Thomas Ramey Watson

America’s love affair with marriage

Where does America’s extraordinary love of marriage come from?
By Thomas Rogers

I’m extremely interested in the exceptional nature of the American nation. The idea of promoting marriage and marriage policy goes way back. America is a very religious nation. Cohabitation [is seen by many as] a religious sin and a sin against God whereas marriage is not sinful. People think it has to do with 19thcentury and Victorian ideas, but the truth is that there has been an active fight going on in various states on cohabitation since the 1970s, in Florida and Wisconsin and different states. The growth of the New Right in the late ’60s and early ’70s added on new layers of emotional maneuvering.
People that you quote in the book talk about the “marriage cure,” the widespread belief among lawmakers that marriage is the solution to a variety of social ills. Does the marriage cure work?

So, for example, a judge will have a young couple coming to him. They’re living together and the guy is unemployed or on probation and he’ll say he won’t punish them in any way if they get married. The state is coercing couples to get married with the idea that then you have cured the problem. Some people want to cure poverty by doing this, others want to cure crime, some immorality. But it turns out you can’t cure these things in these ways. One major reason is you can’t make people stay put once you marry them off; they often don’t stay married.

The marriage promotion movement — which consists of conservative social scientists, especially in the ’90s, engaging in anti-poverty policy, welfare reform, abstinence education at schools — has a very strong belief in this. The idea is that marriage is the ultimate poverty program. I quote extensively from the research in the book to show there’s very little evidence that this works.

It’s very interesting that marriage is seen in the U.S., unlike in Western Europe, as the magic bullet that’s going to cure all kinds of ills. Why are their attitudes so different over there?

[In Western Europe, their ideas are] based on recognizing reality: “This is the way people are living, and we’re not going to be able to change it very much so we should be able to recognize this is what’s going on and treat people fairly given that.” In the U.S. it’s, “This is what’s going on, and this is something we don’t approve of, and maybe we can’t really stop it but we should use our law and our policy to make a broad statement that we believe in marriage and stand behind it even if we know in our hearts that it might not be able to work.”

It’s an expression of these very schizophrenic elements of American culture. On one hand the U.S. celebrates individualism and on the other hand it has these moral policies that are very paternalistic.

That’s a great way of putting it. I think there is a schizophrenia or a divide and some people tend to emphasize one and not the other but they’re both there and tugging at each other — I think that’s called the culture war. It’s a very important part of American history especially since the 1970s.


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