Marriage Is Not a Dirty Word

Norval D. Glenn teaches sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and is research director of the New York-based Council on Families of the Institute for American Values

What are scholars teaching the next generation about marriage? On behalf of the Council on Families, I recently conducted a study of 20 of the most current and widely available college-level textbooks on marriage and family life. As someone who has taught these courses for more than 20 years, I was aware that such textbooks have shortcomings. But what I found was worse than I had expected.

Taken as a whole, these books are a national embarrassment. They are full of glaring errors, distortions of research, omissions of important data and misattributions of scholarship. Most of all, they are shot through with the idea that marriage is not a particularly worthwhile institution.

An anthropologist from Mars who read these textbooks would come away with several basic beliefs. First, in America, marriage is just one of many equally acceptable and productive ways of finding a partner and raising children. In fact, if anything, marriage as a lifelong bond based on child-rearing holds special dangers for women, who are likely to find marriage physically threatening, psychologically stifling or both. Those Americans who suspect otherwise, according to these books, have had their brains befuddled by various “myths,” which modern science has definitively refuted. Moreover, the story continues, there is little evidence that divorce or unwed motherhood harms children or society. Instead, the more pressing danger comes from negative stereotypes about alternative family forms, which may encourage racial prejudice and reinforce social pressure that prevents us as individuals from freely choosing.

It is not surprising, given the ongoing academic debates on these matters, that some textbooks would take this view on some questions. But it is highly revealing that almost all 20 books take this view on virtually every question. The result is a one-sided story that seriously downplays the importance of marriage in benefiting adults and protecting children.


Moreover, what is presented in these books as an “expert consensus” is sharply at odds with much of the weight of social science evidence. It is a perspective that is increasingly at odds with the conclusions of leading family scholars, many of whom have essentially abandoned the 1970s-style celebration of “family diversity” that characterizes these textbooks.

Sadly, many students who use these textbooks are likely to complete their courses on the family more ill-informed than when they began.

Consider the relationship between family structure and juvenile crime. While there are many explanations for why some children become delinquents, no serious scholar believes that family influences are unimportant. As two academic leaders in this field, Michael Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, summarize the research: “Such family measures as the percentage of the population divorced, the percentage of households headed by women and the percentage of unattached individuals in the community are among the most powerful predictors of crime rates.”

How much space do the textbooks give to this topic? Only four of the 20 textbooks discuss it at all, devoting an average of less than half a page each to it. Today’s family textbooks are almost twice as likely to devote space to the issue of “swinging"--known in some circles as wife-swapping--as a lifestyle than to the relationship between family structure and crime.


Consider also the large and growing body of research indicating that marriage is good for people. The findings are amazingly consistent: married persons, men and women, are on average considerably better off than all categories of unmarried persons in terms of happiness, sexual satisfaction, physical health, longevity and most aspects of emotional health. Yet five of the 20 textbooks do not mention this research at all. The average amount of space per book devoted to the effects of marriage on adult well-being is a mere one and a quarter pages. Almost half this meager space is devoted to the largely unsupported and unsupportable assertion that marriage is good for men but bad for women.

More generally, any information about the social and personal costs associated with divorce and single parenthood enters these textbooks, if at all, in greatly weakened form, while virtually any optimistic theory about the benefits of “family diversity” gets magnified far out of proportion to the data that generate it.

Do textbooks matter? You bet they do. And until publishers, instructors and textbook authors clean up their act, the best advice I can give to those who rely on these textbooks is: Question authority. Almost certainly, you have been exposed to misinformation and worse on many important topics. Be forewarned: The life you mess up may be your own.