Monday, January 2, 2012

Marrige and Happiness: Why the National Marriage Project's Study is Not Trustworthy

There's been a fascinating debate on Evan Katz's blog about a recent study conducted by the University of Virgina's National Marriage Project. To be honest, this study strikes me as an obnoxiously biased, manipulative document designed to promote Judeo-Christian centric, nuclear families. The Institute for American Values, which runs the Marriage Project where the study came from, is largely funded by two foundations, the John Templeton and the Bradley, that are widely recognized as promoting neo-conservative and Christian conservative viewpoints. Furthermore, the Institute has a decades-long track record of actively lobbying the U.S. Congress and White House to promote their views on marriage and family, something that former Presidents' Clinton and Bush did regularly during their time in office.

Evan happens to like the study, regardless of it's potential issues. Given that he runs a business that caters to women seeking marriage, it makes sense that he would promote positive views of marriage on his blog. However, I argued in the comment below that this particular study isn't even very hopeful for a lot marriage-minded people, never mind those who aren't interested in marriage.

Perhaps one of the challenges here is that a lot of see the very limited agenda of the researchers, and have a hard time letting go of that. I know I do. One other thing I didn’t mention above was that somewhere in their research, I read a statement saying young men “need marriage” as a “civilizing factor,” something I find insulting as a man in his mid-30s who has never been married. The more I read of their research, the more I felt that they actually have a pretty negative view of people as individuals, and basically are pushing for heterosexual people to get married and have children so that said group can “save” society from the rest of us. Furthermore, the entire thing is tiered so that married, “church going” couples are presented as the best model. The gushing about church-going husbands being “more attentive” and more “committed” to their wives took the cake for me, but there were plenty of other choice moments.

It wasn’t terribly hard for me to think up an opposite set of conclusions for this study. Just replace married church going couples with single atheists in terms of most happy. Here’s a controversial study that concluded that non-religious folks have “better sex lives.” And then there’s Bella DePaulo, who is constantly advocating that single folks are happier in a manner that might considered opposite the Marriage Project folks. Those are just two examples of what I’d see as opposite extremes. I think the sex study has some valid points, and Bella is fascinating. However, in both cases, the strong biases and agenda’s present are difficult to ignore. And I also think that the sex study researchers had a pretty negative, stereotypical view of religious folks, and Bella’s writing isn’t terribly kind to married folks.

Which leads me to my major point. When research comes to such narrow conclusions, ones that suggest the vast majority of people aren’t doing life right, and that in order to do it right, they need to do X, Y, or Z, it’s hard not either feel bad about yourself if you don’t fit, or to be very resistant to that research’s conclusions. It makes sense to me that you’d share research that would help your clients and readers who want to get married feel more confident that marriage is worth doing. It just seems to me that this particular study offers a very narrow picture of what a “happy marriage” consists of, and is likely to leave a lot of readers – ones who want to get married or want to improve their marriage – out in the cold.

One thing I want to agree with from the study is the emphasis they placed on basing relationships on generosity and service. It makes sense to me to link happiness and well-being to generosity and service, and so while I greatly disagree with most of the study, I applaud that particular piece of it.

What do you think of all this? If you read some of the study, do you agree with it?


  1. I read some of the study, and, like I mentioned on Evan's blog, there's no way for me to get into these researchers' good graces. Even if I remarry in a church ceremony, return to church with my new husband, and continue attending it together for the rest of our lives, the fact that I have children from my former marriage will still make me and my new husband a second-rate family, according to the study. Blech. At least you, Nathan, can still have a proper marriage like the study says you should. I, on the other hand, am lost to humanity.

    I admit that the study managed to get a few things right (at least in my opinion), more or less by accident. If you make a large number of statements on a subject as common as marriage and family, it's hard to miss the boat on every one of them, LOL

  2. Well, among other things, I'm a practicing Zen Buddhist, so I'm probably defective in their eyes as well - lol! And you're right, they didn't get it all wrong, but it's a lot to wade through to find a few nuggets.