Perry v. Schwarzenegger II: More About Marriage

This is a continuation from an earlier post.  You might wish to start reading there to pick up some of the background.  

In that last post I said that what troubled me was the suggestion that if you have (or are going to have) children, you ought to get married.   That was really a rather over-simplified.  Let me expand and explain.    

First I need to say a bit more about the benefits of marriage.   There can be substantial benefits associated with being married.   The court identifies material benefits, legal protections and social support resulting from marriage.  (Finding 39, page 70.)    It also notes that marriage benefits both spouses by promoting physical and psychological health (#38, page 69.)   

There are really two different things going on here.  First, some material benefits are provided to exclusively to married couples.  For example, access to health care via a spouse’s health plan or preferential tax treatment.  (I know that tax treatment of married couples is not always beneficial.  But sometimes it is.  As I understand it, it depends on the distribution of income-earning within the household.)    For these benefits, by definition if you are married you get them and if you are not, then you do not.   They are clearly (and by design) associated with marriage.  

To the extent a married couple receives these sorts of benefits they also flow, at least to some degree, to their children.   Thus, children of married parents are better off in some regards than children of unmarried parents.   To put it the other way around, children of unmarried parents are at a disadvantage.   (It might be helpful to recall that there are two distinct subcategories of unmarried parents–single parents and parents who are unmarried couples.   The point I just made is really most relevant to the latter category, I think.) 

Why is this okay?  Why should it be that children whose parents happen to marry get more of these sorts of benefits than children whose parents don’t marry?  

I suppose the answer is that we want people to get married (perhaps especially people with children) and so we offer an incentive to marry, which is to say a disincentive to remain unmarried.   But why do we want them to get married in the first place?   You cannot say “in order to get these benefits” because that’s just circular.  If we offered the same benefits to unmarried parents, the advantage of marrying would go away.    So as to this type of benefit, it seems fair to say this is simply the carrot/stick we use to encourage good behavior, not the explanation for why the good behavior is good.  

Now there is a second type of benefit to consider–the one in finding 38, page 69: 

“Marriage benefits both spouses by promoting physical and psychological well-being.   Married individuals are less likely to engage in behaviors detrimental to health, like smoking or drinking heavily.  Married individuals live longer on average than unmarried individuals.” 

  These benefits are not the result of conscious action by the government or employer.   Instead, they are presented as things that flow from marriage, more in the nature of natural consequences.

This leads me to two questions.   First, is it clear that marriage causes the described  beneficial behaviors?  It seems to me possible that a heavy drinker is less likely to be married because he/she is a heavy drinker.  (I’m assuming here that heavy drinkers might be less able to maintain the relationship that, at least in theory, lies at the heart of marriage.)   Thus, fewer heavy drinkers are likely to be married and more heavy drinkers are likely to be unmarried.   You could end up with the same statistical pattern (married people less likely to be heavy drinkers).      

Perhaps a more concise way of raising my point would be to ask whether there is a causal connection here.    Does marriage cause people to become less-heavy drinkers?   If you have someone who is a heavy drinker and you get them married, is it more likely they will stop drinking heavily?  

You might say I’ve picked on an easy one with heavy drinking, and perhaps I have.  But I’ll stand by my general question.   I do wonder if the studies cited explain causation or if they only show correlation.  

Second, I’m wary of averages.   (“Married individuals on average live longer than unmarried individuals.”)   There must be an enormous range of lifespans among both married and unmarried individuals.  Thus, many unmarried individuals live longer than many married individuals.  

It’s not that I deny that there really is some effect here.  I gather there is and I gather it is thought to be the result of both self-selection (healthier people marry) and what is called the sheltering effect of marriage.  

My concern is that people (generally) will take the wrong message from all this.   If you are a happily unmarried parent should you get married?  Will you live longer if you do?   Will you be happier?   I don’t think any of that is particularly likely to follow for an individual.  Of course, if a happily unmarried parent wishes to get married, they should do so.   But they ought not feel that they need to do so for the good of their child.


8 responses to “Perry v. Schwarzenegger II: More About Marriage

  1. I agree with Julie about it being troubling that in order to obtain the right to marry a person of the same sex lawyers are evoking more than they need to. The fact that married people live longer and healthier lives seems a bit of a reach because anyone can get hit by a bus. People will make of and take from their legal partnerships (marriages) what they will. Some marry joyously punch-drunk from lust and romantic love (those are the most fun), others marry for money or political reasons, still others marry because of a toxic codependency that can’t be shaken. If a male and a female can incorporate, join their assets and set up shop for life…there is no reason for the government to say that two people of the same gender can’t do the same thing. Sex has NOTHING to do with it – god knows millions of married couples are going without sex every day. Marriage does something for the 2 adults who are married – it creates a situation where there is a safety net under both adults it says “If you fail I will catch you.” “I accept financial responsibility for your mistakes.” “I’ll obligate myself to care for you in the event you can’t work.” Marriage obligates you to support your spouse, not your child. Human life is not socially constructed nor has it ever been artificially created. The law needs to obligate people to support the children they create and the marital status of those that create a child should have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the obligation to support – where the law says otherwise it should be changed.

    Marriage is a socially constructed contractual relationship that obligates two people to each other. Of course the government wants to encourage that, it means adults are willing to assume financial responsibility for other adults. Whether those adults are romantically inclined towards each other should be irrelevant to the government.

  2. In defining marriage as such, there is no reason why sexual relationships have to be part of marriage at all. Perhaps I am too celibate or too promiscuous to marry. Why can I not create such an economically interdependent marriage-like partnership with a parent or sibling?

    My insurance company in defining its parameters for a domestic partnership explicitly rules out a person with whom it would not be possible to contract a marriage do to consanguinity. Why not?

    I think we can not escape that the institution of marriage is structured around sexual reproduction. When we talk about gay marriage, we are talking about extending the structure to include persons who don’t quite fit the structure but who wish to imitate it anyway. If that is the case I don’t see why sexually unpartnered people should be discriminated. I do not see why a gay lover should have more rights to be included on an insurance policy, than my brother with whom I own a house together.

    • No Kisarita when you are family you are family and you don’t need a contract for the law to recognize you as being family members. Marriage takes two unrelated people and makes them members of the same family. You would not need to do that with your brother or parent. Its my understanding that related people can set up family trusts and what not to join their money. I believe the family leave act allows you to take care of an ill family member like a brother for instance. Also in California adult children are financially responsible for their adult parents its in the California code of regulations. What Marriage does is it allows you to be considered family by law with people who are not actually your family – like adoption. You can take on an immediate family member as your dependent they don’t have to be your spouse.

      • as far as I know in New york, parents are not eligible to be included on insurance policies and neither are siblings. As I said, the domestic partner clause specifically excluded these relatives.
        I think tax benefits are the same thing (what few there are)
        I don’t know about trusts and things.

  3. “Of course, if a happily unmarried parent wishes to get married, they should do so. But they ought not feel that they need to do so for the good of their child. ”

    wait a second… I thought you were talking about the two parents marrying eachother! but I see you’re talking about bringing in a step parent. Thats an entirely different issue and I don’t think that you need worry about people being pressured to marry a new partner who is not their child’s partner. Sure some people might think so, but at the same time people are all too aware of the potential complications of stepfamilies.

  4. People can be married but not live together and that is not so hot for the kid – my kid is dealing with that now. Of course nothing is better than for a child to get to be with both parents a little bit every day. Its good for the parents as well, it keeps them in touch with their child’s growth and development and daily ups and downs of life. But sometimes two people simply cannot behave themselves in each others presence and behave abhorrently in front of their child – then its better for each parent to spend as much time as possible each week or each month with their child separately from the other parent. Being married when a child is born or adopted is no guarantee that the won’t separate the next day.

  5. I think its important for both parents to make the marriage work for the sake of their children.


    • I agree, up to a point anyway. But I don’t know that this is limited to marriages. It is important for co-parents to make their relationship work, whether it is a marriage or not. That is assuming, of course, that they have a relationship.

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