Harvard Press Was Right to Reject "The Case for Marriage"

04/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A decade ago, Stanley Kurtz kicked off his own personal whinefest against that awful liberal media by taking on Harvard University Press in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Harvard Press, he railed, had rejected a book called "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially," which he described as "packed with scholarly evidence" and written "clearly and calmly." (The book was published by Doubleday.)

Over time, Kurtz got even more psyched about The Case for Marriage, calling it "a model of calm and cogent argumentation, backed up by carefully sifted facts" in the National Review in February of 2001, then "a lively, rigorous, path-breaking study of the advantages of marriage" on the same pages in November of 2001.

I'll give him this: The facts were carefully sifted. They were sifted so that those most favorable to Waite and Gallagher's case would make it into the book, and others would be sifted some more to make them seem to fit the case the authors were trying to build.

When I was doing the research for my book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, I did something that I suspect that none of Harvard's reviewers, nor Doubleday's, did. Stanley Kurtz didn't either. I read the original journal articles that were cited, and checked them against the claims made in Waite and Gallagher's book. I read the relevant sections of their book line by line, and even scrutinized the claims slipped into the footnotes.

Kurtz scoffed at the person at Harvard Press who told a Crimson reporter that The Case for Marriage "was second rate and not worth publishing." I have news for Stanley Kurtz, the student reporter, and everyone else: The Case for Marriage was second rate and not worth publishing.

This is important, because The Case for Marriage continues to be cited uncritically, not just by the right-wing and the marriage movement, but even in academic publications, by people who should know better.

[Disclaimer: My PhD is from Harvard, but I've never been published by Harvard University Press, nor tried to be.]

What's Wrong with The Case for Marriage?

Some of the cheater tricks that Waite and Gallagher play on their readers are the ones you might expect:

1. They selectively include studies favorable to the case they want to make.
2. They selectively exclude studies unfavorable to their case.

I held myself to a higher standard when critiquing their work. I asked whether their conclusions were supported by just those studies they chose to include in their book. So never mind points 1 and 2 about whether they really were selective. Let's go with their picks.

3. They selectively present, or misrepresent, the findings of the studies they do include.

Most importantly:

4. The kinds of studies they most often cite simply cannot support the claim that getting married makes people happier or healthier or better off in any other way.

To see why this is so, consider first what you would think of a drug company that tried to sell you its latest product based on comparable research. The company does not randomly assign people to the drug condition vs. no-drug (placebo) conditions - it let's people decide for themselves whether or not to take the drug. More than 40% who decide to take the drug find that they can't stand it and refuse to continue taking it. Others can't access the drug anymore so they stop taking it too. The drug company now focuses on a subset of the group that first signed up for the drug - only those who are still taking the drug. So they set aside the 40+ percent who hated the drug, and they set aside the others who also took the drug but can't get it anymore, and just look at the people who are left. "Hey, look," they proclaim, "those people are doing better than the ones who started taking the drug and then stopped! Everyone should take our drug!"

I'm not kidding. This is what passes as scientific evidence for the case for marriage. Waite and Gallagher (and way too many others) look at the people who are currently married (the drug group) and compare them to the people who once married but then became divorced (hated the drug) or widowed (could no longer access the drug). The people in the currently married group typically do fare better than the people in the divorced or widowed group - but it's not because they got married. Everyone in all three groups got married. What proved hazardous was getting married and then unmarried. Even those detrimental effects of divorce and widowhood do not occur in all groups of people in all studies, and often the negative effects subside over time.

Typically, the smallest differences in these studies are between the currently married people and the people who have always been single. In some (though not all) studies, it is the singles who do better. Again, what is most likely to be hazardous is having been married, not staying single.

Still, I'm sometimes asked, isn't it fair to say, on the basis of these kinds of studies, that people who are currently married are generally doing better than people who are currently unmarried? Then, isn't it okay to speculate about why married people are doing better than unmarried people?

Well, think again about the drug study. Suppose a company advertised its drug (I like to call it Shamster) by saying that people who are currently taking Shamster are doing better than people who are currently not taking Shamster. Would you take that drug, knowing that more than 40% of the people who started taking Shamster hated it and refused to continue taking it, and that the drug company took those people out of their drug group? Would you take the drug, knowing that the people who never did try the drug did better than the people who tried it and hated it or tried it and couldn't access it anymore, and not much differently from the people who continue to take the drug? What would you think of a drug company that tried to sell you Shamster on the basis of only those people for whom the drug was effective? Would you then want to hear their speculations as to why people on Shamster were doing better than people not on Shamster?

If you are an academic reading this, what would you think if you were an editor of a journal and asked to publish a claim for the advantages of getting married based on a study like this? If you are a researcher, imagine that you could remove from your key experimental condition more than 40% of the people who were least compliant with your hypothesis, and still publish your work! Wouldn't that be fun! Everyone into the tenure pool.

Of course, people cannot ethically be randomly assigned to get married or get divorced or stay single. The next best approach, methodologically, is to follow people over the course of their lives as they get married, get divorced, become widowed, stay single, or some other permutation. There are, understandably, many fewer of these longitudinal studies than of the studies of marital status at one point in time. The longest-running study of marital status and happiness (now ongoing for more than 2 decades and described here) has shown that people who get married and stay married enjoy just a brief increase in happiness around the time of the wedding, then go back to being about as happy as they were when they were single. Remember, that brief honeymoon effect was enjoyed only by those who got married and stayed married over the entire course of the study. Those who married and later divorced were already becoming a bit less happy as their wedding day approached. Attention Waite and Gallagher: Getting married did NOT generally result in lasting increases in happiness. Similarly, as I review in Singled Out, there is no compelling evidence for the simple-minded conclusion that getting married makes you lastingly healthier, either.

In Singled Out, I critiqued the claims about getting married and getting happy, healthy, living longer, and getting sex, and explained what the evidence really did show. I did the same for the implications for children of being raised by single parents. Studies continue to be published, and I review them at the Huffington Post or my Living Single blog at Psychology Today. The bottom line is that the case for getting married is still second rate. (See, for example: The case for marriage is a sham.) Next, I'll point you to some of the more detailed critiques.

Getting Married and Getting Sex

I reviewed Waite and Gallagher's claim that married people have more sex and better sex on pp. 52-55 of Singled Out, and also in this post. Do take a look if you are interested in tracking a trail of slime. In just a few pages, you can see how the authors compare married people to cohabiting couples when that makes their case, and then switch to comparing them to single or divorced people when those data fit their argument better. Notice also how they ignore data inconsistent with their case that comes from the very same report they are citing. Oh, and one of their "sources" is a survey conducted by the Family Research Council (think Tony Perkins and his ilk).

Getting Married and Living Longer

This is great fun, too. I critiqued Waite and Gallagher's case on pp. 48-52 of Singled Out. Here you will find an example of a new cheater trick. Don't just look at the subset of all the people who got married who then stayed married; within that select group, look only at those who are HAPPILY married. Because if you can't show -- even with the cheater method of setting aside everyone who got married and then got unmarried -- that getting married enriches and extends your life, then get even more selective and look only at the happily married. What's more, don't be even-handed about this. When you are discussing single people, don't look only at those who want to be single or who are happily single, as you do when you are talking about married people.

You will also find in this section a great example of a relevant study that Waite and Gallagher ignore - a study of longevity that has been ongoing since 1921. Do I need to tell you that the results were inconsistent with their case for marriage?

Claims that getting married translates into a longer life continue to be made, and I continue to critique them. Click here for an example.

Getting Married and Getting Healthy and Happy

The relevant section of Singled Out on happiness is on pp. 30-42, and the health section is on pp. 43-48. When I wrote about health, I described a CDC study showing that currently married people are fatter than everyone else. Using the same standards to evaluate that claim, though, that I use to evaluate the other claims, I said that comparing currently married people to other people at one point in time is not evidence that getting married makes you fatter. Since then, however, a 10-year longitudinal study has provided evidence that, among women without kids, those who had a partner gained more weight than the ones who stayed single.

Here are critiques of a few more studies of marital status and health. Others can be found in the collection Single with Attitude.

  1. Single Men Have Good Hearts
  2. Singles Are "Catching Up" in Health, But Who Is Really in the Lead?
  3. Is MSNBC Really Recommending Marriage as a Treatment for Depression?

The Myth that the Children of Single Parents Are Doomed

Waite and Gallagher have a lot to say about the fate of children raised by single parents. So do I. The relevant section of Singled Out is Chapter 9 (pp. 169-184). I also addressed the issue in these posts:

Getting Married and Getting More Money

Waite and Gallagher are right about this claim. Getting married is financially advantageous. But it is not, as the authors would have you believe, because married men are so much worthier workers than single men. It is largely a matter of discrimination in pay and in the law, as I described in Chapter 12 of Singled Out and in these posts:

What Have I Missed?

Have I missed the definitive studies showing that getting married results in lasting advantages (other than financial ones)? If so, send them my way and I'll take a look at them.