Poor Marriages, Poor Health
By William Raspberry
Monday, October 24, 2005; A19
Black women are sick of marriage.
Well, lots of them, anyway.
I've just looked at "The Consequences of Marriage for African Americans," a comprehensive review of the most recent literature (since about 1990) on the subject, and the conclusions are generally what you'd expect:
Marriage promotes the economic, social, familial and psychological well-being of black men and women -- as it does for men and women generally. Marriage is wonderful for children, who turn out to be less trouble-prone than their peers from single-parent-households.
The economic benefits of marriage are more pronounced for black couples than for whites, more often keeping their families from slipping below the poverty line.
But when it comes to physical health, marriage is worse than neutral for black women. Listen to the report, newly published by the New York-based Institute for American Values:
"Our research finds that marriage brings small health benefits to black men -- and none to black women. In fact, married black women are significantly less likely to report having excellent health than are unmarried black women."
. . .
"Overall, the study shows the smallest benefit to black women -- but it's still an important benefit," said Malone-Colon, a psychologist who is director of the Washington-based National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, a clearinghouse for resources for strengthening marriages.
But a negative consequence for the health of black women?
"I know. There are some dynamics we haven't given a lot of attention to, though one could hypothesize. It probably has to do with the quality of marriage -- self-reported levels of satisfaction with the marriage.
"In a number of surveys, African Americans report that they are less satisfied. They also report higher levels of conflict -- even violence. Then there's the matter of domestic justice -- sharing household responsibilities. And infidelity rates are higher among African American men."
. . .
As the report itself notes: "There is every reason to believe that increased marriage rates, and especially higher numbers of good marriages, would bring significant improvements to black people's lives. To take one example, we have seen in this review that higher marriage rates among African Americans would almost certainly reduce the risks of juvenile delinquency facing young African American males."
Moreover, the scholars conclude, strengthening marriage in black America might be as effective as "any other strategy" in addressing the crisis of black males.
But the implied caveat is that they'd better be good marriages -- non-conflictual, nonviolent and fair.
Black women have seen the other kind of marriage and they are, quite literally, sick of it.
First of all, the entire premise is flawed: I'm always annoyed by the social science which purports to find that marriage improves the quality of life, whether that is health, mental health, child development, etc. What these studies actually find is that people who are married have higher (or lower or the same) average health, mental health, etc. This is at best a correlation between marriage and health (well-being, etc.) (and even that is not consistently found, as noted above). But now the important part (and this is Psychology 101, people): CORRELATION DOES NOT ESTABLISH CAUSATION. Just because two variables are associated does NOT mean that one of them causes the other. If every time a phone rings in the U.S., there is a baby born in India, does that prove that one causes the other? Not in the least. In this case, it may well be that those who get married are already more likely to be socially skilled, more mentally healthy, etc. than those who do not get married, and that the marriage itself plays no part in improving these qualities. So we can never assume that marriage has any causal impact until we do studies in which people are randomly assigned to get married or not...and I don't think I can get the human subjects board to agree to that one.
(Side note: Even if marriage does have some positive causal effect on people's lives, what would it be about marriage that would have the effect? Is it the legal recognition? Access to partner's health insurance? Social recognition? Different treatment from friends and family? Cohabitation? Commitment? Long-term partnering? Great gifts from the wedding? Without a clear model of what aspect of marriage has the beneficial effect, I'm loath to create marriage incentives, as we are working blind.)
Second of all, note the over-generalization: Even if there is some effect of marriage, it is unlikely to be the same for all people -- no relationship or social context will be universally beneficial to all people. Marriage, like any relationship, is enormously variable, and its effects will undoubtedly vary considerably, as the reporter notes. It's good relationships that have the potential to positively benefit people's lives: An unhappy, abusive, conflictual relationship will be more likely to decrease well-being than increase it.
Third of all, note the gendering: Marriage has generally been found to be much more consistently associated with good health and well-being for men than for women, and yet the social scientists promoting marriage continue to advocate incentives for marriage, as though this will improve everyone's lives. But, as the reporter notes, the report indicates that marriage will improve black men's lives -- to solve the crisis of black males, to reduce the juvenile delinquency among black males. Why is it women's job to improve men's lives? Isn't this just a variant on the Victorian trope that women's purity and moral goodness would save men from their bestial natures? Patriarchy raises its ugly head again.
And now the kicker...why does marriage benefit men more than women? Because of persistent inequalities in labor: Women do more household labor and more emotional/relationship labor than men on average in cross-sex couples. Because of continuing risks of domestic violence: Women are more likely to suffer significant physical injury (and risk of death) from domestic violence than are men. What does it all boil down to? Power. Men still hold more power than women on average, and as long as that imbalance persists, men will benefit more from couplehood than will women. The solution? Egalitarian relationships, which are consistently found to be more satisfying for both men and women. As the reporter notes, women (and men) need "non-conflictual, nonviolent, and fair" relationships.
The big question: How do we achieve this in a society still infused with traditions of patriarchy? When men still earn more than women (women earn $0.77 for each $1 a man earns on average), when positions of power are still dominated by men (seen a woman U.S. president yet?), when models of marriage still promote male dominance (albeit more subtly than in the past)...how do we create a movement of truly egalitarian relationships?
I know it is possible...I have it in my own life. It's fabulous. I want it for everyone.