Does Marriage Civilize Men?

Does Marriage Civilize Men?


An article in the Atlantic claims that marriage is needed to civilize men. Well, if being civilized means you ignore your friends, I want to be a barbarian.

Does Marriage Civilize Men?
Davi Sales Batista / 123RF Photo

In the March 2016 issue of the Atlantic magazine, deputy editor Don Peck uncritically published a host of claims about how marriage civilizes men. The person who made the claims was Brad Wilcox, the Director of the National Marriage Project. How, according to Wilcox, does marriage help to “civilize” men?

* Married men supposedly “work harder, longer, and more strategically” than single men.

* Married men purportedly “spend less time in bars and more time in church.”

* Married men supposedly spend “less [time] with friends and more with kin.”

* Married men ostensibly are “happier and healthier” than single men.

A few months ago, I asked Living Single readers to critique these claims. You can read the full version of their critiques in the comments section of this post. I’ll highlight a few of them, plus one that was sent to me by email, then offer my own critique.

Reader Critiques of the Claim that “Marriage Civilizes Men”

Logic001 said this: “Wilcox asserts that because men will work harder, longer, and more strategically, this is proof of becoming more civilized. Yet, if we look at a study of male scientists and their level of productivity and genius, data has shown that these scientists’ productivity and contributions to science decline precipitously when these scientists got married, often in their 30s. However, those that avoided marriage stayed nicely productive well into their late 50s. This doesn’t sound to me as if they are doing nobler and better work after marriage. A simpler and likelier explanation is that these fellows lost their spark and became drones. Work became a chore, not a joy.”

Lauri posed a whole series of important questions, including this one: “Why is spending more time with kin and less time with friends a positive or more ‘civilized’ effect?”

Alan said claims like these as a form of sexism: “It would be just like saying that women need marriage to protect them from the world. Indeed, it’s part of a pair of stereotypes: the brutish man and the civilized but frail woman. Everyone here knows that these claims are nonsense. We know that the differences in health and happiness are slight. As are the differences in drinking … I believe 2.3 percent of married men have drinking problems versus 3.7 percent of single men, not a big difference.”

My Own Critiques of the “Marriage Civilizes Men” Claims

Brad Wilcox is making the case for what Katha Pollitt once called abarbarian adoption program,” whereby women are urged to marry men so they can be domesticated and tamed.

In my book, Singled Out, I took apart these claims about married men and single men. I’ll just mention some highlights.

One of the marriage mafia’s favorite sources of the claim that marriage civilizes men is a book by Steven Nock, Marriage in Men’s Lives. The research described in that book does suggest that men spend more time in church groups after marrying. However, other statements that Nock makes (and others repeat) are not even supported by Nock’s own data. Here’s some of what I said in Singled Out about the claim that married men work harder:

Nock believes that marriage motivates men to work harder and more responsibly. As he notes in his chapter on adult achievement, “Marriage is also the engine that fuels greater effort and dedication to the goal of doing well.” Workers who care about the good of their fellow workers and about their occupation or profession should put in the time to back up that dedication. Married men could, for example, evince their greater responsibility to the workplace by participating more often in groups such as farm organizations, unions, or professional societies. Only they don’t. In fact, according to Nock’s own reporting, men who marry spent less time at such work-related activities than they had when they were single. They do, though, work 2.2 weeks more per year than they had before. That’s the kind of work that pays — them, but not anyone else. Even this one marriage incentive fizzles for men who remarry; they work 7.4 weeks less than they had when they were divorced. (You can read more online here.)

It is true that men who marry spend less time with friends than they did when they were single. They are also less generous with their friends after marrying. As a number of my readers asked, however, how does this qualify as acting more civilized?

The drop in the amount of time that married men spend in bars is part of an overall trend toward doing less of all sorts of other enjoyable activities after marrying, such as playing informal sports and pursuing personal hobbies (from pp. 95-96 of Nock’s book). Time spent bowling, however, does not decrease when men marry. Insert your own conclusions here.

The claims about getting married and getting happier and healthier spread like kudzu. They just can’t seem to be controlled no matter how often they are sprayed with actual science.

The truth about getting married and getting happy: As I explained in detail in Chapter 2 of Singled Out, the longest-running study of the implications of getting married for happiness does not support the matri-maniacal claim that getting married transforms miserable single people into blissfully and lastingly happy married people.

Research by Richard Lucas shows that people who get married and stay married enjoy just a brief increase in happiness around the time of the wedding, then they go back to the level happiness they experienced when single (which is already quite high). Those who marry and then divorce do not even experience the brief honeymoon effect in happiness; instead, they are already becoming slightly less happy as their wedding day approaches. Lucas found the same pattern for men and women.

Finally, about getting married and getting healthy: There is no evidence that men (or women) become lastingly healthier when they marry (though they may become fatter). In fact, the transition into marriage is unlikely to make much of a difference in health. Getting married and then unmarried, though, can be a risk.

Copyright © Bella DePaulo, Ph.D.

Single living expert Bella DePaulo
SingularCity member Bella DePaulo (Ph.D., Harvard, 1979) is a single lifestyle expert and the author of several books, including “Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After” and “How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.” DePaulo has discussed singles and single life on radio and television, including NPR and CNN, and her work has been noted in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalUSA TodayTimeAtlantic, Business Week and Newsweek. Visit her website at

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2 thoughts on “Does Marriage Civilize Men?

  1. More to the point, correlation does not equal causation:
    Men who are sick, miserable and broke do not make good marriage prospects, and likely will stay single.

    On the other hand, men who are healthy, happy and financially stable are far more attractive to marriage minded women.
    I would argue, that marriage is a likely result, not a cause.

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