Modern Matrimony: Who Benefits the Most?

When we discuss how we live at home, we inevitably must include who we live with. Who's making coffee in the morning or forgetting to refill the Brita? Maybe it's a boyfriend or girlfriend, or perhaps the relationship is a little more legally binding. As marriage rates declined and divorce rates skyrocketed over the past decades, it seems prudent to ask ourselves: just who's getting the most out of marriage as it stands today?

There's no doubt that ours is an evolving society, and nowhere is that clearer than in our national discourse about marriage. I'd even venture to say that, especially with the recent boycott/zealous support of a certain fast food chicken sandwich chain, it's currently a very polarizing social issue. Believe me, I'm not trying to stir up extra controversy, but I've been thinking about how much the concept of marriage has changed and will continue to adapt to fit our needs and reflect our values.

If we were to believe the movies, it's the woman who pushes for marriage; she cajoles, lures or even manipulates her (often reluctant) man into a state of wedded "bliss." Even if that rather degrading oversimplification of courtship were true, the fact remains that in heterosexual marriage, statistically, it's men who come out ahead. According to Australian economist Paul Frijters, men receive more value (measured monetarily as economists are wont to do) from marriage and have more to lose in the event of a divorce.

Being married makes men happier; married men live longer and achieve more career success. Some speculate that these improvements are due to these former bachelors' experiencing positive lifestyle changes (presumably with the influence of a good woman). But married women, who appear to be the "civilizers," that is, they hoist their men up to their level of health and emotional stability, don't receive as many benefits after tying the knot. In addition, women still tend to shoulder a larger share of the household responsibilities, either due to their socially ingrained roles, or perhaps merely a higher standard of cleanliness.

So what then, you may ask, is the draw for women? Maybe you've noticed that I haven't mentioned love, an essential ingredient for successful marriage (in our society, anyway), and my reason is this: I wouldn't dare try to define what constitutes love and how it manifests in a relationship. Love, commitment and children can, of course, all exist without marriage, but for the sake of this discussion I'm thinking about the institution itself and whether or not it's a system that still makes sense.

Increased opportunities have made women less financially dependent on men but may also have set up a state of diminishing returns. In a fascinating study by Betsy A. Stevenson and Justin Wolfers about the Paradox of Declining Female Happiness, the problem is described like this:

Consideration of the psychology behind happiness might suggest that greater gender equality may lead to a fall in measured well-being. For example, if happiness is assessed relative to outcomes for one's reference group, then greater equality may have led women to compare their outcomes to those of the men around them. In turn, women might find their relative position lower than when their reference group included only women.

So even while women's overall status is improving, increased expectations can lead to decreased satisfaction if those expectations aren't met. While the study was about women's happiness in general, and the numbers remained consistent regardless of whether the women were married or single, it seems logical that with the evolving state of marriage, there are some who want it to evolve more and faster, and others who dig in their heels at the mere mention of change.

Sound familiar? I can't help but point out that this phenomenon applies to more than just men and women but also clearly factors into the evolving definition of marriage and who can legally enter into such a union — thus spawning a chicken showdown.

Obviously, this topic is too broad to sufficiently cover in a short article or even in several hundred pages. I'm in no way railing against marriage, but I am interested in the reasons why people choose to forgo the legal side of love as well as the reasons why others continue to strongly seek it. It seems to me that, far from the fairy tale we're expecting, becoming more conscious of marriage's limitations and heading off potential problems could lead to stronger and more satisfying unions.

What do you think? Does anyone win this particular battle of the sexes?

(Image: Shutterstock)

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