August 19, 1999

August 19, 1999 | Commentary on Family and Marriage

Marriage: "I Don't" Becomes "I Do"

"For Better or Worse, Marriage Hits a Low," read a recent headline in The Washington Post. "Americans are less likely to marry than ever before," according to the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University.

I understand the reluctance. Something I read in my freshman year of college convinced me that I was not cut out for marriage.

"Should I get married?" asked the Beat-era poet Gregory Corso in "Marriage." I answered "No!" after reading his description of an unattractive wife "screeching over potatoes" and "five nose-running brats in love with Batman."

With marriage out of the way, I became convinced my future success lay in establishing a career on Capitol Hill and putting a substantial sum in the bank. Sure, having a family some day would be nice, but certainly not necessary. I figured I would be just as well off--perhaps better off-- without a husband and children.

Now, as an upperclassman, I'm having second thoughts.

"Married couples have substantial benefits over the unmarried in terms of labor force productivity, physical and mental health, general happiness and longevity," according to the Rutgers study. In other words, married people are generally wealthier, healthier and happier than single people.

Research by Patrick Fagan, a former family counselor, backs this up. Fagan, a senior fellow in family and cultural issues at the Heritage Foundation, examined the relationship between marital status and income and found that married couples with children make nearly twice as much as their cohabiting counterparts.

So much for using the thought of a healthy bank account as an argument against marriage. But I'll still have my health if I don't get married, right?

Maybe not. Several studies have shown that married people live healthier lives than their unmarried or divorced counterparts.

The most surprising statistic I found came from a University of Minnesota study by William J. Doherty. His research shows that the "mortality rates of individuals with poor social relationships are higher than those who smoke cigarettes for many years."

At first I thought, "Hey, if I get married, I don't have to quit smoking." But then I thought about what this finding really means -- that poor social relationships, including the failure to marry, could literally kill me faster than smoking. There goes another argument in favor of remaining a bachelorette.

But what about happiness? Surely a woman can live with a man and lead a life just as fulfilling as if she had tied the knot.

Strike three, according to the Rutgers study: "Annual rates of depression among cohabiting couples are more than three times what they are among married couples."

I'm seeing marriage in a different light now. Many of my peers are changing their attitudes on traditional morality. While my generation may not yet be marrying in greater numbers, we are embracing many of the moral values our parents rejected.

Less than 40 percent of college freshmen agreed that "if two people really like each other, it's all right for them to have sex even if they've known each other for a very short time," according to a survey last year by researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles. Quite a leap from the "free love" days of the first Woodstock music festival.

One young person giving voice to this cultural shift is Wendy Shalit. In her book "A Return to Modesty," Shalit surveys the wreckage of modern feminism. "To the extent that premarital sex is practiced and encouraged," Shalit writes, "to that extent will women who want to wait until marriage find it harder to meet men who will marry them without 'trying them out' first, to have patience with someone with 'hang-ups' -- which is to say, hopes." No wonder feminists consider Shalit a traitor to her sex.

It's clear to me now that marriage is not just another lifestyle option -- it's the glue binding the moral fabric of American society. Thirty years of soaring divorce rates and cohabiting adults threatened to unravel the nation's moral fabric. But thanks to millions of young people who have examined liberal mores and found them lacking, society may now be on the mend.

Stacey Felzenberg, a summer intern at the Heritage Foundation, is a student at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md.

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