The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially
by Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher
Doubleday, 260 pages, $24.95
The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study
by Judith S. Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis, and Sandra Blakeslee
Hyperion, 352 pages, $24.95

A few decades past, more than a few Americans entered an experiment with the family with great hope. By releasing sex and domestic relationships from the confines of lifelong, monogamous marriage, they were going to do better for themselves and their children. They could give everyone the promise of greater happiness through hooking up, cohabitation, and divorce. This idea was powered by the rationale that a diversified portfolio of domestic and sexual experiences before marriage would enrich married life.

They further theorized that the freedom to leave an unhappy marriage would create happier, more self-actualized families. Like disco and leisure suits, it seemed like a good idea.

But the passage of three decades and the large participating population have given family scholars a massive sample to study, and they are finding that the experiment was not nearly so rosy.

Marriage is good for you

The Case for Marriage by Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher tests the fruit of marriage by drawing from demographic and sociological data collected during the past few decades. The common wisdom for many years was that marriage constricts people and harms women.

This idea got its primary momentum from Jessie Bernard and her influential 1972 book, The Future of Marriage. "To be happy in a relationship which imposes so many impediments on her, as traditional marriage does, a woman must be slightly ill mentally," Bernard wrote, using limited research drawn from questionable data.

Her appraisal meshed with the spirit of the day, and it stuck. Waite, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, and Gallagher, an affiliate scholar at the Manhattan-based Institute for American Values, call it "just plain wrong."

They cite a robust new literature that shows marriage is good for both men and women, markedly better than being single, cohabiting, or getting divorced. Married people have more satisfying sexual lives, both physically and emotionally. They live significantly longer, healthier, happier lives and recover more quickly from illness. They are much less likely to slap, hit, and abuse each other than some have suggested. Marriage protects men and women from suicide and mental illness as well.

Article continues below

"Look at the very new results on emotional well-being based on wonderful data, wonderful measures, and wonderful methods," Waite said in an interview with Christianity Today. "Getting married improved emotional well-being and getting unmarried produced declines in emotional well-being. And it is exactly the same for women as for men."

Further, men and women who are married earn more money than their unmarried counterparts of any category and advance more quickly in their jobs. "[I]t is not tying the knot that limits these things, but cutting the umbilical cord" that harms a woman's earning power, Waite and Gallagher write.

But aren't spouses constantly nagging and harping on one another? Contrary to what you might expect, "nagging can have a powerful impact on one's health for both men and women." They find that people who are lovingly nagged are more inclined to exchange bad habits for good because they have a greater reason, beyond their self-interest, to change behavior.

The research does not show these positive outcomes for long-term cohabiting relationships. "When people marry, when they commit to the relationship," Waite found, "that person's well-being and the other person's well-being become inextricably linked, so it is in their best interest to see their spouse do well." Waite's explanation illuminates the "one-flesh" ideal, which doesn't emerge with such clarity in more individualistic cohabiting relationships.

Why does marriage benefit us so? "I think, biologically, it's the way we're constructed," Waite says. "We're group animals who function best when we're a member of a cohesive group, and in our society; what that means mostly is that you have a spouse." Or to translate it into another system, it is because men and women are created in the image of the Trinity, which is intrinsically intimate and relationally exclusive.

A 25-year fallout

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce comes to some startling new conclusions about the devastating effects of divorce on children. These findings draw from extensive conversations with a group of 131 children of divorce over 25 years. This is the only study in the world to intimately follow the same group of children of divorce from childhood into adulthood.

The word unexpected in the title is key. As divorce began to grow more common in this country in the 1970s, it did so on the widespread assumption that divorce was no longer a social ill but rather a personal good. As Barbara Dafoe Whitehead explains in The Divorce Culture, "Once the last and least desirable remedy for a failed marriage, divorce now became the psychologically healthy response to marital dissatisfaction."

Article continues below

As Wallerstein explained in an interview with CT, "We were really flying blind back then. We thought the hardest part of divorce would be at the time of the breakup." Accordingly, Wallerstein originally set out to study these children for five years, thinking that time would be sufficient to capture the effects of divorce. She had to continue extending her study because the problems were not going away. As her subtitle suggests, the study lasted 25 years. "We now know that the most powerful impact from divorce occurs in the early 20s, when man and woman relationships come center stage," she says. "That's when all the ghosts of their parents' divorce become very powerful and exercise a major influence on the young; it is here that the effects of divorce crescendo."

Her study tells us a lot—not just about divorce, but about children themselves. For the quarter of all adults younger than 44 who saw their parents divorce, the experience was a childhood-ending experience. The children of divorce are not comforted that so many around them are going through the same things. They go through the pain alone.

A central finding in Wallerstein's research is that "children identify not only with their mother and father as separate individuals, but with the relationship between them." Although Wallerstein doesn't put it quite this way, children see mom and dad the way Christians see the members of the Trinity. The comparison is more than illustrative. Like Waite, Wallerstein unwittingly illustrates a significant Christian truth. Children see their parents as God sees them: as one flesh, an indistinguishable unit.

Nor are children comforted by the well-intentioned drivel offered by the likes of Sesame Street and Barney the Dinosaur that divorced families are just like intact families except that mom and dad live apart. Wallerstein tells us families of divorce are "a different kind of family" and "mothers and fathers who share beds with different people are not the same [as] mothers and fathers living under the same roof." As Charles Williams said, "Divorce is bad metaphysics" because it forever changes the unchangeable basic material and substance of family life.

Adult children of divorce live in a deep chasm between hope and fear. They are very pro-marriage. They hope deeply for what they have been denied. But for them, successful marriage is like a UFO sighting: they've heard reports and seen grainy photos but have never experienced the fact of it. They know they could find rich happiness in marriage, but they also know they could find great pain if the almost inevitable force of history repeating itself is true.

Article continues below

This provides a wonderful opportunity for Christ's church to show one of the largest generations in history that the desire for marriage is good and realistic. Older couples who have successfully navigated 30 or more years of marriage are the church's best tool for this work. They, better than anyone else, possess the valuable and hard-won skills to build a successful marriage and, more importantly, the testimony that it is possible. The wisdom of age could guide the hope of youth, couple by couple. These older couples could bring this family revolution, begun by their own children, full circle so their grandchildren and great-grandchildren can live a happier, healthier, more abundant life.

Glenn T. Stanton is the executive family editor for and the author of Why Marriage Matters: Reasons to Believe in Marriage in Postmodern Society (PiÑon).

Related Elsewhere

For another opinion of these books, see Margaret Talbot's cover story of the October 1, 2000, issue of The New York Times Book Review.

Maggie Gallagher's opinion columns are archived at, where she writes about politics, reality TV, public prayer, and other topics.

Linda J. Waite's bio is available from the University of Chicago, where she is a professor of sociology. She also wrote an interesting op-ed piece for The New York Times saying conservatives should be more supportive of the Clinton marriage.

Read highlights of Waite's program research in "Changing Demographic Patterns in the United States."

Judith S. Wallerstein is a senior lecturer emerita at the School of Social Welfare at the University of California at Berkeley.

Read the transcript of a PBS Newshour interview with Wallerstein discussing The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce.

Both Waite and Wallerstein are on the Research Advisory Board of the National Marriage Project.

Sandra Blakeslee, a science writer for The New York Times and Wallerstein have authored several books together, including The Good Marriage and Second Chances.

Purchase The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Happier, Healthier, & Better Off Financially from the bookstore and other book retailers. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: A 25-Year Landmark Study is available at and elsewhere.

For more of Christianity Today's coverage of marriage and divorce issues, see our Family area. Marriage Partnership, one of our sister publications, also has many articles and resources.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.