Why Should Married People Get Extra Support?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

This morning we heard from several readers, including the family scholar Bradford Wilcox, about the data correlations between marriage and poverty. Now a few readers start moving the conversation past the numbers. Here’s Michael Brewer:

Statistical correlations between marriage and poverty are important and interesting, but alone I don’t think they can serve as a basis for family or state policy. “How do I increase my income and lower my tax burden?” is a simple question of economics, easily answered with available data. And it’s a red herring. When I hear some new argument about how marriage will improve my finances, it doesn’t make me want to get married; it makes me wonder why single people like me aren’t worth a tax break, or aren’t as respected by employers. The system favors nuclear families because that’s how it was built. These are not laws of nature.

The economics and statistics are just data, not answers. The real debate should be about ethics and justice.

As a single guy in my early 30s who doesn’t want to get married any time soon, if at all, I’ve often wondered why the tax code should so heavily favor married couples when the simple act of cohabitation already has so many financial advantages. If you’re unmarried and feel the same way and want to rant about it, drop me an email. Here’s another reader who questions the centrality of marriage in modern life:

As a single woman who has no particular desire for dating or marriage (if I meet someone and it happens, great, but I can’t see making it a goal for myself when much of it is out of my control), I was really interested by the reader who said that one advantage of marriage is that “when disaster strikes, and you are alone, it really is a disaster.”

This is true; being alone does make it harder to deal with the storms of life. But why is marriage, a specific romantic relationship between two people, the only way to deal with this?

I have a single friend who I live next door to, and we share Internet and make meals together. When I had surgery she helped me out, and when she was having problems I helped her. People often assumed we were a lesbian couple, but we are “just” best friends. And this automatically lessened our relationship in the eyes of other people, but I was never sure why. Life is easier with people to share it with, but why does that person need to be a romantic partner?

But our society places a premium on romantic relationships over other types of friendships. And marriage is the end goal, the ultimate status, of that romantic relationship. But why? If it is for the benefit of society to promote connections so people have support systems, why not do more to support friendships? Why not allow workers to use their sick leave to care for a friend? Why not allow two friends to get gym and Costco memberships the way you’d let spouses?

The fact is that some of us are never going to be married because we are too busy, too ill, too awkward, too traumatized, or just because we aren’t orientated that way (asexuals and a-romantic people exist in the world). What would the marriage-as-a-solution folks do with us?

The reader’s line about “society placing a premium on romantic relationships over other types of friendships” made me think of a wonderful post from Maria Popova I reread recently that narrates key passages from Andrew Sullivan’s book Love Undetectable, which goes into great eloquent detail over the superiority of friendship to romantic love. (Meta disclosure: Andrew is a friend of mine.) In his words:

The great modern enemy of friendship has turned out to be love. By love, I don’t mean the principle of giving and mutual regard that lies at the heart of friendship [but] love in the banal, ubiquitous, compelling, and resilient modern meaning of love: the romantic love that obliterates all other goods, the love to which every life must apparently lead, the love that is consummated in sex and celebrated in every particle of our popular culture, the love that is institutionalized in marriage and instilled as a primary and ultimate good in every Western child. I mean eros, which is more than sex but is bound up with sex. I mean the longing for union with another being, the sense that such a union resolves the essential quandary of human existence, the belief that only such a union can abate the loneliness that seems to come with being human, and deter the march of time that threatens to trivialize our very existence. […] We live in a world, in fact, in which respect and support for eros has acquired the hallmarks of a cult.

Of course marriage doesn’t have to be about romantic love at all, and romance often fades after marriage, even the most successful ones. And friendship is arguably the key to marriage—an institution that Maria’s post briefly touches on, via Andrew’s words again:

The most successful marriages, where the original spark of eros [romantic love] has slowly lit a flame of phila [love in friendship] that sustains the union when other more compelling passions have long since died away. Indeed, one of the least celebrated but most important achievements of the increasingly successful battle for women’s equality is that it has properly expanded the universe of friendship for both men and women and made marriage more of a setting for friendship than for love. This is no mean accomplishment.

A lot to unpack in just those two passages, but I thought they’d be good food for thought as it relates to the single woman’s email. For more reading on the subject, check out Kate Bolick’s cover story for us back in 2011, “All the Single Ladies.”