Is Marriage Better for Men?
November 30, 2023
In 1984, Gallup released a survey of teenagers (age 13 to 18) that found them eagerly anticipating the next stage of life, one that for most would include marriage.
The young men and women of today approach the future with greater confidence in America than was shown by their older brothers and sisters, who had been dismayed by the aftermath of Watergate and the national trauma of the Iranian hostage crisis. A majority of the young adults now are quite willing to give a year of their lives in military or non-military service to their country.
In fact, today’s teenagers would like to have even more responsibility in general. They know they are preparing for adulthood and take this responsibility seriously. Most hope to be married, to have about two children, and to work hard to make their marriages succeed.
Today’s teens are giving the subject of marriage far less attention.
At one time, it was thought that men had to be convinced to shed their fear of commitment, but now more women are expressing doubts about marriage. For some women, particularly those with college degrees, finding a partner has become incredibly difficult. But it’s also the case that an increasing number of young women are uncertain about who marriage benefits.
A new survey we released sheds some light on this. In the survey, we posed near-identical questions about whether women and men who get married and start families are happier than those who choose not to. One-half of the sample was asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “Women who get married and have children live fuller and happier lives than those who don’t”. The second group received the identical statement except they were asked about men who get married. The responses were dramatically different.
Most Americans see marriage as a positive, but new research findings show a massive gender divide. Fifty-eight percent of men and 53 percent of women agree that men who get married and have children are better off than those who do not. However, when it comes to women benefiting from marriage and parenthood, there was far less agreement. About half of men (49 percent) and less than one-third (32 percent) of women believe that women who get married and have children live fuller, happier lives.
There’s lots to chew on here so let’s walk through these results. First, both men and women appear to believe that men benefit from marriage and having children more than women, although women express a much wider gap in views. Young women are especially likely to reject the idea that married mothers are ultimately happier than other women. Senior women (age 65 or older) are twice as likely as young women (age 18 to 29) to say that marriage and parenthood make women happier (47 percent vs. 24 percent).
However, it’s not just young women, liberal women, or college-educated women who believe that marriage and parenthood benefit men more. It’s all women. For instance, just over half (52 percent) of conservative women say that women who get married and have children are happier than those who do not, but nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) say the same about men.
Who Benefits from Marriage?
The research seems clear that even if marriage benefits both men and women, there is more of an upside for men. Men derive greater health benefits from marriage than women. Married fathers receive an earnings boost while mothers receive a penalty.
Women are disproportionately likely to end marriages. A 2015 study found that 69 percent of divorces were initiated by women. A more recent survey that asked divorced men and women who initiated the divorce found an astonishing gender gap. Among straight women, 66 percent say they made the decision to end their marriages while only 39 percent of divorced men said the same. A Pew study finds that men are also more likely than women to remarry after a marriage ends.
These findings do not conclusively answer the question of who benefits more from marriage, but they are highly suggestive of how men and women perceive the costs and benefits of marriage. People who choose to divorce and avoid remarrying probably see less value in the institution. This is no judgment on the deeply personal decisions involved in ending a marriage. For the most part, these decisions are not made lightly or capriciously and frequently involve serious issues, such as physical and emotional abuse, which women suffer at far higher rates than men. Although marital infidelity is difficult to measure, married women report partner infidelity more often than men do.
Growing Hesitation Among Women
Feminists have long been critical of marriage as an institution claiming that it reinforces traditional gender hierarchies and oppresses women. Even as gender dynamics in marriage are changing, many of these concerns endure. In our survey, women who believe feminism is a positive force in society are much less likely to believe marriage and children make women happier.
Part of the hesitation career-oriented women have about marriage and childrearing is the understanding that they will bear a much larger burden, for both biological and cultural reasons. As married mothers entered the workforce in greater numbers, their domestic responsibilities remained largely unchanged. Research shows that married women still do a disproportionate amount of household work whether it’s laundry, cooking, or cleaning. The disparity grows worse among parents. A survey we conducted found that mothers are far more involved in scheduling playdates and making medical decisions for their children. The only area where men did more than women was home repair and yard work.
I’ve noted this previously.
Partner selection bears more heavily on women’s career prospects than men’s. Young people, and especially young women, are being raised in families that prioritize personal ambition and financial independence. A recent Pew poll finds that parents emphasize career success for their children over marriage and family. For young women contemplating a future that includes marriage, children, and a career, a lot rides on their choice of partner.
The concern about uneven domestic duties certainly seems warranted. New York Timers reporter, Claire Cain Miller finds that even young men who embrace gender equality are doing far less housework than their partners. As young women invest more time and energy in their education and professional endeavors there is much more at stake.
For what it’s worth, married men and women hold similarly positive views about their relationship with their spouses. Seventy-nine percent of married men and 75 percent of married women report being completely satisfied or very satisfied with their relationship. No doubt survivorship bias is at work here—the people most satisfied with their marriages are most likely to remain married. But the divorce rate in the US has hit historic lows in the past couple of years, which suggests that’s not the entire explanation.
The irony is that marriage is less likely to change if the people most motivated to make changes choose to abstain. Marriage is an institution that evolves through the practices and priorities of the people who belong to it. My wife and I do not wear our wedding rings. We have them tucked away safely in a sock drawer, but we rarely put them on. It’s not an attempt to subvert tradition, but rather a practice that evolved over time that we now embrace. We’re not the only ones either.
Marriage is formative in that it influences our behavior, but it also responds to societal changes and the collective decisions of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. That’s a good thing.