A health check on marriage
For centuries, marriage has provided order, stability and nurture for both adults and children. Indeed, the status of our marriages influences our well-being at least as much as the state of our finances.
Decades of research has clearly established the positive links between marriage and well-being. As Professor Bill Doherty summarized the evidence, “for adults, a stable, happy marriage is the best protector against illness and premature death, and for children, such a marriage is the best source of emotional stability and good physical health.” The benefits extend to educational, financial and vocational outcomes.
This is not to denigrate many single parents who are doing an admirable job in raising children, often in difficult circumstances. However, most people still aspire to a life-long marriage and society benefits from this.
Despite the significance of marriage for our wellbeing, there is little attention to measuring its health.
Our Leading Economic Indicators are regularly published and analysed. Acres of newsprint is devoted to them. Public officials vie with each other for ways to improve performance. When they are improving, we rejoice that our lives will be better. If not, we debate the means of rectifying the problems.
However, there is no set of Leading Marriage Indicators. As a group of US scholars noted recently, “the absence of a clear, compelling, and commonly-agreed upon set of Leading Marriage Indicators prevents us from focusing clearly on the health of marriage. Consequently, policy makers and opinion leaders rarely seem to care about marriage trends, or even notice them.”
The bipartisan group, led by David Blankenhorn, developed a set of indicators to track the health of marriage in the United States. The indicators chosen were: the percentage of adults married; the percentage of married persons ‘very happy’ with their marriage; the percentage of first marriages intact; the percentage of births to married parents; and the percentage of children living with their own married parents.
By tracking the data since 1970, they were able to construct a marriage index.
On all of the measures, the index fell over four decades. The average of the measures declined from 76.2 per cent in 1970 to 60.3 per cent in 2008. The only variation in the downward trajectory was a slight rise in the percentage of first marriages intact in the past few years.
Using similar data, it is possible to construct an Australian Marriage Index and compare the trends over the past few decades.
The Australian Index of Leading Marriage Indicators has fallen significantly over the past three decades. The measurements of married adults, births to married parents and children living with married parents have seen a 30 per cent decline since the 1970s.
The average score fell from 86 in 1971 to just 61 in 2006. This mirrors the decline in the US from 76 in 1970 to 60 in 2008.
There is only incomplete local data for the other two measures used in the US. However, the available data about these measures is consistent with the overall downward trend.
For example, the percentage of happily married persons fell, according to the National Social Science Survey between 1986 and 1996.
And although the data is incomplete, it appears that the percentage of first marriages intact has also fallen.
While the marriage rate has risen slightly in recent years, and the divorce rate has fallen marginally, the overall downward trend remains.
As a large body of research suggests that the status of our marriages influences not only our well-being, but also our productivity, both as individuals and as a nation, this is significant for the future of our society.
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