s how many great relationships form.

DUBNER: Just the way they draw it up in all the great romantic novels.

WOLFERS: Exactly. And later that week was Halloween. There was a Halloween party. So I brought a six-pack of Newcastle Brown, which at the time took a big chunk of my student budget. And this rather brazen lass came and took one of them and struck up a conversation. And I knew she was an economist, which sets anyone’s blood racing straight away.

DUBNER: And what was it like for you as the man in the modern era to be courting a woman who you knew would be at least your equal professionally?

WOLFERS: Yeah, boy it was the smartest thing I ever did. Because I get to see Betsey’s paycheck every couple of weeks. And I could have had a 1950s partnership with some other lass who would have a very different paycheck. So this choice pays off.

DUBNER: So you’re a total mercenary. You just sold yourself to the highest bidder it sounds like, essentially, Justin.

WOLFERS: We all do, Stephen, it’s just whether we admit it and the currency in which we count it.

DUBNER: Now, I know that you’re not not serious, but I also know that you were thinking beyond the amount that she would contribute financially to your household bottom line.

WOLFERS: I thought she’d be fascinating.

DUBNER: What did you love about her?

WOLFERS: This is a family show, isn’t it Stephen?

DUBNER: It’s okay, we have a great bleep button here.

WOLFERS: Going to graduate school in economics is an incredibly intense experience. I know that sounds strange to say, but it’s a transformational, intense, intense experience. I had someone I could share it with, who understood what I was going through, who had great notes by the way that I could study from. And we could talk about our passions.

[MUSIC: Laura Ault, “Here’s Lookin’ at You” (from The Greatest Thing)]


DUBNER: Ah, they could talk about their passions. This, according to Wolfers, is one of the big changes in marriage. Think about all the reasons that people have historically married: out of pure love, in order to have children together, in order to have sex together … people marry to fulfill a religious impulse, or a traditional impulse, maybe a financial impulse.

WOLFERS: So here’s the story that I tell, and actually I should say we tell. My partner and coauthor Betsey Stevenson. There was a model of marriage that we all believed in in the 1950s. We saw it on “Leave it to Beaver.”

[LEAVE IT TO BEAVER CLIP: “It’s sort of traditional I guess. They say a woman’s place is in the home and I suppose as long as she’s in the home she might as well be in the kitchen.”]

WOLFERS: This was the style of marriage that Gary Becker first described, the idea of marriage as sort of like a factory. And the point is you get married because you can do more together than you can apart and it’s just like Adam Smith’s pin factory. The way you do more together is by specializing. And specialization was Dad would go and work in the market and Mom would stay at home and do the enormously complex part of running a household. And she would be really, really good at it, because she’s got a lot of practice. She would be much better at it than Dad. And as a result, the pie is bigger for both or them. So marriage is productive and it makes both Mom and Dad better off.


[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “The Conversation” (from Modern Times)]


DUBNER: So marriage used to create, in economist-speak, “productive complementarities.” This meant that a man – the CEO of the household – wanted a spouse who could do the things he didn’t do, most of which involved running the household. But as we all know, a lot has changed in the past few decades, especially for women. Better birth control, more labor-saving devices in the home, and a lot more work outside the home. So the share of married women who are employed has risen from 6 percent in 1900 to 30 percent in 1960 to nearly 70 percent today.

WOLFERS: We’ve moved to what economists would call consumption complementarities. We have more time, more money, and so you want to spend it with someone that you’ll enjoy. So similar interests and passions. We call this the model of hedonic marriage. But really it’s a lot more familiar than that. This is just economists giving a jargon name to love. So you want someone who’s actually remarkably similar to you or has similar passions that you do. So it fundamentally changes who marries who.

DUBNER: But that’s not the only change it produces.

WOLFERS: And the question is why does anyone get married anymore if these productive complementarities have gone away?

DUBNER: Yes, that is the question: why do we still get married? We live in a country where people don’t want to be locked into a two-year cell-phone contract – so why opt for a 30- or 40- or 50-year monogamous partnership? One reason is a belief that marriage makes us … happy. We hear that a lot – that married people are, on average, happier than the non-marrieds. True?

WOLFERS: Most people get this wrong. It turns out at any point in time the people who are married are happier than the people who are not married. People then infer from that, Oh boy, marriage must make you happy. But the alternative explanation is reverse causation -- that if you’re grumpy who the hell wants to marry you? So this is selection effects. I think this is really important, because selection effects, that people who are married are selected, they’re not a random group of the population, are something that economists and statisticians talk about all the time. and so it seems to be completely obvious that the grumpy, the hard to employ, the selfish would all be far less likely to be marriageable and therefore be less likely to be married than others. And we actually say that married people look better on almost all measures, life expectancy as well, they’re healthier, than non-married people. But I think that’s because spouses are looking for happy, healthy, functional people.


[MUSIC: Spencer Garn, “Funky Zapatos”]


DUBNER: Okay, that makes sense. Happy, healthy, functional people are more likely to get married – which makes it seem as if marriage itself is responsible when maybe it isn’t. But if all these happy, healthy, functional people are marrying each other, why is the divorce rate so high? For years we’ve all heard that half of all marriages end in divorce. True?  Coming up on Freakonomics Radio, we find out:


WOLFERS: I cannot tell you, not a week goes by when I don’t read in a major newspaper that in a period of rising divorce we’ve got to do something.


DUBNER: And how is marriage doing, overall?


GOLDIN: I wouldn’t say that marriage is still the institution that it once was.


WOMAN: Marriage is ...it’s a big commitment.

MAN: It’s comfortable, you enjoy being with that one person and you don’t have to worry about a date.

MAN: I would love to get married.

WOMAN: I think it’s kind of ridiculous sometimes

MAN: I feel like I should get married...I don’t think I should get married.




ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.


[MUSIC: The Civil Tones, “The Bailiff” (from Rotisserie Twist)]


DUBNER: On today’s show, we’re talking about marriage, and we’re asking, with so many changes to society over the past century or so, why people still marry. After all, we’ve heard for years that half of all marriages end in divorce...


MAN: With the divorce rate as it currently is, like so high,

WOMAN: I’m divorced and do I want to get married again no.      

WOMAN: I think divorce is really scary and with how common it is these days.


DUBNER: … So is it true that divorce is so frightfully common today?


WOLFERS: False. in fact, almost everything you hear about divorce is false.


DUBNER: That’s the economist Justin Wolfers.


WOLFERS: I cannot tell you, not a week goes by when I don’t read in a major newspaper that in a period of rising divorce we’ve got to do something. Guess what, divorce has been falling for 30 years. It reached a peak in either 1979 or 1981 depending on how you want to count. And it’s fallen each and every year since. We live in a period of more stable divorces than our parents.

DUBNER: That’s right: the rate of divorce is lower in the U.S. today than it’s been since 1970. Why is that?

WOLFERS: So the great and terrible thing for social scientists is the overwhelming fact is divorce rose sharply through the late 60 and early 70s. Guess what? A lot of other stuff changed through the late 60s and early 70s, and that means that every social scientist just picks their favorite ill and says it’s due to that. It’s feminism, it’s due to women in the workplace, it’s due to declining masculinity, TV, crime, the loss of conservative social values, changing laws, all of these things. ABBA music.

DUBNER: It’s ABBA’s fault.

DUBNER: So Wolfers doesn’t really have an answer for why divorce rose so much in the 1960s and 1970s. But he does think he knows why it’s fallen since:

WOLFERS: I think the primary driver of the low divorce rate is my generation partnered with people with whom they had shared interests and passions. So they partnered with the right people for the style of marriage they end up living in. So it’s not just that we love our partners, but we actually chose a partner who was compatible with the way we’re going to live our lives. It was my mother’s generation who got stuck with, they bought the wrong partner and their life turned out different.

DUBNER: Pardon my interruption and my personal question, but shall I assume then that your parents got divorced?

WOLFERS: My parents got divorced. My parents are part of the spike in divorce.

DUBNER: And that’s because your mother was married in an era where the opportunities were just emerging, but they hadn’t be evident to her at the time of her choice. Or maybe they wouldn’t have been socially acceptable even at the time of her choice.

WOLFERS Yep, she thought she would be a homemaker or maybe a teacher sometimes. My mother is now an entrepreneur.

[MUSIC: Fooling April, “Too Late” (from Three)]


DUBNER: So when you hear that the divorce rate is lower today than it’s been since 1970, that sounds like an unmitigated victory, right? But it’s not that simple, depending on what set of numbers you’re talking about. If you look at the rate of divorce per 1,000 people in the U.S., has has fallen about 33 percent since 1979. If, however, you look at the divorce rate per 1,000 married couples, it’s fallen substantially less, about 27 percent. What does that mean? Here’s Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard:

Claudia GOLDIN: Marriage, let’s face it, is on the decline in many different ways.

DUBNER: It’s true. Even in marriage-loving America, the marriage rate today is at an all-time low. In 1960, two-thirds of all Americans 15 and older – yes, 15 and over – were married, 67.6 percent. By 1990, that number had fallen to 58.7 percent. Now? It’s around 50 percent. Claudia Goldin tells us there are at least two big changes that account for this:

GOLDIN: In the U.S., one group of individuals who eventually marry, marry late.

DUBNER: : The current median age of first marriage has never been higher – it’s 27 for women and 29 for men.Compare that to the 1950s, when it was 20 for women and 22 for men.


GOLDIN: And that’s very good because we know from lots of different work that later marriages causally reduce the probability of divorce.

SJD NARR: So this helps explain not only the lower marriage numbers but also the lower divorce numbers. But that’s not all:

GOLDIN: And one group is not marrying – the lower-educated, lower-income Americans are not marrying for lots of different reasons. So I wouldn’t say that marriage is still the institution that it once was.


[MUSIC: Ruby Velle and The Soulphonics, “My Dear” (from It’s About Time)]


DUBNER: So if marriage is not the institution it once was – what does that mean? How does this affect the rest of society? That’s the question we’ll try to answer on next week’s episode, Part 2 of “Why Marry?” Turns out we’re not the only ones asking this question.


WOMAN: It doesn’t make sense, the whole institution of marriage

WOMAN: I prefer to be single and free.

WOMAN: I think finding a partner is damn hard.

MAN: Why people get married? I have no idea.

WOMAN: And a lot of people ask me why I’m not getting married, you’re beautiful and this and that. It doesn’t work with me.


DUBNER: In next week’s show, we’ll bring in a new cast of characters to look at some of the consequences of the marriage drop:

Celinda LAKE: In just six years, half of every kindergarten class in this country is going to be the children of single moms.

DUBNER:  And if the old model of marriage is less attractive, how about a new model?

WOLFERS: What you’re describing is a move from a one-size-fits-all contract that’s written by the church to a couple that’s sitting down and writing their own contract.





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  1. jgarbuz says:

    Marriage was invented by men for two primary reasons: (1) To know who their children were with a relatively high, if imperfect, degree of certainty; and (2) to obtain a certain degree of social harmony by apportioning approximately one female for every male, although after a war, when there were many widows, polygamy happened primarily in the Middle East.

    Marriage and “family” are relics of the past soon to be discarded as medical technology will make it possible to create babies outside of the womb, ala “Brave New World.” As in Aldous Huxley’s seminal 1932 sci-fi classic, the government and/or corporate entities will produce children in accordance to societal needs for consumers and workers. I would say that “Brave New World” was the most prophetic piece of fiction produced since the Bible.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 25 Thumb down 28
    • NZ says:

      Wikipedia’s history of marriage article tells us that marriage has been around since before recorded history, which seems plausible. Nevertheless, you appear very certain of who invented marriage.

      Your supporting logic is okay, but I think that marriage was probably invented by a coordinated effort between women and beta-men, since alpha men are really the only ones who benefit in the long term from a society without marriage.

      Your statements about marriage and family being relics of the past don’t seem to account for what happens once children are created. Who raises them?

      Single moms have proven inadequate; their children consistently fall behind those of married couples in every regard.

      Children raised in batches by professional childcare workers don’t do well either (look at the experiences of the kibbutzim in Israel). (If I remember right, this was the system in Brave New World.)

      Evolution has endowed us humans with a great system, rigorously tested and perfected for hundreds of thousands of years. It is bizarre how so many people seem eager to abandon it.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 49 Thumb down 23
      • kathyw says:

        I think you miss the part about ‘cohabitation’. People assume that people who are not married are single or single moms. There are lots of unmarried couples with or without children who are very happy. And that’s great. Happy couples should stay together. Marriage is just a piece of paper, and it’s sad when married couples feel forced to stay together, even though they are unhappy, just because of that piece of paper.

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  2. Jaime says:

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    • Enter your name... says:

      No, it’s fifteen. The Census Bureau has asking about marital status since 1850, back when a young age at marriage was not quite so unusual (at least for pregnant 15 year olds).

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1
      • NZ says:

        “…at least not for pregnant 15 year olds.”

        Yeah, I was about to say. Among Europeans and their descendants (i.e. the bulk of Americans, historically and still today), the typical age of marriage has been in the 20s for centuries. In urban areas significant numbers of people married even later than that. (The more things change…)


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  3. Dan says:

    There is a statement made without any data provided to support it, which is very unlike your style of reporting.
    “GOLDIN: And that’s very good because we know from lots of different work that later marriages causally reduce the probability of divorce.”

    Where are the details for this? I have heard that this statistic is comparing those who get married at 18 and younger, but if you consider those who get married at 19-25, they actually divorce less than those who marry at 30+. Can you include this clarification in your follow up? The different interpretations of this statement can have dramatic consequences.

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    • NZ says:

      Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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      • anonymous says:

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      • NZ says:


        Divorce laws vary from state to state. The states with the least stringent divorce laws correspond closely to the states with the highest divorce rates, supporting my earlier point: if you want to prevent divorce, make it harder to get a divorce and stop telling everyone that divorce is A-okay.

        Here is a Bloomberg ranking of ease-of-divorce, by state (a little over 2 years old, but still probably valid): http://www.bloomberg.com/money-gallery/2011-11-10/best-and-worst-states-for-getting-divorced.html#slide1

        Here is Wikipedia’s ranking of divorce rate by state (12 years out of date, but probably good enough to get the picture): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_in_the_United_States#Divorce_rate_by_state

        One thing to keep in mind when reconciling the two lists is that states with low population density are likely to have faster bureaucratic processes because each office doesn’t have to handle lots of people’s files. So a low population density state that is closer to the top of the Bloomberg list (like Alaska, at #3) may be further down the Wikipedia list (where Alaska sits at #16).

        Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1
      • James says:

        “Divorce laws vary from state to state…”

        And if you know your history, back in the 1950s era, Nevada used to make a good thing out of other state’s strict divorce laws. One spouse or the other just moved to Reno for the six weeks or so that it took to be considered a resident, filed for a quickly-processed divorce, and went home.

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      • NPW says:

        The best way to prevent divorce is to not get married.

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      • Morland says:

        Instead of making divorce harder marriage should be harder. The problem starts with unions that were bad from the start.

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      • NZ says:

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      • rh says:

        Got married because I was unemployed and needed health insurance. We were completely fine unmarried and living our lives together. It’s obvious now that there are major financial benefits to being married.

        Marriage is 100% a religious institution, and the paternalism of the government has made it into a legal institution with financial benefits.

        Marriage has zero to do with love. Marriage has zero to do with having children. It has everything to do with thinking a piece of paper means more than what happens every day.

        Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 12 Thumb down 9
      • NZ says:


        Spoken like someone who got married for the health insurance.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      The older the spouses are, the more likely one of them is to die before divorce. If you get married at at 20, you have about 65 years in which to get divorced; if you get married at age 80, you have only about five years in which to get divorced.

      Goldin is presumably talking about the age at first marriage. Subsequent marriages are less stable.

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  4. James says:

    I think you’ve missed the IMHO blindingly obvious reason people marry later now than in the 1960s: sex and the availability of birth control. Back then, if you were a couple of horny teens having sex, and you got caught at it, or she got pregnant, you were pretty well forced to get married. And a few years later, when the adults you grew up to be discovered they didn’t really like each other… Well, you got divorced.

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    • NZ says:

      You left something out.

      Plenty of horny teens these days are having sex with pregnancy as the result, but nowadays there’s very little pressure on them to get married:

      -Being a single mom is no longer stigmatized.
      -Single moms get health- and childcare support from the government, not to mention special tax breaks (i.e. the government becomes their husband).
      -Marriage itself is now widely considered an obsolete form of patriarchal oppression over women.
      -There are fewer dads actually living with their knocked-up daughters, so they aren’t around with shotguns to pressure the boys into marriage.

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      • Chris L says:

        The easy solution to that problem is to teach teens to use birth control and prevent the pregnancy from occurring. Personally, I’ve never wanted children, so I’ve always taken steps to prevent pregnancies from occurring, everything from using condoms to telling people upfront that I want no part in having children and being prepared for them to reject me for being so honest.

        Unfortunately, the sex education people get in schools these days is from the 18th century, you know, just identify what all the male and female parts are, and that’s it. Instead we should be teaching them about the various consequences and how to mitigate them. These days most teens are watching porn on their mobile phones from an early age and learning about sex there, so we really need schools to provide an education that might actually mitigate those problems.

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      • NZ says:

        You know about teens watching porn on their phones, but you don’t seem up to date on sex ed. They cover every type of birth control, and they always let the kids know that condoms are freely available at the nurse’s office (courtesy of taxpayers!). As far as I know they typically put abortion in a favorable light too.

        This “we need more education” solution has been popular for a long time even though it doesn’t work.

        Of course, abstinence ed doesn’t work either if the kids leave school and enter a world where every other voice is telling them to screw like bunnies and that marriage is obsolete.

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  5. EG says:

    I saw a post about this podcast on your Facebook page and was excited to listen to it, until I read this preemptive article. I’m glad the conversation of “why marry” is taking place, but I think there is something crucial missing in pieces like this. The percentage of people getting married doesn’t address the percentage of people who are committed as partners, but have chosen not to have a wedding. Is anyone measuring that? The individuals interviewed at the beginning of the podcast list reasons as to why they got married, but those could be the same reasons individuals list who are in committed, long-term relationships. I, personally, have been with my significant other for 4 years. His children live with us half of the time. A wedding wouldn’t change our level of commitment to each other, so what’s the point of spending time/money/energy on that? To prove something to society? To our families/friends? To our employers?
    I also want to know “why be with one person forever?” I’m curious about the monogamy piece of marriage and why society thinks we should commit ourselves to one person for the rest of our lives. Given how often people cheat, why do we force monogamy on people? We all change and grow and to expect another person to do that with you, over decades, is selfish and irrational. What is so honorable about someone loving only one other person their entire life? If that was a job application, you’d question their experience, their ability to try new things and new challenges. You might be concerned about complacency and a lack of perspective. I think we hold people to expectations that can’t (and maybe shouldn’t) be met, and then wonder why they fail.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      > A wedding wouldn’t change our level of commitment to each other, so what’s the point

      You don’t have to “have a wedding” to “get married”.

      Legal marriage brings legal benefits. For example, if your “committed” partner is dying in the hospital, his legally recognized kids have the legal right to tell the hospital to send you away. “Just girlfriends” can be denied the right to be present at the deathbed. “Legal wives” cannot.

      Usually, people in your situation are making calculated decisions: If you marry, then your income tax bill may go down, you will get access to Social Security money and perhaps a pension, and you can inherit all of his possessions tax-free. However, his kids’ college costs will go up (because the college’s financial aid process will demand some of your income to pay for his kids’ tuition), and if he gets sued or goes bankrupt, then your assets could be taken. The list of possible pros and cons is pretty long.

      So you take the financial calculation and the emotional calculation, and you decide which system is likely to benefit you the most. This might be marrying now, marrying later, or marrying never, but it’s about choosing the set of rules that you want to live under, not “proving something” to someone else or having a fancy party.

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    • NZ says:

      I absolutely agree: given your circumstances, there is no reason you and your significant other should marry. If the two of you had kids together that would be different.

      Proving something to society is always a frivolous reason to get married.

      The real reason to get married is to provide a two-parent household in which to rear kids. This is because at its essence, marriage makes it (or, is supposed to make it) prohibitively costly for one of the parents to leave. Not talking just about monetary costs here. Even if one of the parents cheat, it’s still usually worse for the kids’ long-term outcomes if the nuclear family breaks up, so the cost of breaking it up needs to be kept high.

      The plainest reason to support monogamy is that when you don’t, what you mostly get is polygyny. That means you end up with a lot of single guys competing over much fewer single women. Guys respond to this by getting machoistic and violent, and it makes the whole society less stable. That’s a big part of why polygamy is mostly only found in backward parts of the world.

      What’s selfish and irrational is putting your own individualism ahead of your children’s long-term well being. By doing so, you not only harm your children’s long-term outcomes, but you also create a host of negative externalities that everyone else has to suffer with and/or pay for.

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      • EG says:

        Thank you for your insight. I really do appreciate it and your paragraph about the real reason to get married was thought-provoking for me.

        I think your last paragraph is why a lot of people do try to stay married, “for the kids”. Which I can respect (my parents did until we left for college). And maybe I’m better off because I was raised in a household with two parents. But, I was also raised in a household of screaming, yelling, threatening, accusing, cussing, passive aggression, and drama. I learned the wrong way to love/treat your significant other and I feel immense guilt about being the reason they lived through that with one another as long as they did.

        What are we teaching our children by trying to stay together? That it’s a “business” arrangement in which is “costly” to get out of? That adults must sacrifice everything, even themselves, for the sake of raising kids in a “nuclear” household? Is that best? I honestly don’t know. Maybe it is – like I said, maybe I’m better off because both my parents were there, even if it was begrudgingly. I honestly believe my significant others’ kids are MUCH better off now than they were when their parents were still married (but perhaps our situation is unique and the “negative outcomes” to which you refer have to do with single-parent households).

        I’m just not sure the current model is working and I think this podcast brings some of the issues to light (reasons people marry, divorce rates, etc).

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      • NZ says:

        I’m really interested to know what’s the Pareto efficiency of marriage. That is, how bad does a couple’s relationship have to be before it’s actually better for their kids if they split up? I don’t know if there are studies looking into it.

        My guess is that the answer is “Bad. Worse than we’re usually told.”

        Part of the reason for this guess is that the negative effects of single parenthood on kids don’t stop at the kids themselves: they snowball out into the community. One well-worn example of this is the cliche girl who lacked a father figure and so becomes promiscuous after puberty, due to an unfulfillable hunger for male approval. Her promiscuity may result in unwanted pregnancy, transferred STDs, or men who fight over her because she is unwilling to commit to just one. Then each of those things snowballs out into its own set of problems. You get the picture. So, it would have been better if the girl’s parents had stuck together, even if it meant she had to hear a lot of screaming.

        It’s also important to keep in mind that most couples inevitably have fights, even loud ones, but serious abuse is rare. Witnessing abuse is damaging to kids, but witnessing two adults have legitimate conflicts and then resolve them can be very constructive and valuable.

        Once you have kids, the rules change. That’s a big part of what marriage signals: “It’s not about you anymore, it’s about the family you’ve created.”

        If the current model of marriage isn’t working, it’s because it has strayed too far from this idea.

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      • rh says:

        Choosing monogamy is fine. Choosing polygamy when everyone involved hasn’t voiced their opinion on it is not.

        I agree that some people, maybe even most people, are not advanced enough to be monogamous. It takes a lot more than shagging to be monogamous, you actually have to care about your partner on a day-to-day basis. If that is too much for someone, why make them marry?

        When it comes down to it, unless you are being physically threatened, you are choosing to marry. If you don’t want to marry, don’t. I got married for financial reasons, and I see no reason to get divorced. We both have agreed to get divorced if we want to look around, not vice versa.

        Staying married “for the kids” is heinous. It’s just about the worst thing you can do for children, to stay in a loveless relationship for them. I have a friend doing this, and she has 12 years before the last one goes to college and she can think about getting divorced. The children are being harmed by the parents staying together, but all she can think about is how inconvenient it would be to be divorced.

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  6. Bekka says:

    Wow. Such a sober note on Valentine’s? Well, the good news is that research is ongoing, and today’s verdict may look different in five years.

    For those who are interested, here is a site that tries to regularly take the pulse on the Economics of Dating. http://www.dateconomics.com

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  7. AP says:

    Hey Freakanomicists,

    As a well-employed unmarried person well over the age of 15, this hits quite close to home, even in its stated mathematical fuzziness:

    ‘..so it seems to be completely obvious that the grumpy, the hard to employ, the selfish would all be far less likely to be marriageable.”


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    • PVC says:

      The statement AP quotes above struck me as ridiculous, and revealed a simplistic thought process on the part of the speaker. His idea was that married people are happier because only happy people are able to get married. I can tell you from personal experience that that is not true. I believe that one of the primary reasons why married people are happier is because of the sense of certainty and security that marriage provides. When someone gets married, he has made a firm decision, a commitment, and the question of his relationship status is finally settled once and for all. Even in a cohabitation situation, without marriage there is always that sense that things are up in the air, could change at any moment, and that uncertainty is even more pronounced for single people. But when one is married it is simply done and dusted. I think that there is a great sense of relief and comfort in that certainty for many people (definitely for myself), and that’s why married people are often happier.

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  8. AB says:

    In the US, many benefits are tied to the fact that you are married. In some cases it is required. My partner and I, who had no intention of marrying, but every intention of staying together long-term, had to get married because that was the only way we could relocate to the U.S. There is no recognition in the U.S. for the fact that you are married in all ways except for having that piece of paper. You can co-own a home, have joint assets, have kids/cats/dogs together, and so on. But the piece of paper is necessary. I’ve known people who have lived together for many many years, but had to get married in order to get benefits, which were only available in through their partner.

    We need to provide equal access to benefits and rights to couples who can prove they are in a relationship. Then people can choose to marry, or not, based upon criteria not based upon need.

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    • NPW says:

      “We need to provide equal access to benefits and rights to couples who can prove they are in a relationship.

      Why? How about not giving any special privilages to couples in the first place?

      I’m for no legal definition of marriage.

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      • NZ says:

        You’re both wrong. Those benefits and privileges are there to make it easier for couples to rear kids together.

        “But that discriminates against people who can’t have kids!”

        No more than maternity leave discriminates against women who aren’t pregnant, or than a pension plan discriminates against people who aren’t retired.

        “What’s so special about couples with kids?”

        When those couples stay together it has been shown, year after year, study after study, to have a huge positive impact on those kids’ long-term outcomes. Or, more specifically, when those couples break apart it has been shown to have a huge negative impact on those kids’ long-term outcomes. If providing couples with tax breaks, special legal privileges, and other goods like that helps them keep their costs of parenting manageable and reduce the stress that might drive them apart, then we should provide these things to couples who have or are soon going to have kids.

        “How do you know which couples are going to have kids? What if the wife turns out to be infertile? What if it’s a gay couple who plan to adopt?”

        A huge majority of straight married couples have kids within a few years of marrying. When the man is sterile or the wife is barren, they usually try to adopt within a few years of finding out. Most gay couples don’t enter into civil unions even where they are able, very few report sexual fidelity, very few stay together longer than 3 years, and only half of 1 percent of gay couples adopt. (By the way, gay male couples have a much higher rate of domestic abuse than straight couples.)

        I do not mean the previous two sentences to be offensive; I am just explaining why special benefits associate with marriage ought to target traditional couples aiming to raise kids. I’m getting my facts about gay couples from the following sources–feel free to check them:

        2003-2004 Gay/Lesbian Consumer Online Census

        M. Pollak, “Male Homosexuality,” in Western Sexuality: Practice and Precept in Past and Present Times, ed. P. Aries and A. Bejin, translated by Anthony Forster (New York, NY: B. Blackwell, 1985)

        Michael W. Wiederman, “Extramarital Sex: Prevalence and Correlates in a National Survey,” Journal of Sex Research 34 (1997)

        A. P. Bell and M. S. Weinberg, Homosexualities: A Study of Diversity Among Men and Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978)

        Dan Black, et al., “Demographics of the Gay and Lesbian Population in the United States: Evidence from Available Systematic Data Sources,” Demography 37 (May 2000)

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    • rh says:

      We are in the same situation.

      But think about it, if the marriage means nothing to you, as it means nothing to me and my spouse, why do you care about signing another piece of paper?

      What we really need is to get rid of the concept of marriage, and allow partnerships of two people, regardless of relationship, to confer the benefits of marriage. The rights of children are different, and parenting must be not linked at all to marriage.

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      • etseq says:

        NZ – Suggestion for homophobes arguing against gay marriage – citing the same study from 1978 that was a non-random sample of San Francisco gay males at the height of the sexual revolution is getting old. Also, citing one study about Dutch civil unions means nothing even if it were true. Statistics from MA show no difference is divorce rates for straight marriages.

        For some reason, you seem very concerned with gay mens sex lives, which is flattering in a way because I quite enjoy mine but your interest borders on the prurient. You’ve lost the battle – get over it.

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      • NZ says:


        Hah, I love that:

        Citing facts which are critical of the gay marriage argument = homophobic! (“But don’t you dare make assumptions about ME!”)

        I notice you only dismissed my sources and made vague mention of “statistics from MA”. (Which statistics? Where can we get a look at them? Why should they be considered more empirical than the ones I cited?) But you didn’t really offer any counter-argument. I must conclude that you don’t have one.

        Concern about gay men’s sex lives arises from the alarming facts and statistics we keep hearing about them.

        “You’ve lost the battle – get over it.”

        How sad that people think this way. It must be excruciating to carry around that kind of animosity and sheer spite everywhere you go. You have my sympathies.

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