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

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(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?”


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.


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.



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.


Uhmm.... I'm willing to bet that "15 or older" is meant to be "25 or older" in your 6th paragraph there. Mainly cause of common sense, but the near impossibility of getting a marriage license in the US for someone under 16 (some states don't allow outright, a couple will require only parental consent and the vast mayority require a court order to allow it) also plays in here.

Enter your name...

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).


"...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...)



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.


Seems to me the best way to prevent divorce is to 1) make it harder to get divorced and 2) stop telling everyone that divorce is A-okay.


Do you live in Kansas or something? Or Oklahoma, or Utah - Nevada? How's that marriage and divorce thing working out in Red State Land?


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.


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.

Chris L

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.


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.


Enter your name...

> 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.



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. www.dateconomics.com


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."



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.



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.


"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.


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)



Apologies, but I need to enter a more upbeat note from the Economists today:

Happy Valentine's everyone, with much love to all singles out there!

Voice of Reason

It all comes down to one thing: "If you like it then you should have put a ring on it." Fellows, if you want to lock down the a great girl, you have to get serious about her. You may be having fan picking up college girls at bars, but those girls don't want to get with overweight 50 year olds.


And it's even more important the other way.


You never mentioned religion. I am a proud Roman Catholic and my religion teaches that you marry and stay married. Now people still get devorced but many don't because of their faith, whatever it is you choose to believe in. Doesn't faith add into the equation on why people get married, devorced or stay together? I think it must somewhere. I married my husband because I loved him, but if I thought of my marriage as a disposable item, I might not still be married, but because of our faith we worked on our problems and are still married, and better off in the long run. Oh, and we do have chieldren to think about too. Marriage isn't just between me and my husband, but it's also a sacred right between us and God. Doesn't that make a difference in the data?


Marriage rate in US is down. Several studies in the US seem to show that men in general are opting out. The rate of women who say they want to get married is rising. At the same time the rate of men wanting to get married is decreasing. Men are reacting to the real economic reality. If they get married and have children then you can get divorced. Women far more often initiate divorce. When they get divorced women can get 1/2 his stuff, his children, and he has to pay going forward.

Men have adapted. They are not going to college as much, they are taking lower paying jobs and working less. They are choosing to cohabitate and have children out of wedlock. The podcast says lower income people are not marrying. By living together and making less than his partner, a man can have all the benefits of marriage without the pitfalls.

Studies also show that men who cohabitate get more sex, their partners gain less weight, they keep and associate with more of their friends, and get to keep more of their stuff in the home, rather than be relegated to the basement or garage.

Today colleges are 55% women, 45% men and the gap is growing. The workforce is about the same with more women entering than men. Why are men choosing not to go? One there is no reason. The idea that if I get a degree, work hard, earn money, then I will be able to support my family is gone. There is very little guarantee. In fact, economically it can work against you.

Add to that the fact that colleges are very feminist and almost anti men and the fact that the rules in the workplace have changed. Men are opting out. Yes the workplace is a more comfortable environment for women. No one asked men if they liked that environment.

Surveys show that about 56 % of men don't really care about the changes. About 26% don't like them. The rest have no opinion. However no one is counting the % not entering or leaving the workforce. How do they feel. It's like saying Lincoln was a beloved president if you don't count the states that seceded.

The reasons for working and marrying are disappearing. Men are opting out. All they need is enough money to buy the things they want and support themselves.

What about partnership? Only 63% of men say they are happy in their marriage. Married men are happier than single men. But cohabitating men are happier than all.

You often hear the statistic married people get more sex, or are happier compared to singles. They usually leave out cohabiting couples, or group them in with singles that pull down the data.

So people who have higher degrees marry. Did they get the higher degree because they wanted to marry? The divorce rate is down. Well of course. People who used to think they needed to get married to have a family and kids are choosing not to. People who earn less don't marry? Did men earn less on purpose and avoid marriage on purpose?

Of course marriage on average is not worth it for men. That's why the decline. But, if you do get married, take the risk, and it works, there is no question you are happy and live longer.

End of rant. :)



Ps, divorce rates are down. True. I have a 10 sided dice. 7 say, you will be happily married,, 3 say you will have to give me 1/2 your stuff. Want to roll it?


Sorry, did my dice math wrong. Moderator you can ditch that one.

Divorce rate 26% among first marriages. 25 to make it easy
Happy factor of marriage 67% 70 to make it easy 53 very happy
Probably unhappy or moderately happy 22

So let's say I hand you a 10o sided dice 53 you will be very happy, 25 I take 1/2 your stuff, 22 moderately happy or unhappy. Would you spin that dice


Absolutely fascinating! I propose an open ended contract, 5yr renewable marriage license that gets revisited at the time of renewing with quality assessments guided by a counselor. If kids have been added to the equation then the pressure points have surfaced and it's so important to know that 1) you are not locked in - people can get neurotic if they feel trapped, and 2) just knowing issues, grievances, and accomplishments will be visited and revisited will take a huge amount of pressure off. There is a lot of toxicity in having to figure it out RIGHT NOW!

I also am opting for the institution of marriage to stay intact as it serves many benefits, as mentioned in previous replies, yet modified to accept the truth that as social, interdependent, curious, free-thinking, loving animals, monogamy has no place. It should be socially permissible to share our lives with people who enrich, value, and celebrate ourselves in what ever capacity is desired at each moment.



I think this blog already covered that wonderful 5 year renewable contract idea: http://freakonomics.com/2013/10/28/should-marriage-be-more-like-an-employment-contract/

Yeah, it's a great idea. Make it easier for parents to wiggle out of having to be "locked in" to caring for their kids. It would be a shame if parents had to "get neurotic" or "feel trapped". I mean, the kids'll be fine, but will nobody think of the poor helpless adults?

And yeah, monogamy, who needs it. It's not the 1950s anymore, am I right? We've practically evolved into a new species by now! Our basic impulses and instincts have completely changed.

Besides, kids certainly don't seem to do any better or worse whether they have one parent or three, or even six in quick succession. But there I go talking about the kids again when it's the "free-thinking, animal-loving" adults whose precious feelings and identities we need to be guarding. Allowing polyamory definitely would never lead to mostly polygyny in practice, but even if it did who cares? Polygyny doesn't have any negative externalities that anyone knows about or could point to.



I just heard 2 minutes of content and 19 minutes of fluff and music.


Marriage is the pledge of a man and a woman to love each other exclusively, for the rest of their lives, with an openness to children. It is so beautiful and important a commitment, to them and to their children and to society, that it is a sacrament in the Church. It is the only form of love that is in keeping with the dignity of the human person. Within such a commitment the two become one flesh, and their children are walking and talking embodiments of the love between the two spouses. It is very beautiful.

Voice of Reason

Everybody these days is trying to sound like the smartest person in the room and trying to dismiss marriage as an institution that as intended to be a business transaction to unite families and protect wealth. If that's true, how does it explain how the one thing that can most destroy or fulfill a person emotionally is their romantic relationship? I don't think that people get that depressed and emotional merely over losing tax benefits.


It's like that old lie about "marriage used to be just a financial transaction where the woman became the man's property."

So the dowry was, what, a negative price on that property?

Up until the 20th century, a VAST majority of the world's population were basically peasants. Yet, most men eventually married and had kids. If wives were property, how could all those men afford it?

Voice of Reason

And then how do they explain away that the major religions of the world in the AD period were very strict against sex outside of marriage, and they even created a culture of fear around it, but yet, we still saw families and tons of children being born? I don't really care for the fallacy that making something taboo always makes it more appealing. This may be the case in a small percentage of instances, but in general, people respond to incentives. Conditioning somebody through stigma and punishments/rewards generally creates a barrier to its prominence.


The most provocative part of the segment came at the very end with the suggestion of a different marital structure. I personally view marriage as a contractual commitment which, unfortunately, requires death to sever. That is entirely too extreme and is the crux of the unease that inevitably arises as the marriage progresses past the 1st decade or so.

I suggest that the marriage contract be revised to include an expiration term with an option to renew. The term may be negotiable to best fit the couple's circumstances and goals. It should be written to include many of the contentious pieces of divorce so as to clearly define the obligations and SLA's. Term renewals can be an opportunity to revise obligations.

I know this may sound funny, but I really don't mean it to be humorous in any way. It may be a little less romantic than eloping after 6 weeks of courtship, but it may be a solution to the headaches and mental anguish that is the inevitable state of long term commitments.

As a disclaimer, I am married for 17 years, have 2 children and am more or less objectively average.



"The most provocative part of the segment came at the very end with the suggestion of a different marital structure. I personally view marriage as a contractual commitment which, unfortunately, requires death to sever."

We don't have concepts such as Divorce and Anullment?


Where is this misconception of rising divorce rates coming from? Yes, the media is going around announcing that half of all marriages end in divorce, but where is this number coming from and why are they doing this?