Globe and Mail

Who needs marriage anyway?

MARGARET WENTE
The Globe and Mail
Tuesday, January 16, 2001

A few years ago, around the time I finally decided to get married, a friend of mine faxed me a sentimental poem. She'd been married for eons, and the poem was called Married is Better. I was shocked. I hid it away so that my single friends wouldn't see it.

"A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle," Gloria Steinem taught me (before she got married, at any rate). For several decades, I believed this wholeheartedly.

Research has shown that married women are at the very bottom of the marital-happiness hierarchy. Married men are right at the top. Then single women. Then single men, and finally married women, who are, as we all know, stressed, oppressed and depressed.

Everyone knows the benefits of marriage disproportionately flow to men. Gay men are better off married, too; even the Governor-General seems to think so. The papers are full of commentary pointing out that gay marriage, far from being a radical act, is a profoundly conservative one. The institution of marriage promotes responsibility and stability, thus raising our general moral tone, to say nothing of property values. Most of us now admit that marriage is better for kids, too.

So marriage is good for men, children, homosexuals, and society. It's just not so good for wives. Or so I always thought, until I talked to Linda Waite. She told me that research is baloney.

"The evidence is mountainous in the other direction," she says. "Both married men and women benefit substantially from marriage. Marriage makes women significantly happier."

Linda Waite is a (married) professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and the co-author of a somewhat notorious new book, called The Case for Marriage. It has been widely panned as a neocon screed dressed up with dubious statistics. Actually, it makes quite a bit of sense.

Dr. Waite argues that married women lead longer, happier, healthier, less depressed, more affluent lives than single women do. They even have better (or at least more) sex. Just like married men.

"Married women are mentally and emotionally healthier than single women," she told me.

But isn't that backward? Maybe they were just healthier in the first place.

"No," she said. "Getting married actually boosts your happiness. For example, it means you're a lot less lonely."

I reflected on all those years I spent eating my nicely cooked little suppers all by myself. (No Kraft Dinner for me. That was for those pathetic-loser single guys.) Even when life was dreary and miserable, I knew for a fact I was a lot better off than most wives. I secretly wanted to be one but also felt sorry for them.

I thought it was weak to want to be married. I thought that if I felt lonely there must be something wrong with me. "Actually, being lonely is one of the best reasons to get married," says Dr. Waite. "Married people always have someone to talk to who cares about them."

I now know this is true. Even if the someone is actually thinking about the NFL playoffs.

But what's the point of getting married if you already live together, apart from the obvious excuse to throw a big party, have a honeymoon, and eat your way through half of France?

"You'll be richer," she says. "Getting a lifelong, permanent economic partner makes you much better off financially in a variety of ways. Our research shows that married people nearing retirement have assets nearly twice as high as single people. Two people who are just living together are far less likely to share their money." Or, for that matter, take turns cleaning out the litter box.

Yet surely it's true that being trapped in a lousy, rotten marriage is worse than getting a divorce.

"Not necessarily. Most couples who say they are quite unhappy with their marriage -- but stay married -- are much happier five years later. Good marriages can go bad. But bad marriages quite often go good."

Until I talked to Dr. Waite, I thought I must be one of the lucky few who beat the odds on marital misery for wives. But it turns out that my satisfaction rating is just normal. Although I'd never confess such a thing to my single women friends, the truth is that married life beats single life roughly seven days out of seven.

I've found that married women speak about this fact from time to time among themselves. They always sound a little surprised and a little guilty when the subject comes up. After all, they do not wish to break the ranks of female solidarity or take the risk of sounding reactionary or judgmental. We all recall the bad old days of discrimination against single women. We all feel that it's as rude to say "married is better" in mixed company as it is to say that two legs are better than one, or thin is healthier than fat.

But it's true. Please don't tell.
mwente@globeandmail.ca

Copyright 2001 Globe Interactive, a division of Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc.