Is Marriage that Luxury Cruise Ship Stranded in the Ocean?

11/20/2010 07:43 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Time magazine calls marriage a 'luxury yacht.' Remember what happened on the last cruise ship?

The cover of Time magazine asks, in big bold letters, "Who needs marriage?" Sounds skeptical, doesn't it? In many ways, the article is skeptical. But when I got to the end of the lengthy story, the conclusion struck me as a non sequitur:

" a successful marriage increasingly becomes the relationship equivalent of a luxury yacht - hard to get, laborious to maintain but a better vessel to be on when there are storms at sea - its status is unlikely to drop. As it stands, the way America marries is making the American Dream unreachable for many of its people. Yet marriage is still the best avenue most people have for making their dreams come true."

I reread the article after getting to that paragraph, and I still can't see where the conclusion comes from. First, the study Time is discussing here is the one produced jointly by Pew and the magazine; it shows that only 46% of Americans who were not married said that they wanted to get married. Of those who do marry, close to half will end up divorcing. That's a lot of people whose dreams are not coming true by marrying.

Maybe Time is referring to financial dreams. Much of the article is about the wealth gap between the married and the unmarried, though the reporter acknowledges that it is not so clear as to what's causing what. It is true that married people have more money than single people do (unless they divorce). One reason for that (not mentioned in Time) is that they are the beneficiaries of laws and marketplace practices that discriminate against single people. Singles are subsidizing married people when they pay full price while marrieds get a discount.

Still, the unqualified claim that marriage is "a better vessel to be on when there are storms at sea," does not seem to be nodding only to financial security. So what makes it better?

Early on, the story notes that "in purely practical terms [marriage is] just not as necessary as it used to be. Neither men nor women need to be married to have sex or companionship or professional success or respect or even children..."

OK, cross out all of those factors.

Yet, the author continues, "marriage remains revered and desired." She quotes marriage scholar Andrew Cherlin as saying that "getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life. It's like the ultimate merit badge."

That's my impression, too - that marriage is regarded (at least by some) as some sort of status symbol. It is interesting, though, that in the same survey, the researchers found that when Americans were asked directly whether it is easier to have social status as a married person or a single person, the greatest number (62%) said it made no difference. But even if marriage really does have impress-your-neighbors value, how does that make it "a better vessel to be on when there are storms at sea"?

There's another section of the article titled "the kids may not be all right." That's where I thought I'd find the usual pablum about how the kids of single parents are doomed. I didn't. Instead, the reporter described negative attitudes toward single parenting. I agree that other people's prejudices can hurt, but is that enough to support the claim that "the kids may not be all right" and that therefore marriage is "a better vessel to be on when there are storms at sea"?

Time also mentions instability in the section on kids, and it is true that it can be difficult for kids when a parent brings one partner after another into their lives. Some of those serial partners, though, are marriage partners (stepparents to the kids). Are we really going to count every marriage (whether it is #1 or #7) as the place to be when there are storms at sea?

When I teach research methods, I tell students on the first day that one of the most important questions to ask about any claim is, "compared to what?" When Time declares that marriage is "a better vessel," then we need to ask, compared to what?

The answer seems to be, "compared to cohabiting." (If you've read the article, tell me if you agree.) That, to me, is a strikingly narrow comparison. The more relevant question, I think, is how marriage compares to uncoupled single life as a "vessel to be on when there are storms at sea." I don't say that just because I'm always interested in single life.

Only by taking a single-life perspective are you likely to see what's missing from the long, detailed article in Time: everyone other than couples and their children. Anything that might make a life purposeful and rewarding other than marriage and children. Nowhere in the story are we encouraged to think about who else might be in that vessel - or to recognize that even a single-person vessel may be well- and warmly-connected to other vessels nearby. There is no hint of the possibility that people may have passions other than marriage or children that motivate their lives, give them meaning, and provide plenty of solace in turbulent times. There is little sense that people are different - that for some, maybe marriage really is the best vessel, whereas others truly are single at heart.

There is no acknowledgement of the risks of being alone in your marital or nuclear-family vessel. But there are risks, and they have been documented. Looking to a spouse to be your everything can leave you vulnerable in a way that singles with a personal community are not. There is growing evidence (here and here, for example) that social circles contract as people marry. That might not be a problem as long as the marriage is strong, but when the storms start brewing within the marital vessel, then what?

I do think the luxury cruise analogy is a good one, though, and not only because the last highly-publicized vacation adventure ended up with blocked toilets, little water for drinking or showers, no internet or cell phone connections, and packets of Spam airlifted in to the smelly and exasperated passengers.

I think of it like this. For the most matrimaniacal of couples, marriage is their extended vacation cruise. They are going to board the vessel only with one another. All of their friends and family are back on shore. Maybe the couples won't even bring their cell phones - what the heck, they have each other. At first, perhaps it is fine. But as they continue to be out of touch with all of the other people who used to be in their lives, maybe those people will no longer be there for them when they do return to shore. And what if something goes wrong within the couple? They are hundreds of miles out at sea, with a boatload of strangers.

I'm not saying that all couples are like that. But some are, and they know not what potentially tempestuous seas they've plunged into.

Superficially, Time's cover story is a new story about new trends in marriage based on the results of a brand new survey. But in its deep structure, it is profoundly conventional. The questions are old ones: [continue reading here].