Why Marry? (Part 1) (Ep. 155)

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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.



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.


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."



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.