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Volume 10, No. 8 - November 2000  
Table of contents for this issue  

Can Marriage Be Saved?
An unsentimental case for matrimony
By Elise Harris

MARRIAGE APPEARS TO BE ON THE ROCKS. According to the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center, nearly 75 percent of American adults had spouses in 1972. In 1998, only 56 percent did. Since 1970, cohabitation by unmarried couples has increased sevenfold. Thirty-two percent of 1996 births were out of wedlock (the figure was 70 percent for African Americans). The divorce rate has stabilized at 50 percent.

To explain marriage's decline, some analysts (usually on the political left) point to large structural forces, such as the rise in women's employment and the lengthening of life spans. Others (usually on the right) deliver jeremiads against self-centeredness and the sexual revolution. Feminists promote government-subsidized day care, while Promise Keepers vow to restore men's stewardship of the family. At times the intellectual debate over marriage seems to have reached a stalemate, with each side repeating the same arguments over and over—much like a lousy marriage.

Now a respected sociology professor from the University of Chicago, Linda Waite, hopes to settle this tired old feud with a new claim. Her pragmatic argument: Marriage is a bargain, for both men and women, and few of us can afford to pass it up.

Waite, a quantitative sociologist and demographer, hopes that a public health argument will succeed where moral suasion has failed. She argues that the single life, like smoking, is bad for the individual and the community. And to ensure that her message will be heard, she has chosen a co-author with a talent for polemic: Maggie Gallagher, a conservative syndicated columnist at the Institute for American Values who has written several books on family issues. In The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially (Doubleday), Waite and Gallagher contend that marriage causes more positive effects (what sociologists call "good outcomes") than either living alone or cohabiting with a boyfriend or girlfriend. Their book relies not on browbeating but on math. The benefit of marriage, they assert, derives from economies of scale—two people living together for the cost of 1.6 people—and from the specialized division of labor within the household.

In its most time-honored form, specialization divides a couple's labor along gender lines: "He works for money, she tends to kids and kin." Waite claims that today's two-earner couples still divide their work, but more flexibly: "You do the insurance, I'll take the investments" or "You walk the dog, I'll clean the bathroom." As Adam Smith knew, specialization allows one to accomplish more. Waite has calculated just how much more by compiling other researchers' findings and by performing regression analyses to determine the impact of marriage on affluence, sexual satisfaction, mental health, physical health, and parenting. She and Gallagher cap their book off with a raft of policy ideas about how to keep marriages together.

Some critics argue that the apparent marriage benefit is a statistical artifact—the result of a self-selecting sample. After all, people who are already happy, healthy, and well adjusted are more likely to get married and stay married than those who are not. Others fault Waite and Gallagher's book for shying away from the controversial question of changing gender roles. Many attribute the rising divorce rate to women's increasing economic independence and desire for equality. Indeed, in an earlier book, Waite herself argued that marriage would only survive if it became more egalitarian, with men and women balancing household tasks more fairly. But in The Case for Marriage, she is no longer so avid about updating traditional gender roles. (In Slate, A.O. Scott called the book's characterization of male behavior "rather quaint.") Rather, she is worried that the rapid embrace of new family forms, such as single parenting, might be ill advised.

Though Waite has departed from academic liberal orthodoxy and even enlisted a conservative ally, her appeal to family values has a pragmatic, centrist bent. She combines her call for stricter divorce laws, for instance, with support for gay marriage. Will other women adopt her cool-headed conclusions? And once they're told the incentives for staying, can women—and men—learn to prefer flawed, actual unions to the ideal marriages they imagine?

WHEN WAITE AND I MEET IN A BAGEL SHOP in a Chicago suburb, she is wearing a suburbanite's white linen top, gray linen pants, and a green Gap baseball hat. She is direct and friendly, with a manner that is polite but slightly detached. Married to the sociologist Ross Stolzenberg, who also teaches at the University of Chicago, Waite is the mother of two daughters, aged twenty-one and fifteen.

Waite was chair of the American Sociological Association's family committee in 1999. She is also the co-author of a widely respected book, New Families, No Families? (California, 1991), an analysis of the factors that predict marriage and divorce. And she has recently edited a densely quantitative anthology on marriage and cohabitation patterns, The Ties That Bind (de Gruyter), published in June.

She has, in other words, been studying marriage for decades—decades when marriage puzzled sociologists by its steady falloff in prevalence and prestige. The Case for Marriage itself is an expanded version of a presidential address Waite gave to the Population Association of America in 1995. "I wanted to be more relevant—not just be an ivory-tower academic but actually take this to the general public," she says. "When I looked out at the world, I just saw this pattern that I think nobody else had ever seen."

What she saw was that married people were healthier and wealthier, had better sex, and were better parents than the unmarried. "Singles must accomplish all of life's tasks by themselves," she and her co-author write. Even if they have children, couples who cohabit out of wedlock tend to behave as if their relationship were impermanent, so they avoid specialization—and lose out on the interdependence that produces many of marriage's biggest boons.

Waite starts from the stunning, and long-established, correlation between physical health and marriage for men. "Almost nine out of ten married men alive at age forty-eight would still be alive at age sixty-five," Waite and Gallagher write; "by contrast just six out of every ten never-married men alive at forty-eight would make it to retirement age." Married men are half as likely as single men—and a third as likely as divorced men—to commit suicide. Single men drink twice as much as married men the same age.

Waite then goes on to make the more contested point that both genders benefit from marriage. Because single women on average drink less and have closer friendships than single men, marriage confers much less of a behavioral health benefit on women than on men. But marriage does boost a woman's health—less by changing her habits than by giving her better financial resources and improved access to health care. Cancer-care providers have long known that having a spouse vastly improves a patient's chance of survival. Married couples also save more, have an easier time managing the parenting workload, and have a lower risk of domestic violence than cohabiting couples.

Both married men and married women seem to be less prone to clinical depression, anxiety disorders, and suicide than the single or divorced. (These benefits are not evenly distributed, however: Marriage gives more protection from alcoholism to women and more protection from depression to men.) Mental health in general seems to get a lift from a wedding, though most of marriage's psychological benefit appears to be contingent on a person considering his or her marriage very happy—currently the case with 66 percent of husbands and 62 percent of wives. Waite notes that spouses who call their marriages "pretty happy" (as about a third of husbands and wives do) are only somewhat more content than single people. Those in "not too happy" marriages—2 percent of men, 4 percent of women—are more distressed than single people. But Waite does not necessarily recommend divorce in such cases: She notes that 86 percent of unhappily married people who don't divorce are far happier five years later. (Though Waite doesn't say, no doubt some of the unhappily married who did divorce were also less miserable.)

If marriage is good for one's health, it's also not too bad for one's sex life and bank account. Cohabitants have more sex than the married, Waite reveals, but the married have more than non-cohabiting singles. Married men and women report more emotional satisfaction from sex than either singles or cohabitants. Waite's findings on sex exemplify the knottiness of the self-selection problem, however. People who dislike casual sex self-select into marriage, and married women seem more likely to fall into this category. (For example, 46 percent of married women say they will have sex only with someone they love—a statement only 9 percent of single men make.)

Financially, marriage affects men and women differently. Married men earn between 10 and 40 percent more than single men. The wage premium declines somewhat upon divorce, which suggests that it cannot be entirely due to self-selection. Rather, Waite and other sociologists attribute it to the support and housework wives contribute, turning their husbands into earning machines. Cohabiting men receive a premium about half as large. In this arena, marriage helps childless women. The vast majority of married women become mothers, however, and child-rearing women often cut back on paid work and earn less as a result. (At thirty-seven hours a week, a typical mother's domestic workload constitutes a virtual "second shift.") Furthermore, as Waite and Gallagher acknowledge, women often specialize in ways that put them at a skills disadvantage after divorce.

Waite and Gallagher sum up an American woman's economic options in the year 2000 matter-of-factly:

A woman who marries and remains childless will enjoy all the emotional, sexual, and physical advantages of marriage and will be financially better off, to boot.... If she marries and has children, she will probably work less and earn less than she would if she had remained single. If the marriage lasts, she will be far more affluent, on average, than her single sisters. If the marriage fails, she assumes considerably more financial risk than her husband, but she and her children will almost certainly be better off financially than if she had had children out of wedlock.... For the overwhelming majority of women who want children, marriage today provides imperfect protection in exchange for family labor, but certainly a wedding ring still offers mothers a better financial deal than women are likely to receive without it. Inequities caused by divorce (or housework) may be a serious reason for social concern and reform, but they are not good reasons for women to avoid marriage.

TO HELP CONVEY HER CONTROVERSIAL MESSAGE, Waite picked an unorthodox fellow messenger. The object of serious loathing among fans of the sexual revolution, Maggie Gallagher is a forceful polemicist. Her path to journalism began in an unusual fashion: She got pregnant in 1982 during her senior year at Yale and chose to keep her son, whose birth she calls "a revelatory experience." Her relationship with her sophomore boyfriend fell apart, and she became a single mother. She needed work that she could combine with single parenting, and journalism fit the bill. She crafted a career as a prominent writer and editor on the right with two books, a syndicated column, and editorial positions at the National Review and the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. She now works full time from her home. (The Institute for American Values paid her salary while she collaborated with Waite.) Seven years ago, she married, and she now has another son, age five, in addition to her seventeen-year-old, Patrick.

Whereas Waite's prose is littered with references to beta columns, utility functions, and changes at the margin, Gallagher writes with bodice-ripping intensity. In her previous book, The Abolition of Marriage (Regnery, 1996), she decried the prevailing sex-as-fun ethos for containing none of "the deep reality of eros, of its grandeur or cruelty, ecstasy, longing, or the humiliation of losing oneself in another human being," and for containing "no hint of the terrors of loneliness, or the urgency of lust, or the need to prove one is a man or a woman, or the even more urgent desire to break through the bounds of flesh, to give oneself, to take another. No hint of passion, or love, or frailty, or longing, or hatred—no hint of the moral and emotional intensity that gives sex the power to create and to destroy." Yowza. Waite admired The Abolition of Marriage. Its argumentation "did no violence" to the numbers, Waite says, and she recruited Gallagher for the benefit of her lively prose.

Waite's choice of co-author seems to correspond to a shift in her thinking about marriage. Nearly a decade ago, in New Families, No Families, Waite argued that only "new families" (men help with the child care and housework, women have full-throttle work lives) would dam the flood tide of "no families" (divorced parents, single mothers, childless couples, and childless singles). Waite had a different co-author then: Brown University sociologist Fran Goldscheider. "With that book, we said, 'If we don't get our act together, we'll all divorce, go off, and be by ourselves,'" recalls Goldscheider. "I definitely think it's the different sets of gender expectations driving the divorce rate."

But Waite has moved away from the thesis she and Goldscheider once shared. "She cared more about keeping the families together. I cared more about gender roles," says Goldscheider. Now Waite argues that even though men may benefit from marriage more than women do, marriage is still worth it for both partners, particularly for children's sake. The Case for Marriage takes for granted that a breadwinner-homemaker family is better than a "no family."

In some ways, Waite's pairing up with Gallagher resembles an intellectual remarriage. Though obviously very loyal to Waite, Goldscheider sounds vaguely like someone discussing her ex's new spouse when she says, "Maggie Gallagher and I can communicate over specific findings but not over interpretations. Her politics!" Goldscheider is thanked in the new book's acknowledgments as a true friend "who gave far more than anyone except a co-author should."

There is a tough, unyielding quality to Waite's mind—argue with her, and she will take you to the mat. She says she did not want to collaborate with another academic, partly because she wanted a collaborator who would help her break out of an academic style but also because another scholar would fight for her own personal interpretations. By contrast, Gallagher "really writes beautifully," Waite says, and "she'd never mess with me on the ideas."

WAITE'S OVERALL CASE SOUNDS IMPRESSIVE, and there is little opposing research to contest it. You put the book down wanting to fix up all your friends. But there are weaknesses. A significant problem for Waite's argument—as so often in the social sciences—is the problem of a self-selecting sample: Does marriage make people healthier, happier, and richer, or do healthy, happy, rich people get (and stay) married more often than the sick, miserable, and poor do?

This question has been at the center of one of the thorniest and most technical debates in sociology. As New York University professor Arlene Skolnick explains, in order to prove Waite's arguments to a scientist's satisfaction, "you'd have to take one hundred men and women at random and marry half of them, while leaving the other half single." Brown University psychiatrist Peter Kramer, author of Should You Leave? (Scribner, 1997), notes that "this is inherently a very hard thing to study. People who are healthier to start with marry, and they can make the adjustments to make marriage successful. The 50 percent who divorce, those are not a random sample. They are not the same as the group who just doesn't consider divorce."

Waite does not deny that self-selection is at play. But she hopes to show that it doesn't account for all marriage's benefits. The expectation of permanence and mutual reliance, she believes, provides a significant portion.

Waite attempts to answer the selection objection by comparing married people with widows and widowers. If the benefits of marriage are entirely due to self-selection, widows and widowers should fare nearly as well alone as they did while married, because they should still possess the beneficial traits that enabled them to be healthy, wealthy, and happy. Yet one economist found that the widowed, like the divorced, lost assets over a five-year period, whereas married people the same age increased assets by 7 percent. Mental health data indicate that widowed people are about three times as likely to commit suicide as the married and that only 22 percent of the widowed call themselves very happy with life in general, whereas 40 percent of the married do. (Of course, Waite's critics charge that bereavement itself might account for these falloffs.)

Before Waite has even sat down at the table, she addresses her fear that she'll be pigeonholed as a paleoconservative not unlike her Chicago colleague Gary Becker, whose 1982 Treatise on the Family offered the classic economic analysis of marriage. "A reviewer said, 'Basically it's the Gary Becker thesis—she's arguing that women should be kept in the home,' and that's not what I'm saying at all!" she exclaims. "People tend to specialize any way they want." Both Waite and Gallagher are full-time working mothers in dual-career marriages. The Case for Marriage is not a brief for the two-career couple or for the woman as homemaker; it is resolutely agnostic about how work should be divided between husband and wife.

Talk to Waite in person, however, and soon enough some speculation about a "more probable" gender-based division of labor does emerge. She starts out sounding like a feminist policy analyst. Single parenting is a problem, she says, "because it shifts all the emotional and physical costs of childbearing onto the woman, which is inherently unfair. It deprives the child of the resources from the father. You can say there must be another way to extract those resources, but no one's figured out how to do it. In Sweden, they do a better job, because more of it comes from the state."

But then she pauses and begins to suggest that women and men may naturally possess different aptitudes. "The truth is," she continues, venturing into the kind of speculation an evolutionary biologist might make, "that men bond to their children through the woman that they're sexually bonded to. Women bond to their children directly. The big question is how do women bond to men."

Does it make sense for both members of a couple to lead strenuous work lives? Statistics indicate that far from leading glamorous, creative careers, most married mothers are drudging away in service and clerical jobs because their families need the money. Many would prefer part-time work, but such jobs are scarce and rarely pay well. And because divorce is always a possibility, wives may stay employed to hedge their bets: It is economically dangerous to rely too heavily on a husband who might not stick around. "The argument is that where women have a reasonable expectation of a reasonable return, they're more likely to invest in their husband," says Waite. She insists that "if one person maximizes his or her career, that person's career does better, all else equal. Either you both take hits, both your careers are less, or one takes a bigger hit than the other." Of course, she says, the spouse who maximizes her career could be a woman. But Waite cites what she calls the "incredible speculations" of Stanford economist Victor Fuchs, who has argued that women tend to want children more than men do and are therefore more likely to make concessions—including career sacrifices.

"Don't you think that the women who do both [paid work and parenting] tend not to be as hard driving as the most driven men?" Waite asks. "If push comes to shove and her kid is sick—if she thinks the kid's sick, but he thinks the kid's not—she's not going to spend that extra four hours working on that legal case. Or she's not going to take that surgical residency because she doesn't want to spend eighty hours a week at work."

Gallagher is even less timid on the subject of what women want. "If you think that gender is irrelevant to the project of life, then you're as blind as a Victorian about sex," she declares. "Women want to be around their babies. It's the mammalian imperative!" That's not to say that this mammalian imperative implies male dominance. Gallagher, too, says she hopes for a time when power is shared and "equal regard" is exchanged between those who earn money and those who do nonmarket labor.

IN THE 1972 BOOK The Future of Marriage, the Penn State feminist sociologist Jessie Bernard notoriously opined that marriage was good for men but housewifery was pathological for women. "To be happy in a relationship which imposes so many impediments on her, as traditional marriage does," Bernard wrote, "a woman must be slightly ill mentally." Bernard noted that isolation, rather than marriage per se, was responsible for the psychological damage.

Much has changed since Bernard's day. According to All Our Families (Oxford, 1998), an anthology on new family forms, about 50 percent of mothers with babies now work, and about half of two-parent families have two full-time workers. (Women, however, still earn far less than men.) The gender gap in housework is down, says Waite, not because men are doing more housework than they used to but because women are doing far less.

But even though some of Bernard's worst fears about domestic drudgery may have been assuaged, wives today initiate divorce more often than husbands do. Women file for two-thirds of divorces (men are more likely to skip legal niceties and simply desert). Waite and Gallagher argue that women are voting with their feet because work outside the home has increased their overall workload and stress level, even though it may have relieved their sense of social isolation and depression.

One of the greatest benefits marriage offers women is economic: flexibility in their work lives. In fact, quite a few of marriage's benefits to childbearing women, as Waite describes them, actually derive from a massive infusion of cash from men.

Of course, if you're an advocate of gender equity in pay, or of government-subsidized child care, this line of argument can leave you a bit queasy. "It's no surprise women are better off married than not, given the realities that their income and socioeconomic status are lower in every class!" comments sociologist Barbara Risman, author of Gender Vertigo (Yale, 2000) and chair of the Center for Contemporary Families, a new think tank designed as a left-leaning answer to the Institute for American Values. "There's an element of tautology here. Sure, you're better off attached to men in a sexist society organized around couples where men get all the goodies. There are two responses to this: one, that society needs to change, or two, that you better make sure women stay married."

Waite responds that this is the "posit an alternative reality" school of sociology. But her heavy emphasis on finance can make you feel as if she's trying to bribe you into marriage. It reminded me of the campaign waged by my conservative Christian grandfather. He began by denouncing my careerist priorities in a birthday card: "Remember that your reward lies not in this world!" In a Christmas card a few years later, he worried about my sexual orientation: "Don't forget that the most important decision you make will be where you spend eternity!" Finally, he decided to bargain on the terms of this world and conveyed a practical appeal via my mother: "Tell her that I'll give her $10,000 when she gets married, and then another $10,000 for the first baby." You can't help but wonder: If marriage is so great, why does Waite have to sell it so hard?

One of the ideas underpinning Waite's pro-marriage pitch is rational choice theory, the notion that people will act on their own best interests if they are told what those interests are. People stopped smoking and started exercising, didn't they? Don't they wear seat belts and recycle? Waite hopes that good sense will motivate people into getting and staying married. But few men lose their heads over better immune function, and few women sit anxiously by the phone waiting for news of pension processing. Seemingly irrational impulses tend to get men and women into (and out of) marriage quite effectively.

Indeed, it's difficult to calculate the importance of love and friendship. The feminist Shere Hite's 1987 assessment, Women and Love, is dubious as a work of science but invaluable as a treasure trove of female complaint: "My husband never saw me as an equal and treated me as an inferior." "I'd rather be alone. At least that way I don't have to be put down." Women today bring to their relationships a new economic leverage, but they sometimes seem to be using that leverage to obtain something fairly old-fashioned. "Let's face it," Melissa Bank, author of The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing (Viking, 1999), recently told Time magazine, "you don't just want a man in your life. You only want a great man in your life."

Waite responds to this romantic impulse with outright frustration. In fact, she questions the very ideal of companionate marriage. "What people thought, and I was certainly one of those people, was that there were men out there who were extremely successful and warm and loving and always there and supportive and did a lot of housework—and they just don't exist!" she says. "If you think you're going to get your conversational and emotional needs met by your husband, forget it! It's just not going to happen, because men and women have different needs. Realize women have more need for this, and find another woman to talk to."

Gallagher dismisses the wish for a perfectly adoring and adorable mate as "ritual purity"—a craving by women for "a time when they will be utterly loved." She warns: "Don't find him unloving and uncaring because he doesn't act like a woman." And she adds that "it's unjust and not fair and not wise" to write off a husband's financial contributions or to be ungrateful for "this very nice life that this man is giving you."

Waite seems to have a warm disposition, but she also has a Lisa Simpson-like inability to empathize with romantic yearning and disappointment. "Why is Waite saying that not really satisfying lives are good enough?" asks Risman. Yet what may be most useful about Waite's analysis is that it leads you to question your rosier assumptions about happiness and satisfaction. Instead of arguing that marriage brings bliss, Waite and Gallagher show how marriage can alleviate certain forms of misery—loneliness and self-destruction for men, stressful and impoverished single motherhood for women, paternal loss for children.

On the other hand, marriages do sour, sometimes irreversibly. Divorce often triggers depression, but it would be unwise to conclude from such an observation that divorce is therefore always a mistake. Any failure at an important task in life is depressing—being fired from a job, getting kicked out of school—but failure cannot be pretended away.

Waite and Gallagher lay much of the blame for the vulnerability of marriage at the door of unilateral, no-fault divorce law, which swept the country in the 1970s. Before its advent, even if both spouses wanted to split, one had to make a (usually fabricated) claim of adultery, cruelty, or desertion, while the other played the role of guilty party. Today, a spouse can simply walk away. Waite argues that easy divorce makes married people more skittish. They invest less in their marriage and more in themselves, and in a vicious circle, separation becomes an easy step to take.

If you were going to design a society with enduring marriages from scratch, and your options were (1) economic fetters on wives and legal fetters on husbands, or (2) economic and legal autonomy for both spouses, who would be asked to respond to this freedom with emotional maturity, the choice would be obvious. Keep women dependent, men obligated, and divorce illegal.

Says Gallagher: "There is a fair amount of evidence, in my opinion—and I don't think that this is Linda's opinion—that marriages in which women do not want to have some protection from the need for market labor are going to be more vulnerable, because they are going to rely more on husbands' ability to satisfy wives' emotional needs. Men who are more gifted at that will maintain their marriages, the less gifted will be more vulnerable to divorce."

Waite has higher hopes for two-career marriages than Gallagher does. But such marriages lead to a drastic falloff in middle-class fertility, and that alarms her. "There's not very much societal support for child rearing with all the incredible amounts of work that people do. What's going to happen? If we all work long hours and have fewer kids, in the short run we can maximize profits, but fifty years from now [the population] will all be immigrants from high-fertility countries." Indeed, if working families cannot invest in their children, succeeding generations will have economic divisions that are more and more pronounced.

So, can marriage be saved? In their final chapter, Waite and Gallagher propose a number of ways it might be: reforming the earned income tax credit so that low-income people would not be penalized by marrying; instituting waiting periods for contested unilateral divorces; limiting domestic-partnership benefits to gay couples; discouraging unmarried pregnancy; providing marriage education to high school students; reducing fees for wedding-license applicants who take a skills class; and recruiting older couples to mentor younger ones. The two writers split on the advisability of gay marriage—Waite pro, Gallagher con—though both believe there is no statistical evidence that two people of the same gender would benefit as effectively from specialization as a man and a woman would.

Will the Waite-Gallagher proposal work? The Johns Hopkins sociology professor Andrew Cherlin, author of Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage (Harvard, 1992), surmises that a public health campaign "might be a shrewd way to campaign for marriage now, consistent with our individualistic lens." He believes that policy changes such as tax credits for kids and waiting periods for contested divorces are "important in the symbolic sense, but they won't have much practical effect. There is a possibility for some minor change at the margins, but not a stunning reversal of the trends we've seen for the last 150 years." Others are even more skeptical. Diane Lye, a sociologist who recently left the University of Washington to work in the private sector, thinks calls for mentoring and marriage education are ridiculous: "It's stupid, wishy-washy, why-can't-we-all-get-along thinking, and it's unrealistic. You can wring your hands about it, but frankly it's not going to change. We've arrived at a new, stable pattern."

For all their efforts to defend marriage in terms of individual interests, it may be hard for Waite and Gallagher's ultimately communitarian ethos to penetrate our powerfully individualistic culture. Waite herself could not penetrate the consciousness of her own brother. "My brother left his wife when they had a two-year-old, a four-year-old, and a six-year-old," she says. "There wasn't any conflict. He wasn't happy! We're in e-mail contact, and he said, 'My emotional needs weren't being met.' I thought, 'Well, maybe your emotional needs don't come first here. What about your kids' emotional needs?'"

Against Waite and Gallagher's call for permanent relationships, Americans do seem especially prone to a peripatetic, distracted ethos of new enterprises, new ideas—and new relationships. The divorce rate in the United States has always been three or four times higher than that in Western European countries. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that "an American will build a house in which to pass his old age and sell it before the roof is on; he will plant a garden and rent it just as the trees are coming into bearing; he will clear a field and leave others to reap the harvest; he will take up a profession and leave it; settle in one place and soon go off elsewhere with his changing desires.... Death steps in in the end and stops him before he has grown tired of this futile pursuit of that complete felicity which always escapes him."

Who knows if this restlessness can be calmed? At a recent show in New York City, the indie-rock band Ida played a two-hundred-year-old folk song as a present to a friend on the eve of his wedding. "Are you tired of me, my darling?/Answer only with your eyes," they sang, as if the centuries-old tune might be able to inoculate a man against marital disaffection. The audience took a deep breath.

Elise Harris, a former senior editor at Out magazine, has written for The New York Times Book Review, The Nation, and Civilization. She is writing a book on the narrative of romantic love.

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