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Marriage is Key to Living Your Best Life

COSM Commentary

February 16, 2024

America is living in a time of rising anti-marriage sentiment. Voices on the political fringes—both left and right—claim that “there is no advantage to marriage in the Western world for a man” or that divorce is “liberating, pointing the way toward a different life that leaves everyone better off, including children.” Too many men and women, especially in more elite circles, are convinced the primary path to fulfillment in life is work, not marriage and family. Meanwhile, too many working-class and poor Americans will never put a ring on it.

A me-first mentality is one reason the cultural cachet of marriage is down. This helps explain why more than one-third of prime-aged Americans have never married. Men and women are told that they are better off never marrying. 

As Americans search for their respective “brands,” our sense of purpose is tied to material possessions or the pursuit of a great career. In a drowning sea of anti-marriage messaging, it would appear that marriage provides very little for men and women. 

But data reveal that the opposite is true. 

In 2021, 60 percent of married mothers ages eighteen to fifty-five reported having a meaningful life “most” or “all of the time.” Just 36 percent of single, childless women could agree. Roughly 75 percent of married mothers, too, are either “completely” or “somewhat” satisfied with their lives, compared to 54 percent of single, childless women.  Marriage might be an answer to America’s loneliness epidemic.

According to Harvard anthropologist Joseph Henrich, “marriage represents the keystone institution for most—though not all –societies and may be the most primeval of human institutions.” Marriage is an institution that binds men and women to their families and strengthens their life’s purpose; it is an opportunity for men and women to maximize prosperity and financial security. As Americans seek personal satisfaction in a time of egocentricity, marriage is an opportunity “to receive and to be the source of dependable love.”

If it’s wealth that Americans are after, married couples can pool their assets and afford a life that singles cannot. Stably married men and women in their fifties have more assets compared to their remarried, divorced, and never-married counterparts. But getting married should not be for the money alone. Marriage should be seen as an institution that advances the welfare of children and finances. Couples who put “we” before “me” will be on a course for a happy life. 

This we-before-me model of marriage also has profound impacts on children. Economist Raj Chetty, in 2014, found that children of married parents have higher rates of upward mobility. Chetty and his co-authors also found that “family structure correlates with upward mobility not just at the individual level but also at the community level.” Children who are surrounded by other children with married parents can positively impact their outcomes in adulthood. 

Of course, not everyone can or should get married—or stay married. There are far too many examples of abusive relationships and dating horror stories in our culture today. On the latter, men and women seem to be trending in two opposite political directions. In 2022, only 10 percent of young men aged 18-29 and 13 percent of women aged 18-29 were in a committed relationship. Just over a third (34 percent) of young men said they are not interested in dating, compared to 43 percent of young women. 

Getting married takes courage. It takes courage to ask someone out. It takes courage to be a reliable, committed, and engaged partner. Judging from what women tell us, that requires young men to step up their game as reliable “providers” and “protectors”, who take initiative at work and in their relationships and family. That’s because women are particularly happy when their boyfriends and husbands are proactive, not passive, when it comes to love and life. Clear expectations are essential for a strong and stable marriage. 

A recent graduate from the University of Virginia said, “If [a serious relationship] happens, great, but the focus is definitely on building our own brands first. The thought process is, relationships and love are a risk, but you will always have your career and success to fall back on—at least while you are young.” There is a palpable fear amongst young Americans that marriage will hold them back from achieving their dreams.

In On Suicide, French sociologist Emile Durkheim said, “Man cannot live unless he attaches himself to an object that is greater than himself and outlives him.” Durkheim continued, “Life, they say, is only tolerable if one can see some purpose in it, if it has a goal and one that is worth pursuing.” Marriage is a social tie that binds us to one another and gives us purpose. In the absence of ties like marriage and family, too many of us will find ourselves in a lonely world, bereft of meaning, prosperity, and happiness. Right now, we are heading towards that world. That’s why we need to encourage more young adults to get married and show them the path to stay married.  

About the Authors

W. Bradford Wilcox
Michael Pugh