- Marriage isn’t a guarantee of success. But in a world where all of us mess up, get in bad moods, behave badly sometimes, and treat others not very well, we need something that helps give us a chance. Tweet This
- Marriage has three ingredients that are more like options for cohabitation: it involves a decision, a plan, and the support of friends and family. Tweet This
- Friends and family support marriage by affirming the choice we’ve made and holding us to account for that choice. Tweet This
It would be easy to think that marriage is on the way out. Indeed, many prominent commentators think exactly that. After all, marriage rates have been falling across the developed world since the 1970s. Cohabitation has become normalized. People talk about long-term committed couples and relationships as the equivalent of marriage. And politicians and policy makers don’t want to judge lifestyle choices. They tell us that whether we marry or not doesn’t matter.
Unfortunately, this trend away from marriage is most pronounced among the poorest families who need stability most, having the least financial resources to fall back upon. After all, weddings can be expensive. And in some countries, such as the UK and US, couples on low income lose out on welfare payments if they live together or marry. Middle-income couples are now also turning their backs on marriage, meaning that marriage has increasingly become the preserve of the rich, those best off in society.
So do we need marriage? Are the poor leading the way by abandoning it? Are the rich hanging on to marriage as some kind of status symbol? Is marriage permanently dented, or is it just going through a bad patch?
What I want to do is restore your confidence in marriage. I want to reassure you that the statistics continue to show that families who marry tend to have better outcomes, both adults and children, both rich and poor alike. But most of all I want to explain why the act of marriage makes a difference. What is it about marriage that reinforces and enhances commitment? What is the psychology of marriage?
In a study the Marriage Foundation conducted of UK families, we found that 75% of parents who were married when their child was born were still together as a couple when their children reached age 15. Compare that to just 31% of parents who stayed together having cohabited but never married. So much for your long term committed idea. Sure, it exists, and people manage it. But that’s quite a gap: 75% vs 31%. Some people argue that cohabitors are typically younger and less well educated. Yes. That’s true. But in other studies, we’ve found that being married is usually the top, or one of the top, predictors of whether parents stay together even after taking into account age, education, ethnicity, religion, and relationship happiness.
So, marriage helps couples stay together. It also benefits children.
In another study of 14-year-olds in the UK, we found that family breakdown—the absence of a father in the house—was the single biggest factor influencing teenage mental health. The presence or absence of a father is, of course, hugely influenced in turn by whether the parents were married or not in the first place. More remarkably, regardless of whether families stayed together or split up, having parents who were married when their child was born was linked to fewer mental health problems in boys. And in the families who stayed together, both boys and girls had fewer mental health problems if their parents were married.
Moreover, in a survey we did last year of 2,000 adults who were either married now or who had been married at some stage, one in three couples said they wouldn’t have stayed together through their first 10 years or so if they hadn’t been married.
So one in three couples are telling us that being married helped them avoid splitting up early on.
Kate and I would be among the one in three. Our marriage very nearly ended after our second child was born and we had been married about eight years. We had drifted apart, focused on work and parenting, and forgotten to be friends. If we hadn’t been married, we wouldn’t have made the effort to get things turned around and we wouldn’t be here today. Nor would our third, fourth, fifth and sixth children who are now aged 18, 21, 22 and 24 years old. That’s quite a shocking thought, isn’t it?
What is it about being married that makes a difference? Well, I think marriage involves three necessary things that are only options for couples who cohabit.
First, marriage necessarily involves a decision. Decisions change the way we think, feel, and act about things. They help us to enjoy the good. But they also help us to get through the bad.
Second, marriage necessarily involves a plan. Plans help give us clarity and remove any lingering doubt or ambiguity. Plans help us to know where we stand now and where we are going in the future. Having a plan means you have a better chance of sticking to it.
Third, marriage necessarily involves the support of others who affirm the choice we’ve made, and also makes us accountable for our decision and plan. We need other people to tell us we’re making a great choice but also to make it a bit harder to give up too easily on that choice. That’s a good thing!
You can, of course, have all these things—decision, plan, support—in a cohabiting relationship. And it’s important to acknowledge that one in three cohabiting parents do well, staying together while they bring up their children. But these psychological ingredients are not automatically there if couples don’t marry in the same way that they are if they do.
Remember those odds: 31% success versus 75% success. Marriage isn’t a guarantee of success. But in a world where all of us mess up, get in bad moods, behave badly sometimes, and treat others not very well, we need something that helps give us a chance. And 75% is a whole lot better than 31 percent.
So, Decision, Plan, and the Support of others. Let’s look at those one by one in a bit more detail.
Marriage Involves a Decision
On Christmas day last year, Kate and I were hosting our family and a few friends. The COVID restrictions were a bit strict on who we could see. But we live on a farm in the countryside, and so we had a lot more freedom to move around than others did in cities or towns.
We decided—note the word decided—to go for a walk before having our late traditional turkey lunch. The weather was not great. After all, it was England in December, drizzling with a little bit of rain. So we gathered everyone, put on our wellies and coats, and set out across the wet fields.
After about 10 minutes, the rain began to get worse. But we kept on because we had decided. As we climbed a hill, the rain became a downpour. We were soaked. But because we had decided to walk, and because we are English, we kept going. The conversation became a mixture of grumbling about the rain and laughter at the ridiculous situation.
Eventually we got back home, changed out of our wet clothes, and had a wonderful traditional Christmas lunch together. We felt we had earned it after such a soaking.
Now, do you think we would have had the same experience if we hadn’t been quite so intentional about our walk? Perhaps if we had set off with a vague idea to see how it went, we would have turned around after 10 minutes. After all, it was only a walk. So it wouldn’t really have mattered. But we ended up having a much better day. That’s what decisions do. We enjoyed the good part of the walk, and we put up with the bad because we made a decision, and we stuck with it.
And that’s what happens when we decide to get married. We will still enjoy the good times. But we will also put up with the inevitable bad times and are more likely to come out the other side smiling, because we decided to marry and to stay married, no matter what.
Remember the vows? For richer and poorer, for better and worse, in sickness and in health. The ‘richer better healthy’ bits are easy. But you really need a decision to help get you through the ‘poorer, worse, sickness’ bits.
Marriage Involves a Plan
How many businesses do you know that have succeeded without a plan? Not many, I suspect. Businesses make plans so that everyone knows what they are about. Their employees know what they are about and so do their customers and suppliers and lenders. People who make plans are more likely to achieve something because everyone knows where they are going.
Plans remove ambiguity. And this is really important.
When we start out in a new relationship, we don’t know much about one another. We don’t have a plan. And there is a lot of ambiguity and doubt about what might happen next. So we try and find out about one another. And we also try to come up with a plan so that we know where we are going. If we don’t ever get to that point where we know the plan, then doubts and uncertainty linger.
We want reliable love. We want to feel secure that the person we love will also love us even in our difficult moments. So we need a clear plan to remove all of that ambiguity.
That’s what we are doing when we ask that amazing question, “will you spend the rest of your life with me?” We’re sending a big signal to one another about our plan for the future. Sure, it may not work out. But at least we now have a plan—not to stay together for another month, another year, another five years, but a plan to stay together for life. And it’s a plan that we both agreed on.
Marriage Involves the Support of Others
Friends and family support marriage in two ways. They affirm the choice we’ve made. But they also hold us to account for the choice we’ve made.
I remember very clearly the morning of my wedding day. I was so excited to be getting married to Kate! But I also had the worst attack of butterflies—nerves—that I had ever experienced in my life! A few years earlier, I was a young Navy commando helicopter pilot flying into battle in the Falklands war. I can only tell you that I felt more nervous before my wedding than when I was being shot at on the battlefield! But as soon as I saw all my friends and family at the church waiting for us to get married, the nerves disappeared.
You see, making the decision or plan to get married to one person for life means making the decision or plan not to marry anyone else. Commitment to one person is the choice to give up all other choices. That’s risky, and you need other people to affirm that you’ve made a great choice. That’s what my friends and family were doing for me: “Great choice, Harry!” And it was.
But friends and family are also there to hold us to account for the choice we have made.
For many years, I used to run one or two half-marathons every year. I always promised myself I would never try a full marathon because I valued my knees. But one Christmas—perhaps there’s a theme here—I quietly decided to have a go in our local marathon four months later in April. So I made the decision and a plan, and I signed up for the marathon. My plan worked well, and I lost weight in January as planned and trained well enough to run three practice half marathons as well as a 20 km and 30 km practice run in March, also as planned.
Only then, when I was completely sure I was going to do this, did I tell my friends in order to raise money for charity. Only at that point did I fully commit to doing the marathon. Telling my friends was risky. It meant I had to go ahead. Of course, I wanted to run the marathon, which I’m proud to say I completed in under four hours. But telling my friends was the kicker that committed me to run the race. Whether they knew it or not, my friends were holding me to account. After telling them it would have been embarrassing not to go ahead.
And that’s the same with weddings. Splitting up is more embarrassing if you’ve told all your friends about your plan. And that’s a good thing.
So yes, marriage is in decline. Yes, the poorest are least likely to marry. Yes, our feeble politicians are mostly married but pretend that marriage doesn’t matter for the rest of us.
But whether they achieve it or not, almost everybody still wants to get married someday, perhaps because deep down we know the psychology behind it is so strong.
We all want reliable love. Marriage does something to us.
Marriage involves a decision that helps us stick at it.
Marriage involves a plan that gives us clarity and removes any doubt and ambiguity.
And marriage involves the support of others, both to affirm the risky decision we are making to say yes to one person and no to everybody else, and to help us stick to that decision.
Harry Benson is Research Director of the UK-based Marriage Foundation. Note: This essay is adapted from a February 2022 presentation by the author in Prague as part of Czech Marriage Week. It has been reprinted here with his permission.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.