College Texts on Marriage: No Happy Endings

About 2.5 million American couples are expected to marry this year.

A good share of them - 225,000 - will take their vows this month, as large numbers of young people graduate from college.

Ironically, most brides and grooms who've taken college courses about the family will marry in spite of what they've been taught in the textbooks used in those courses.

I recently studied 20 college texts on family for a report by the Institute for American Values Council on Families. All of the books focused on negative aspects of marriage and child-rearing. Not one provides much reason why anyone should want to marry. A few of the books have a distinctly antimarriage animus, and the others fail to discuss the large body of research indicating the psychological and health benefits of marriage, or mention it only briefly and superficially.

'Proof' marriage harms

Several of the books claim, erroneously, that there is proof that marriage is typically harmful to women.

For instance, one sociology of the family textbook, "Changing Families," cites a controversial 1972 book by sociologist Jessie Bernard, and states that Ms. Bernard found "the psychological costs of marriage were great for women."

Personal happiness

Another text, "Sociology of Marriage and the Family," asserts that "we do know, for instance, that marriage has an adverse effect on women's mental health."

Yet another text, "Diversity in Families," admits that married people on average report a much higher level of personal happiness than unmarried people. But it goes on to cite Ms. Bernard's work - which was unsupported by sophisticated research - that married women tend to say they are happy only because they think they should be happy. The book reports this thesis as fact rather than as the speculation that it is. And it ignores later, more well-grounded research that indicates that reports of personal happiness are equally valid for men and women.

It's hard to imagine a topic more relevant to the needs and interests of college students than the effects of marriage on personal well-being.

But the books I reviewed devoted on average just over a page each - out of an average of more than 600 pages per book - to this topic. Five of the books don't discuss the topic at all, and five others devote only a sentence to less than a page to it.

Furthermore, almost half of the discussion of the effects of marriage on personal well-being is of Bernard's discredited thesis that marriage typically harms women. Several of the books report her thesis but neglect the dozens of sophisticated studies conducted in the past 25 years to test her thesis. No book that mentions her thesis points out that it has not been supported by the research that it helped to stimulate.

The research that the textbooks generally fail to report has shown that the strongest known predictor of personal happiness of adults, by a large margin, is whether or not they are in a satisfactory marriage.

It has also been shown that married persons, as a whole, have much higher levels of mental and physical health than unmarried persons.

Part of this difference reflects the fact that healthy and well-adjusted people are more likely to marry, and to stay married, than others. But the most sophisticated analyses indicate that about half of the difference reflects beneficial influences of marriage on personal well-being. The benefits of marriage seem to be similar for men and women, although the physical health benefits may be greater for men.

Of course, not everyone who marries will reap the benefits of a good marriage. A bad marriage is not better than no marriage at all. However, even those whose first marriages fail often find happiness in a subsequent marriage.

Intuition guides couples

I doubt that most of the millions of people who will marry this year know much about the research on the benefits of marriage. However, they seem to know intuitively, or from folklore, what the textbooks fail to say.

As one of the researchers who has studied the effects of marriage, and as an educator, I'm disturbed by the failure of the textbooks to report accurately the results of the research on marriage.

Those of us employed in higher education, as well as many lay persons, usually assume that people who have had the benefits of a college education tend to be wiser and better informed than those who have not been to college.

The sad fact, however, is that people who have not taken college-level family and marriage courses are likely to have a more accurate perception of the potential benefits of marriage than those who have taken such courses.

* Norval D. Glenn is a sociology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

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