Way back when, in the heady days of the Vietnam counterculture and second-wave feminism people were wont to say that marriage was just a piece of paper.
You know… like, your paycheck is just a piece of paper.
Because of this exercise in social engineering, fewer people got married and fewer people stayed married. The enemies of marriage explained that it was a good thing.
Liberated from the shackles of marriage women, in particular, could find themselves and realize their full potential. They did not need men, any more than a fish needs a bicycle.
The argument was dispiriting. First, because it destroyed millions of homes. Second, because it was so profoundly ignorant.
By now, cooler heads have prevailed and everyone agrees that it’s better to be married. It’s better for your mental health and it’s better for your emotional well-being.
Claire Cain Miller reports in the New York Times that social scientists have recently concluded that marriage contributes mightily to your personal happiness. Having long pondered the question of whether happier people were more likely to marry or whether marriage produced happiness, the scientists now believe that the latter is close to the truth.
And they have added that it is even truer when couples consider each other to be best friends.
Miller summarizes the new research:
Social scientists have long known that married people tend to be happier, but they debate whether that is because marriage causes happiness or simply because happier people are more likely to get married. The new paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, controlled for pre-marriage happiness levels.
It concluded that being married makes people happier and more satisfied with their lives than those who remain single – particularly during the most stressful periods, like midlife crises.
Even as fewer people are marrying, the disadvantages of remaining single have broad implications. It’s important because marriage is increasingly a force behind inequality. Stable marriages are more common among educated, high-income people, and increasingly out of reach for those who are not. That divide appears to affect not just people’s income and family stability, but also their happiness and stress levels.
Though some social scientists have argued that happiness levels are innate, so people return to their natural level of well-being after joyful or upsetting events, the researchers found that the benefits of marriage persist.
One reason for that might be the role of friendship within marriage. Those who consider their spouse or partner to be their best friend get about twice as much life satisfaction from marriage as others, the study found.
The effect of friendship seems to be the result of living with a romantic partner, rather than the legal status of being married, because it was as strong for people who lived together but weren’t married. Women benefit more from being married to their best friend than men do, though women are less likely to regard their spouse as their best friend.
Obviously, this requires some elucidation. I would disagree that legal status is trivial. Suggesting that cohabitation is the same as marriage contradicts the research Miller has quoted.
I find it strange that Miller would suggest that marriage is just a piece of paper, especially after she reported that the institution itself provides psychological benefits.
But, what does it mean to marry your best friend?
Here, Miller is suggesting that we have arrived at a point in human evolution where women do not marry men who are breadwinners and men to not marry women who can function as homemakers.
And yet, why are economically disadvantaged Americans less likely to marry if not that men in those classes are unable to support a family.
Also, being best friends does not preclude respecting the traditional division of household labor. In truth, regardless of whether or not women work outside of the home they still do most of the housework in most American homes. And they are still primarily responsible for childcare.
But what makes a couple best friends?
We note first that friends choose each other freely. You do not choose your parents or your siblings or your relations, but you do choose your friends.
Within the institution of marriage, free choice of a spouse is the exception, not the rule. In many parts of the world today and through most of human history the choice of a spouse was anything but free.
The practice dates to sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe.
As long as the choice is free, an individual may choose wisely or unwisely. A woman might choose a man who will be a good provider and a man might choose a woman who will be a good mother and homemaker. There is nothing about the freedom to choose that precludes the exercise of reason.
But, there’s more to friendship than the freedom to choose.
According to Aristotle, friends see the best in each other. Being a friend means forgoing criticism, taunts, fights and arguments. Being a friend means knowing how to get along.
Also, according to the philosopher, friends remain friends because they demonstrate good character in their transactions. This means that friends are trustworthy, reliable, responsible and loyal.
Often enough, the durability of a marriage or of any relationships depends as much on good character as it does on true love. I would even suggest that in the absence of good character romantic love will eventually die out.