Marriage Is Not a '24/7 Sleepover Party'

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Overstating and distorting the benefits of marriage is just as destructive as maligning the institution.

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The moment Elaine Robinson and Benjamin Braddock realize marriage is not a slumber party, in The Graduate (MGM)

Marriage is in trouble. According to a 2011 Pew study, barely half of American adults are married, a record low. Nearly a quarter of Americans believe marriage is becoming obsolete. Many members of the millennial generation (18- to 29-year-olds) believe being a parent is more important than being married.

So it makes sense that people who believe marriage is good (and I am one of these people) would feel compelled to defend the institution. "People need to start being more honest and vocal about the virtues of marriage," writes Steven Crowder in a recent Fox News column called "A man's top 5 reasons to grow up and get married." I agree: It is worthwhile and necessary to talk about what makes marriage better than cohabitation, or single parenting, or other marriage alternatives. Unfortunately, however, Crowder's article doesn't do much to advance the truth about marriage's goodness. Instead, it perpetuates a bunch of myths about marriage—myths that are just as destructive as outright negativity toward the institution.

Crowder's strategy is first to appeal to his readers' self-interest. In his list of reasons to get married, he promises: "You'll be richer," "You'll have more sex... A LOT MORE SEX," "You won't be such a pathetic sloth," and "Don't die sick, miserable and alone." His sole reason that is not selfishness-oriented is a reminder that children who grow up with married parents have significant advantages in life.

His then paints this absurdly rosy image of married life, based on his own six-month-old union:

Picture coming home every night to your best friend, your greatest fan, and your number one supporter. She (or he) makes each good day better, and each bad day good again. Every day, you get to live what is essentially a 24/7 sleepover party with the greatest friend you've ever had.

... Now add sex and sandwiches.

Get married, like, now.

In Crowder's view, then, articulating the virtues of marriage means: pushing his audience to focus on how marriage will make their lives better (get rich! Don't be lonely!); and setting impossibly high expectations for a spouse's ability to provide constant sexual and emotional support (come home every day to your biggest fan! Who will want to have sex with you every day!).

But this vision misrepresents what marriage is really about. In their excellent book The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy and Kathy Keller discuss the problem of seeing marriage as a vehicle for self-actualization and endless source of happiness.

Both men and women today see marriage not as a way of creating character and community but as a way to reach personal life goals. They are looking for a marriage partner who will "fulfill their emotional, sexual, and spiritual desires." And that creates an extreme idealism that in turn leads to a deep pessimism that you will ever find the right person to marry.

Anyone who's been in a marriage or observed one closely knows that these relationships can go through long periods of financial strain, sexual frustration, lethargy, and loneliness. That spouses are sometimes tired, or cranky, or not in the mood for sex or sandwich-making. And promising marriage skeptics otherwise does not help the case for marriage. It only provokes further skepticism from people who see through the false advertising. And for people who do buy into Crowder's argument, a potentially worse fate awaits: disappointment and disillusionment when the challenges of marriage inevitably arise. Indeed, it's entirely plausible that Crowder's marriage is currently exactly as he describes it: blissful, harmonious, satisfying. Studies say that couples experience a happiness spike in their first year or two of marriage. But that euphoria is fleeting: A couple's happiness returns to its normal, pre-marital level in the years that follow.

The good news is that there's a robust case to be made for marriage. The Kellers make it in their book. In a less direct way, so do a range of pop culture artifacts, from Joan Didion's wrenching memoir The Year of Magical Thinking to the Taylors on Friday Night Lights. That case focuses on self-sacrifice rather than self-fulfillment as the key to a successful lifelong relationship. It promises that marriage will make two people kinder, more patient, more forgiving, more creative, more selfless—not richer or healthier or "better" in any number of superficial ways. These are virtues worth being vocal about—and worth clinging to when the 24/7 sleepover party gets old, as sleepover parties always do.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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