Opinion: The increasingly important case for saying ‘I do’

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With little notice, the United States may be crossing a historic milestone in family structure, one that may shape our health, wealth and happiness.

Historically, most American adults were married — more than two-thirds as recently as 1970. But the married share has crept downward, and today only about half of adults are married. Depending on the data source, we may already have entered an epoch in which a majority is not married.

"Our civilization is in the midst of an epochal shift, a shift away from marriage," Brad Wilcox, a sociologist who directs the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, writes in his new book, "Get Married." "In place of marriage, many Americans are remaining single or simply living together without wedding rings. And to be clear, it's more of the former than the latter."

Wilcox believes that perhaps a third of today's young Americans will never marry. I find that troubling, but it's not just soggy sentimentality. Survey data indicates that married couples on average report more happiness, build more wealth, live longer and raise more successful children than single parents or cohabiting couples, though there are plenty of exceptions.

"Fixing what ails America starts with renewing marriage and family life, especially in poor and working-class communities where the fabric of family life is weakest," Wilcox argues.

He's up against a counterview that one should dodge family responsibilities, relish freedom and play hard.

Some women have likewise celebrated freeing themselves from an institution that often shackled them to cooking, laundry and second-class status at a cost to their careers.

Yet even as marriage has receded, the evidence has grown that while it isn't for everyone, in many cases it can improve our lives more than we may appreciate.

"Marriage predicts happiness better than education, work and money," Wilcox writes. For example, survey data indicates that getting a college degree increases the odds of describing oneself as "very happy" by 64%. Earning a solid income lifts the odds by 88%. Being "very satisfied" with one's job raises them by 145%. And marriage increases the odds of being very happy by 151% — while a "very happy" marriage boosts the odds by 545%.

I've long been interested in family structure for two reasons. First, I believe the left made a historic mistake by demonizing the Moynihan Report, which 59 years ago this month warned about the consequences of family breakdown. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was prescient, for we now know that households headed by single mothers are five times as likely to live in poverty as those with married couples.

Second, loneliness and social isolation are growing problems.

Marriage doesn't solve loneliness and social isolation, but it helps. And there is good news on the family front: The divorce rate has dropped to a 50-year low, and the share of children raised in an intact family with married parents has increased slightly in recent years. Today about 51% of American kids reach adulthood with the same two parents they started out with.

But it's also true that the marriage rate has collapsed, particularly for working-class Americans. Of those without a high school diploma, more than two-thirds are unmarried.

I think many Americans want to marry but don't feel sufficiently financially stable, or they can't find the right person.We are social animals, Aristotle noted more than two millenniums ago, and it's still true. Spouses can be exasperating (as my wife can attest), but they also can cuddle, fill us with love and connect us to a purpose beyond ourselves. They are infinitely better, for us and for society, and that seems worth celebrating openly.

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