Canadian supporters of marriage are speaking up, and not a moment too soon. In a recent survey done by the Angus Reid Institute, about 56 percent of Canadians said “marriage is simply not necessary” to form a lifelong relationship. They went on to say when an unmarried couple has children, almost six in 10 Canadians (57 percent) say it’s not important that the couple get married.
The response to this came from many corners, none of which were predictably “socially conservative” or religious. Robert Fulford wrote in the National Post on May 11 that “[a] marriage creates a kind of mini-state, a midget republic with its own rules, its own secrets and its own history. Children, as citizens of the mini-state, learn from it their first notions about hierarchy, finance, responsibility and ambition.” Peter Shawn Taylor wrote in Maclean’s that marriage makes you happier and richer, citing many sources to back that up. Finally, Brian Lee Crowley and Sean Speer also preached the virtues and importance of marriage, writing in the Toronto Sun on May 10 that “the evidence shows that family structure is a key determinant of one’s economic and social success. In fact, it’s among the most important.”
Given the expert testimony and the availability of scholarship on the matter, what the survey results show is that a majority of Canadians hold views about marriage that are at odds with the research. Research overwhelmingly points to significant benefits of marriage. Marriage is an important wealth aggregator; it overwhelmingly helps improve the lives of lower income people. Other research shows happily married couples fare better on a host of health outcomes such as heart health and combating cancer. These are but a few of the research outcomes that are largely uncontested across the political spectrum in the United States.
Here in Canada, the marriage research environment is less robust. Nonetheless, we know much about the benefits of marriage even from Canadian scholars. For example, we learn that children from married parent homes perceive that they can do better at school, as compared with kids from stable cohabiting homes. We also learn about the improved finances of married couples, not only from our own research but also from university scholars, whose research shows married couples are more likely to share financial resources in contrast with cohabiters. A Canadian study based on longitudinal data found that the portion of children born to married parents who experience a parent’s separation by age 10 were about three times lower compared to kids born to cohabiting parents who subsequently did not marry. The lack of stability hurts children.
There are many reasons for the waning interest in marriage. The personal experience of broken homes might be one. Our divorce rates speak to the fact that not all marriages thrive and survive. Another is that we hesitate to speak to what we think are moral decisions, and private ones at that. In spite of the fact that marriage is still the most stable relationship choice, we hesitate to encourage it for fear of telling people what to do.
As a result of forgetting the benefits and not heeding the social science, our statistics increasingly mix and mingle common-law and marriage as if they were the same thing. This can also affect younger adults, constantly waiting for life to begin. A friend, we’ll call her Tasha, confesses that after dating for two decades before meeting and marrying Mr. Right, marriage was a game changer. “I gained so much confidence about the future when we tied the knot,” she says. “We could fully accept each other and work on our relationship, rather than always wondering whether we would even remain together.” How often do we hear this kind of testimony?
In the absence of marriage, it is unsurprising to see social isolation and rising loneliness getting more attention. The biggest “family” category in Canada is living alone. Waning marriage and family norms are only one part of this lonely picture, but ignoring marriage as a factor altogether constitutes something close to willful ignorance.
Robert Doar is a scholar at a Washington DC-based think tank, who was once responsible for administering poverty-reduction related social programs for New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Neither right nor left, Doar recently told a conference that it would have been dishonest or unfair not to tell single mothers living in poverty about marriage. If we want to decrease poverty and inequality between rich and poor, we need to examine the family, he said.