Sunday, April 18, 2010

The NY Times should not be the last word on marriage and health

As soon as I saw the New York Times article on marriage and health I knew exactly where to turn next -- the blog of Bella DePaulo, a psychologist whose work most convincingly debunks the so-called health advantages of marriage. I was not disappointed; she had responded to the piece when it first appeared on line last week. Her response also refers back to her previous well-documented posts challenging the claims of researchers whose work forms the backbone of the organizations and individuals (including President Obama) who claim more marriage will mean fewer social problems.

Earlier this year, DePaulo wrote an essay for Huffington Post explaining why Harvard University Press was right to decline to publish Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite's book, The Case for Marriage, which is virtually the Bible of the "marriage promotion" movement. Tara Parker-Pope, author of the NY Times article (and a forthcoming book on marriage) should have read DePaulo's critique before relying uncritically on Waite's conclusions.

The NY Times piece does have nuance, but it would have benefitted from attention to the work of scholars and researchers associated with the Council on Contemporary Families, which held its 2010 conference this weekend. Among the "unconventional wisdom" on their website is a longitudinal study of 2000 adults by Cornell professor Kelly Musick comparing the happiness level of individuals who remained single, got married, or began living with a partner without getting married. And if we're just looking at physical health, there's some intriguing research from Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer, a Stanford doctoral candidate, that African-American women are more likely to become obese if they are married than if they are never married and don't live with a partner; and marriage is associated with a modest increase in Body Mass Index for African-American, Hispanic, and white men and women.

A recently published anthology of essays by CCF scholars, Families As They Really Are, is also a welcome antidote to the oversimplistic and often misleading claims about the one-size-fits-all marriage model.