By Naomi Gerstel
Professor of Sociology
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
and Natalia Sarkisian
Professor of Sociology
Many people believe that marriage is the fundamental building block of society, an institution that broadens social ties and ensures that individuals will not grow old in isolation. Perhaps that was true in the past, when marriage was a central unit of economic production and political organization. But today, despite the benefits that a good marriage delivers to the couple and their children, marriage actually tends to isolate partners from other people in ways that pose potential long-term problems both for the couple and for society as a whole.
Our research, based on national data from 1994 and 2004, indicates that married couples (both women and men) have fewer ties to relatives than the unmarried. The married are less likely to visit, call, have intimate talks with, or help out their parents, brothers and sisters, or other relatives. And the married are also considerably less likely to take care of their aging parents than unmarried adult children.
Marriage often reduces a couple’s ties to the larger community. Married people are less likely than single individuals to socialize with neighbors or friends. It is the unmarried who are more likely to offer a hand or an ear-to give either practical help or emotional support to their neighbors and friends.
Marriage even lessens political involvement, especially for women. Single women are more likely than their married counterparts to attend political meetings or rallies, sign petitions, and raise money for political causes.
Can it really be true that marriage–usually touted as the best answer to loneliness–actually isolates people?
Some people might try to explain away these findings by arguing that the married are likely to be either older or younger than those not (or no longer) married, and it is their stage of life, not their marital state, that explains their lack of wider social ties. Others suggest that married tend to have more money or better health than the unmarried, so they just don’t need other people as much. Some posit that the married simply have less available time because they have children who keep them occupied.
But none of these explanations works. Even when the married and unmarried are the same sex and age, have the same amount of money and the same overall health, the married still have fewer connections to family, neighbors, and friends. This pattern exists for those with children and those without. The plain truth is that marriage as it is practiced today often isolates couples from wider ties.
Why does it matter?
There are some cases in which the isolating effects of marriage may be beneficial, as when marriage causes a person to turn away from anti-social friends, such as gang members. But in most other cases, this effect has troublesome social implications. As the population ages, this effect of marriage deprives more elderly parents-who, ironically, have often pressed their children to marry- of the help and support that they want and need. Marriage can also generate excessive burdens on those who are single, as they are expected to provide the care that their married siblings do not. It also isolates neighbors from neighbors and narrows people’s circles of friends. In addition, it puts a strain on marriage itself, when our spouses become our only source of support and comfort. The increased expectations that emerge when one depends entirely on a spouse for emotional support can make marriages more fragile. And in the absence of wider support networks, individuals are especially vulnerable if the marriage ends, whether by death or by divorce.
Are there alternatives?
The isolating effects of marriage are far from universal. The expectation that married couples should retreat from other interactions into private self-sufficiency is particularly characteristic of contemporary Western societies, especially the United States. Americans believe couples should be able to make it on their own-both practically and emotionally. Spouses are expected to rely on each other for all day-to-day needs. They are also supposed to be each others’ confidants and main source of emotional support. In fact, the percentage of Americans who rely on their spouses as their only confidants has nearly doubled over the last twenty years. As we increasingly expect our partners, and only our partners, to be our soul mates, we become less involved with other people.
In contrast, anthropologists and historians find that other societies have often used marriage as a way to expand rather than shrink community ties. Historian Stephanie Coontz argues that even in the United States, the emphasis on seeing spouses as best friends and confidants is a modern invention. So when it comes to marriage and community, another world is possible.
What can we do?
It is hard to find the time nowadays to include friends and neighbors, political involvement, and even contact with extended kin in our hectic lives. Sometimes people blame the schedules of their children — they are too busy running their kids to soccer practice to spend time with friends or get involved in civic life. Frequently, and with better reason, they blame the demands of our jobs and the lack of work-life balance in an increasingly speeded-up, competitive workplace, where more and more couples become dual earners, spend long hours at the job, and often have to take work home. But rarely do they consider the isolating effects of marriage itself, as it is practiced in the United States today.
There is growing advocacy for marriage-friendly social policies, from both the right and the left of the political spectrum — including initiatives to strengthen heterosexual marriages as well as movements to allow gay and lesbian marriages.
But our research suggests that we should pay equal attention to encouraging community-friendly families and partnerships. Both married and single individuals — and our society as a whole — would benefit if we paid more attention to adjusting the expectations associated with marriage, restructuring household schedules, and welcoming friends, neighbors, and relatives into our circles of care.
Coontz, Stephanie. Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.
Gerstel, Naomi and Natalia Sarkisian. 2006. “Marriage: The Good, the Bad, and the Greedy.” Contexts 5(4): 16-21(paper featured in December Journal Highlights on main ASA webpage http://www.asanet.org/. Download the full text by clicking that link).
Gerstel, Naomi and Natalia Sarkisian. 2007. “Adult Children’s Relationship to their Parents: The Greediness of Marriage.” In J. Suiter and T. Owens (Eds.), Interpersonal Relations across the Life Course. Advances in the Life Course Research, Volume 11. London: Elsevier Science.
McPherson, Miller, Lynn Smith-Lovin and Matthew Brashears. 2006. “Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades.” American Sociological Review 71(3): 353-375.
The Council on Contemporary Families is a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing the press and public with the latest research and best-practice findings about American families. Our members include demographers, economists, family therapists, historians, political scientists, psychologists, social workers, sociologists, as well as other family social scientists and practitioners. Founded in 1996 and based at the University of Miami, the Council’s mission is to enhance the national understanding of how and why contemporary families are changing, what needs and challenges they face, and how these needs can best be met.
To learn more about other briefing papers and about our annual April conferences, including complimentary press passes for journalists, contact Stephanie Coontz, CCF’s Director of Research and Public Education: firstname.lastname@example.org.