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The Marriage Penalty

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, May 28, 2007

It's almost June, which means we should soon start to hear the peal of wedding bells.

As all those happy couples with June weddings bid adieu to well-wishers and set off on a honeymoon, consider this: The honeymoon is a relatively recent invention, dating back to only the 19th century. Before that, couples were not supposed to go off on their own to celebrate -- and marriage was not primarily about a private relationship between two people.

Marriage, in fact, used to be an institution that sought to extend community ties. From princes and princesses in Europe who married each other to matches arranged between the less well-off, marriage was largely about broadening one's network of allies, friends and benefactors.

Not anymore. Modern marriage, sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Natalia Sarkisian have shown, is really about two people setting themselves apart -- not just from the larger community, but from other relatives, including parents and siblings. The sociologists are not talking just about the starry-eyed couples of June, who have eyes and attention only for each other, but also married couples generally.

Contrary to the received wisdom of Republicans and Democrats and virtually every authority in the country who views marriage as the linchpin of social and community ties, Gerstel and Sarkisian have found that marriage actually tends to reduce community ties.

"Marriage and community are often at odds with one another," the sociologists said in a recent article in the journal Contexts. "Instead of bolstering community involvement, marriage diminishes ties to relatives, neighbors and friends."

Married people are less likely than the unmarried and the divorced to live with, visit, call or write relatives, according to data drawn from two national surveys: the 2004 General Social Survey and the 1992-94 National Survey of Families and Households.

The difference is especially large for heterosexual married men, who are likely to rely on their wives to stay in touch with even their own relatives.

The divorced appear to have stronger community ties than people who stay married, but have weaker ties than those who never married -- suggesting that marriage, even after it dissolves, still has the residual effect of reducing ties to relatives and the broader community.

Those who never marry, the sociologists found, are more than twice as likely as married people to socialize with friends, and are also more likely than married couples to socialize with neighbors, and to provide emotional support and practical help to friends and neighbors.

Married couples with small children are something of an exception. These couples tend to reach out for help to extended kin, friends and neighbors, thereby enmeshing themselves in reciprocal networks of friendship and obligation that have long underpinned community ties. However, in terms of spending time with friends and neighbors, Sarkisian said, these couples face the same "marriage penalty" as childless couples.

Gerstel, at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Sarkisian, at Boston College, are not bashing marriage; they are not advocating that people should not marry. But they are all for de-romanticizing marriage; like any institution, they say, it comes with advantages and disadvantages. And they argue that society should rediscover the importance of community ties -- the current societal expectation that a spouse can provide all the emotional sustenance a person needs is bad not just for people's ties with community, but for marriage itself.

"We perceive independence as being key, but humans have so many stages in our life where we are not independent, and our dependence on others should be nurtured," Sarkisian said.

Some preindustrial societies actively discouraged couples who sought to go off on their own. Some institutions in Western countries, the sociologists added, still see marriage ties as inimical to a person's commitment and involvement to society as a whole -- a good example being the Catholic Church's requirement that priests and nuns be celibate.

One of the benefits of modern marriage -- its tendency to make people financially better off -- may be partly behind the phenomenon that Gerstel and Sarkisian describe. Community ties have historically been about interdependent relationships; as nuclear families have become more independent, they have less need for others, and thereby feel less obligated as well.

Marriage does seem to increase some aspects of community participation -- it prompts men, for example, to become more involved in religious activities. But marriage also reduces political involvement -- single women, especially, are far more likely than married women to "attend political meetings or rallies, sign petitions and raise money for political causes," the sociologists found.

Sarkisian and Gerstel believe that de-romanticizing marriage might provide a caution to gays and lesbians who seek equal rights to marriage as heterosexuals. "Gays and lesbians," they wrote, "once noted for their vibrant culture and community life, may find themselves behind picket fences with fewer friends dropping by."

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