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The greedy marriage

Two scholars argue that good spouses can make bad neighbors


(Getty Images/Globe Staff Photo Illustration)

THE WEDDING SEASON is wrapping up, and many of the newly joined were no doubt advised that love is patient and kind. But now two Massachusetts sociologists say love can also be greedy.

More precisely, marriage can be greedy, according to Naomi Gerstel of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and Natalia Sarkisian of Boston College, who have written a paper called "Marriage: the Good, the Bad, and the Greedy." Analyzing two nationwide social surveys, they found that married couples spend less time than singles calling, writing, and visiting with their friends, neighbors, and extended family. According to their research, married people are also less likely to give friends and neighbors emotional support and practical help, such as with household chores.

Gerstel and Sarkisian's research flies in the face of recent academic studies and political speeches arguing that marriage is the endangered cornerstone of a healthy society, benefiting the mental, physical, and financial well-being of children and adults, and, ultimately, their fellow citizens. They argue that marriage may actually, albeit unwittingly, have just the opposite effect - sapping the strength of American communities and diminishing our ability to think and act for the common good.

"Many, bemoaning the retreat from marriage, also mourn the loss of community," they wrote in the Fall 2006 issue of Contexts, a journal of the American Sociological Association. "What these nostalgic discussions do not recognize, ironically, is that marriage and community are often at odds with one another."

While some sociologists have applauded Gerstel and Sarkisian's questioning of conventional wisdom, critics dismiss the "greedy marriage" research, countering the findings with statistics that indicate a greater social involvement among married people. Others say Sarkisian and Gerstel ignore what really supports communities in the long term - the health and welfare of children.

"The purpose of marriage is to raise the next generation," says Kay Hymowitz, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute. "And to call that greedy is just an astounding use of the term."

Gerstel and Sarkisian say that they have nothing against marriage. They argue that the nature of the institution in America has changed - in ways that can endanger both society and the marriages themselves. And on this point, it turns out, even their critics agree.

. . .

Over the last century, Americans have become more romantic about marriage, and that's not always a good thing, according to some scholars.

Through the mid-20th century, husbands and wives were expected to fulfill the culturally defined roles as breadwinners and homemakers, what sociologists call the "institutional marriage." But today, as a recent Gallup poll finds, 94 percent of young, unmarried women and men say their primary goal in marriage is finding a soul mate.

One marker of the rise of soul-mate marriage is honeymoons, according to Stephanie Coontz, a sociologist with the Council on Contemporary Families, a nonprofit family research and advocacy group based in Chicago. The now nearly ubiquitous private adventures for newlyweds were nearly unheard of until the late 19th century. And even then, Coontz notes, the happy couples often took along relatives and friends for company.

"Over the past 100 years, we've made marriage much more precious," she says. "And the same things that have made it more passionate and beneficial for its members have also made it more isolating."

This notion is supported by a 2006 study by sociologists from Duke and the University of Arizona, which found that the number of people with whom Americans said they discussed important matters from 1985 to 2004 dropped by one-third. The only relationship that saw an increase in such discussions was marriage.

To conduct their own investigation, Gerstel and Sarkisian analyzed answers from the 1992-94 National Survey of Families and Households and 2004 General Social Survey, large surveys that asked thousands of Americans questions about things like closeness with extended family, attitudes about raising kids, and family routines.

They found that married respondents were significantly less likely than the unmarried to contact or see their parents and siblings, or to give them emotional or "practical" support, such as help with chores or babysitting. The married also less frequently spent time with or helped friends and neighbors. For instance, more than 80 percent of never-married individuals said they'd called or written to their parents in the last month, compared with just 60 percent of married people. Likewise, around 70 percent of unmarried people but only 30 percent of the married had socialized with friends in the last month.

There were two interesting exceptions. First, when it came to helping friends, the marriage gap showed up only with white couples, not among African-Americans or Hispanics. The researchers don't offer any explanation for this. But they do have ideas about what's behind a second wrinkle in their findings: When married couples had children it erased the gap in the amount of emotional and practical support they gave to friends and neighbors. Married couples with children gave just as much support as single parents or childless singles. The researchers surmise that while raising kids eats up lots of time and emotional energy, married parents rebuild their social networks while finding playmates, caretakers, and activity partners for their children.

"It really is marriage, not children, that's responsible for cutting off ties to people in the community," Gerstel says.

But Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute says Gerstel and Sarkisian ignored important measures of community involvement. She points out that the article doesn't discuss volunteering, which is more prevalent among the married than those who have never married (32 percent vs. 20 percent) according to a 2006 Bureau of Labor Statistics tabulation. Nor does it mention voting rates: Sixty-seven percent of married people vote compared with just 44 percent of those who have never been married, according to the Census Bureau.

"What is this community the authors are talking about?" she asks.

It is a somewhat muddled portrait. Gerstel and Sarkisian note that married men are more likely than their single counterparts to sign petitions, but also that single women are more likely than married women to attend political meetings, sign petitions, and raise money for political causes. They also find that marriage increases men's participation in religious life - but not women's.

Gerstel and Sarkisian stress that their main objective was not to attack marriage, but to argue for a broader conception of what marriage is and should be.

"Finding a soul mate means turning inward - pushing aside other relationships," they write. They put forth several alternative models for marriage as less insular and more supportive of community, including pre-industrial societies in which "weddings are clearly community events [that] celebrate newly formed kin alliances." Sarkisian is also studying data from China to see if similar isolation occurs with married couples in that country.

But it's not just community that is hurt by the ideal of a self-sufficient soul-mate marriage, she and Gerstel contend.

"If you see marriage as the only place where you can get support and companionship, it can make marriage itself more fragile," says Sarkisian. "If you have your expectations too high, it's kind of setting yourself up for failure."

And here, it turns out, Gerstel and Sarkisian's harshest critics agree with them, up to a point.

But rather than arguing for a model of marriage in which husbands and wives cultivate ties beyond their spouse and children, some marriage promoters extol the virtues of the more traditional marriage, which emphasizes a person's responsibility as a husband, wife, or parent.

The lack of commitment to these roles, says Hymowitz, is "the reason for so many divorces and out-of-wedlock childbirths."

It is also important to realize that marriage can be difficult, adds Elizabeth Marquardt, a scholar at the Institute for American Values in New York.

"If you're in a bad period," Marquardt says, "it doesn't mean you're going from bad to worse and you need to get out as fast as you can."

Gerstel and Sarkisian's research suggests another lesson: try calling a friend.

"My sense is that there are people out there who have read our article, and it resonates with their feelings about their life," Sarkisian says. "They feel like something's missing."

Chris Berdik is the senior writer for Bostonia, the alumni magazine of Boston University

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