Liberal Vs Traditional Marriages

Liberal Vs Traditional Marriages

The longer I do this, the more I become convinced that there isn’t too much “right” and “wrong” in the world, just a lot of perspectives that are somewhat valid on their own merits.

We see this a lot in politics. Should the government eliminate useless red tape and wasteful spending, as conservatives suggest? Absolutely. Do we need tax dollars to pay for things as liberals suggest? Absolutely. You can choose sides, but you’d be foolish to deny that the other side has a point, whether you like it or not.

The liberal/conservative divide has reared its ugly head in the culture wars as well. Conservatives tend to stick with the one man, one woman, sex within marriage model. Liberals are open to all different models, including gay marriage, single parenting, polyamory, sex outside of marriage, and never getting married at all. Let’s put aside the irony that liberals are more in favor of individual choice and liberty and focus on the fallout.

The percentage of married people has dropped. The percentage of kids born out of wedlock has skyrocketed. (over 50% of kids born to 20-30 year olds). This sounds like a conservative’s nightmare.

And yet, the abortion rate is down, the divorce rate has lowered, and if you’re college educated and over the age of 30, you have an 80% chance of having your marriage last forever.

Are we making progress? Are we tearing apart the fabric of our society? Are we actually happier?

Well, if you’re upper class and educated, you’re probably better off than you’ve ever been before. People are marrying later, waiting until they are financially stable, delaying engagement until their love has stood the test of time, aware of the pitfalls of divorce, and so on. Plenty of people are making mistakes, but they’re more likely to end in a breakup after a year than a divorce after 10 years.

You can choose sides, but you’d be foolish to deny that the other side has a point, whether you like it or not.

If you’re lower class and uneducated, you’re probably worse off than you’ve ever been before. There are fewer role models for happy relationships. Financial stress is greater. Both parents have to work to put food on the table, but it’s a tough job market for high school graduates. Sex is abundant. Education is lacking. Abuse (physical, emotional, substance) is common and tolerated. As a result, there are millions of children being born without a stable two parent environment.

Which brings us to the crux of the argument posited by Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist for the liberal New York Times. Is the liberal vision of marriage, with lots of dating, sex, and blurry gender roles superior the chaste conservative vision of marriage, where people get married younger, have children younger, and reserve sex for committed relationships?

Douthat skews conservative, but actually has some data on his side. Even though liberals like to tout their sexual permissiveness as a strength – how can I get married unless I’ve sampled lots of the merchandise? – there is some social cost to sleeping your way through your 20’s and 30’s. “Notwithstanding the potential for regrets, women who only had sex with their  future spouse  are more likely to be in a high quality marriage than women who had  a higher number of sexual partners.  Divorce rates are higher for women with multiple premarital partners than women who had only one; they’re twice as high for women who have cohabitated serially than women who only cohabitated with their future husband. Independent of marriage, relationship stability is stronger when sex is initiated later, and monogamy and a restricted number of sex partners is strongly associated with female happiness and emotional well-being, period.”

As a liberal who has rolled his eyes for many years at how the GOP eschews facts for feelings, this would seem to be a lot of facts that contradict the liberal narrative. And we’d be foolish to dismiss those facts simply because we don’t like what they have to say. Someone is going to go in the comments and try to destroy the credibility of Douthat or the studies instead of thinking about why the studies would suggest something we don’t want to believe.

No one wants to have fewer choices – of where to live, how to work, or who to sleep with – but when confronted with them, we become paralyzed, and often make bad decisions that leave us unhappy.

Which is that, as Jonathan Franzen writes about in “Freedom,” there is a curse to having too much freedom. No one wants to have fewer choices – of where to live, how to work, or who to sleep with – but when confronted with them, we become paralyzed, and often make bad decisions that leave us unhappy. This was the premise of Barry Schwartz’s “The Paradox of Choice,” which analyzes why having more choices isn’t an equation for long-term happiness. So while I would never “slut-shame” anyone and believe in the freedom of choice, this freedom has also taken somewhat of a toll that we don’t like to calculate. All we have to do is read this blog to see the lack of trust in men, the lack of faith in relationships, the exasperation with men who have sex without commitment, the frustration with texting, dick pics, and hookup apps. I’m not trying to turn back time or put the genie back in the bottle; I’m just pointing out that this is the result of freedom.

As Douthat says at the end of his piece, “If we’re groping toward ideas or models  of what marriage should look like in the 21st century, and what kind of choices and cultivated virtues lead to happiness and durability unions and families, describing the future of marriage as necessarily (and happily) “progressive” is a kind of quarter-truth. It captures one very important element in contemporary social life, a shift toward more flexible gender roles amid greater female opportunities, that a flourishing marriage culture needs to adapt to, take advantage of, incorporate, accept. But it overstates how dramatically these adaptations, even or especially in their more successful forms, have overwritten more traditional patterns of marital success.”

This is not to suggest that there are no examples of successful single mothers, happy polyamorous couples, or women who are completely happy sleeping with dozens of men without commitment. There are, and God bless them. This only suggests that – on the whole – there is some measure of merit to the virtues of being selective about your sex partners – if, of course, you’re looking for a stable, monogamous relationship.

Keep in mind, that I was NOT selective about my sex partners and still stumbled my way into a happy marriage. But I enjoyed hooking up; it didn’t make me unhappy. That’s not the case for many women I know. Unfortunately, I have a lot of clients (and readers) who are really burned out on dating and random sex. Douthat’s article should be a validation that maybe they need to be more selective about who shares their bed.

Your thoughts, below, are appreciated.

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  1. 1

    It would be good to put to rest the it’s all feminism’s fault or it’s a patriarchal society trying to keep women down. Since subscribers of either view have expressed anger about it being one or the other, then it’s probably neither. Things are politicized far too much. Whether one thinks it’s good or bad, the culture is progressive. Folks just do what they’re going to do as a result.

  2. 2
    Dina Strange

    Evan, you basically said it all right here: “Notwithstanding the potential for regrets, women who only had sex with their future spouse are more likely to be in a high quality marriage than women who had a higher number of sexual partners. Divorce rates are higher for women with multiple premarital partners than women who had only one; they’re twice as high for women who have cohabitated serially than women who only cohabitated with their future husband. Independent of marriage, relationship stability is stronger when sex is initiated later, and monogamy and a restricted number of sex partners is strongly associated with female happiness and emotional well-being, period.”

  3. 3

    Personally, I can’t do random/casual sex. I don’t judge. I am just not ‘built’ emotionally for it. I need sex within the confines of monogamy because this makes me feel most valued. And frankly, I don’t think most men are ”built’ for it as well.

    However, with all my sexual chasteness, I still got divorced and ended up a single mother (go figure). Interestingly enough, every man I have dated (well, I’ve only dated 3) after my divorce wanted marriage. And, the guy I am dating now is currently talking about it. I think they enjoy the peace of mind that I am not ‘out there’. In any event (and I tell people all the time), while I am obviously not a virgin and I have truly made some mistakes, something happens to a woman (especially) when she has sex. I don’t want to get all spiritual but a man will always leave a part of you after the deed. You don’t just walk away scott free. Additionally, it affects your emotions, judgment, etc. I also believe that when one is very promiscuous, it becomes more difficult to be sexually satisfied. It’s akin to a man who always watches porn and his expectations become inflated.

    1. 3.1
      Dina Strange

      I totally agree that a man leaves something in you. That’s why women have to be careful. I always feel like its energy. The energy can be either positive or negative depending on a man. If a man leaves you with (his) negative energy you need that much longer to get “clean” again, from his negative energy that is stuck in you. It also makes you somewhat bitter…

      Unfortunately men only show their real faces when you get close to them, thats why women have to be extra careful, especially if they can’t be intimate without being emotional.

  4. 4

    should be ‘I don’t think most WOmen are built for it as well’

  5. 5

    “Divorce rates…they’re twice as high for women who have cohabitated serially than women who only cohabitated with their future husband.”

    That’s really surprising to me. Though ‘serially’, I suppose, can mean many times or simply more than once, I would (and do) think that having lived with someone pre-maritally would benefit a marriage, or, subsequently, show you that you wouldn’t sustain a good marriage together. I suppose it’s a classically liberal approach, as the adage above about “sampling the merchandise” suggests, but why wouldnt you want to give cohabitation a try before commiting to marriage with someone? In my eyes, living with someone is a trial run on marriage. Conversely, though, a more conservative view would likely point out that when you choose to marry someone, you should work through whatever issues arise, i.e.- In this circumstance, not being able to stand living with the person you married! I can see how either side would argue it, but I’m surprised that, factually, cohabitating “serially” is more detrimental than helpful.

    I consider myself pretty libertarian in my beliefs of marriage/sex/control of your own person, and I firmly believe that living with someone prior to marriage is important. I lived with a (now ex)boyfriend for 2 years after we had been together for about a year and a half. Through this time living together, we discovered that though we could stand to live together, we couldnt see ourselves together as a couple. Could I have married him and found this out later, once we lived together? Yes. Then what? Or, could we have found this out through not living together, just continuing to date and live separate? Maybe. Maybe it was a time thing, maybe it was a force of cohabitating; all I know is, living with him made me feel like I had a roommate, not a boyfriend. My current boyfriend, of a year, and I are moving in together next month. I dont fear him turning into a “rommate” because of the differences in our relationship already versus that of my ex and my past relationship, however, living together will surely help us reach a conclusion of a if we’re in it for the long haul. Just my two cents 🙂

  6. 6

    Right on.

  7. 7

    Kudos to you for this post, Evan. I think discussion of this topic is very important. I agree with the premise that choice addiction is prevalent in our society, and that it factors into happiness in marriage.

    In his book “Stumbling on Happiness”, psychologist Dan Gilbert describes how people synthesize happiness. Basically, when we are faced with a situation that is irreversible, inescapable, our psychological “immune system” kicks in and finds a way to deal with it. We can thus synthesize happiness in the most intolerable situation – people who have become paraplegic, people who were unjustly imprisoned, etc – have all claimed to be happy. They synthesized happiness by accepting their situation. Gilbert claims that what often stands in the way of our synthesizing happiness is a perception of reversibility, escapability, choice. If we do not accept our situations as final, if we perceive them to be reversible, we will be unable to synthesize happiness. If we perceive marriage to be reversible, if we perceive our choices to not be final, we will be more susceptible to being unhappy.

    And one of the greatest sources of the perception of reversibility of marriage is our past experiences. If we have dated, or lived with, numerous other people, and if those relationships have ended (or even worse, if we have been married and divorced before), how can we not perceive our future relationships as reversible too?

    And, as an addition, I think this problem is worse for women than for men (though it affects us too). It has been written that men have a tendency to be polygynous whereas women tend to be hypergamous. This means that men, if allowed un-restrained sexual choice, would build harems of women, and have numerous female lovers at any given time. Whereas women tend to want only one lover at a time, but they want that lover to be the best man that they can get. This being the case, as a woman becomes less satisfied with her current lover/husband, or perceives other men to be better, she will be inclined to leave him, should she be unhappy. Whereas if a man is less impressed with his lover/wife, he will be less inclined to divorce her entirely, but more inclined to cheat on the side (or perhaps look at porn online). Anyway, this is WAY off topic. But it might help explain the findings of the studies Evan quoted, as pertaining mostly to women.

    1. 7.1

      Thanks for your response.   I’ve always known that living together prior to marriage often led to less successful marriages.   But I  knew it, but couldn’t articulate why.   Your explanation of Dan Gilbert’s “synthesizing happiness” nailed it on the head for me.

      It reminded me of a TV programme in the UK over 10 years ago called: “The Convent”.

      Five women agree to join a Convent for a certain period of time (a month?).   They go there with various issues, some of which they aren’t really aware of.  

      Coming from secular society, they are initially rebellious, They hate the strict rules of the Convent and like teenagers start finding places to hide where they can smoke for eg.

      The nuns have a lot of time and patience and eventually the women accept the restrictions of their temporary home.

      That is when the transformations begin. When they stop resisting where they are and just accept it.

      One woman said that in her restrictions, she discovered an authentic freedom.

      I guess you could call it “synthesizing happiness”.   Too much choice often leads to a kind of restlessness and a consumer society often makes relationships seem like another commodity.

      When women, especially, have more choice it can lead to marriage becoming less stable and long lasting. Because marriage has, for a very long time, depended on women’s financial dependency on men and needing that support to raise a family.   It’s a survival mechanism.

      So all of those findings make sense.   Not easy to read, but instinctively I’ve always known this.

  8. 8
    Karl R

    In general, these studies confuse causation and correlation. For example, the last link (Douthan) mentions this correlation:
    “a young woman’s likelihood of depression rose steadily as her number of partners climbed and the present stability of her sex life diminished.”

    Douthan implies that happiness is caused by few partners. What if the causal link runs the other direction? Or what if both traits have a common cause?

    Dr. Seth Meyers has stated:
    “When it comes to promiscuous adults, they’re promiscuous because a proper self-esteem was not created earlier in life.”

    So instead of assuming that an increase in the number of sex partners causes depression and relationship instability, perhaps Douthan ought to assume that increasing levels of depression cause promiscuous sex and relationship instability.

    The correlation supports both interpretations equally.

    1. 8.1

      I was about to post almost the exact same thing until I saw that you beat me to it. This is a common problem with articles that cite studies, and sometimes, the studies themselves. They aren’t biased, and they aren’t incorrect, but they simply demonstrate correlation in most cases. Causation is always much more difficult to prove. However, that doesn’t mean the studies aren’t useful. Studies that show existing correlation provide the foundation for further exploratory research, and they serve as one of the first steps in ultimately determining if causation exists.

  9. 9

    Could correlation, not causation, misguide the public as to the root of the problem put forth in these informative examples? Possibly. Or could the advancement of “liberal” lifestyles in mainstream society as a whole have a major part to play in the outcomes of natives with low self-esteem as well? There are pluses and minuses to freedom that many people don’t necessarily think about at the time of initial change. Yes, there is no doubt both men and women suffer from low self-esteem. That said, building blocks of (traditional) society found in the past prevented the over-analytical, unsatisfied ego leading the native into more confusion and unhappiness as seen now. Back then, commitment meant something entirely different than what it does today. It was a society of “we,” never “me.” Evan keeps citing decreased divorce rates but from what data is he comparing current trends to? No-fault divorce wasn’t legal until 1969 — A practice with its origin based on the Boshelvik Revolution of the 1920’s. What was once considered radical in a traditional time, became Western law only 50 years later. A chief Boshelvik architect of Soviet law and marriage stated the following: “Free love is the ultimate aim of a socialist State; in that State marriage will be free from any kind of obligation, including economic, and will turn into an absolutely free union of two beings.”

    What’s wrong with obligation? From self and partner? Is self esteem the cause/correlation of our marital unhappiness or is simple idol worship of self that has become número uno in society at the expense of (mental) stability?

    Does this mean we throw the baby out with the bath water? Not necessarily. Freedom is especially nice to have if you’re stuck in a miserable marriage. But we have to ask ourselves when we were forced to be held accountable for our actions (pre- no fault divorce) and not have an obligation-free escape plan written into law, we made darn sure of our choices and we stuck it out. And, according to statistics, we were a lot happier for it.

    Evan, post-1969 divorce rates are not a true indicator of a traditionalist society. If we really want to compare and contrast traditionalist versus liberal, I suggest we use East Indian arranged marriage divorce rates (1% at the time of this writing). Call arranged marriage what you will, but if the “traditional” population is happier than western populations we should be asking why.

    1. 9.1
      Karl R

      Elizabeth said:
      “If we really want to compare and contrast traditionalist versus liberal, I suggest we use East Indian arranged marriage divorce rates (1% at the time of this writing).”

      There’s an enormous stigma against divorce in India. (I could post dozens of links, but instead, just Google: stigma against divorce in India)

      Why did you choose a comparison that was so obviously biased by unrelated variables?

      1. 9.1.1

        At one point divorce was taboo in this country as well. Just because a stigma exists doesn’t necessarily mean it’s unwarranted.

  10. 10

    I have 2 big problems with this.

    One, it’s a fair enough to ask whether more liberal views on sex and marriage are in our long term best interest as a society. But what I see conservatives doing, what this author did and what even you Evan are doing in this post is insinuating that if it is true that we’d be better off going back to more conservative ways, that the onus is on women to change. Read how many times you referred to women’s behavior, and how many times you referred to men’s behavior. The assumption is that society has suffered not because PEOPLE are more casual about sex but because WOMEN are more casual about sex.

    Two, I’ve seen these stats before that a woman’s past sexual history correlates with higher rates of divorce, infidelity and unhappiness. They come from the CDC Family Health study, so it’s a credible source, absolutely. But here’s the thing about social science — correlation does not imply causation.

    Could it be that women with a more liberal sexual history also have more liberal views on relationships (ie, divorce and living together before marriage is not shunned, cheating is wrong but not the mortal sin that religious folks say it is) and therefore are more likely to divorce than stick it out, are less likely to be ok with one sexual partner forever (after all you don’t miss what you never had).

    Could it be that these women — again more likely to be traditional and conservative — are happier for reasons other than fact that they slept with fewer men before they were married? Like maybe they’re happier because they more likely to be at home and not working (traditional) and thus not juggling home and full time work? Maybe they are happier because they do not feel compelled to make a major contribution to household income like a more liberal career oriented woman would? Maybe their marriage is happier because their husbands are not threatened by her ambition and earning power?

    I’m not trying to argue for unabandoned sexual freedom one way or the other. I’m simply pointing out the bias against women inherent in this entire argument and asking people to consider that it’s that bias and double standard and sense of being judged differently that makes women unhappy, not the act itself.

  11. 11

    Pt 2- I think it’s also interesting that Evan made a very powerful and disconcerting statement that no one addressed. “if you’re upper class and educated, you’re probably better off than you’ve ever been before” but “if you’re lower class and uneducated, you’re probably worse off than you’ve ever been before.” It would be instructive to know how many of our problems are exacerbated by the erosion of the middle class and the stresses that average family feels today. If you’re well off and can afford to pay people to care for your children and your house, freeing up your time to focus more on your relationship and weekend “getaways” to spend time together in exotic places. Then yeah these people should have an 80% chance of their marriage lasting,shouldn’t they?

    When you think about it historically, marriage was something promoted if not created by the wealthy to protect and increase their assets (and they got the church to give it a stamp of approval and tell people it’s “God’s law.”) The lower classes only got married once it was it was expected by the church and many couldn’t because they couldn’t afford it. Are we going back to that? Not that that would be bad in itself but the disappearing middle class is certainly a major cause for concern. It’s the existence of political and economically powerful middle class that keeps a society free, is it not?

  12. 12

    Excellent! Your objectivity and forwardness is refreshing!

  13. 13

    Focusing only on women’s sexual encounters is a prejudice in this article. Why am I surprised? I am not. What some educated, intelligent, independent, young women want today is equality in relationships. When the scales get tipped in a marriage especially after children and continue in that manner it’s a done and over deal.

  14. 14

    What this study fails to take into account is the “why” behind it all. Why would those women be happier?  I’d say the answer is simple. If you don’t know any better, you’re more likely to be satisfied with way less.

    Let’s take a good friend of mine, for example. Strict conservative, strict catholic upbringing as well. Married, long-term, to the first man she dated. Claims she is happy enough. Let met tell you, that man is one of the nastiest verbal abusers I’ve ever encountered in my life. Cheats on her on a regular basis as well.

    But what is her answer when we (her friends) so much as mention it? She basically doesn’t believe us that that is NOT normal, and not the way all men are. Why? Because she doesn’t know any better. She’s never experienced what it is like to date a “good” man. She grew up being told that a wife submits to her husband. That a woman’s expectations in life are such-and-such, and that she better be satisfied with it. To another friend of ours, you used to have the crap beaten out of her by her ex-husband, this husband actually looks like a saint. She, too, cannot truly believe the rest of us when we say that men shouldn’t be like that. She loves her current husband because he stops at verbal abuse (which she doesn’t even consider abuse, since she doesn’t know any better). As for the cheating: Both of them were brought up with the claim that “men will be men”. It is to be expected. At least they won’t have to put out too often. And to basically be happy and grateful that they have a husband to support them.

    So are these women content and satisfied in long-term marriages? Actually – yes. If you asked them, they would tell you they are happy, or happy enough. To the rest of us, who have experienced much better, they’re insane for staying with those men. Their idea of a good husband would make most of us cringe.

    While these two are more extreme examples, I’ve often noticed that it seems the less experience a woman has, the more likely she is to put up with or excuse “asshole” behavior. Or general behavior that a woman who knows better would never put up with. Then again, I’ve known wives who did not mind their husbands’ cheating, for example, because their idea of a high-quality marriage was a high-quality paycheck.

    It is all a matter of perspective. And mindset plays a huge role as well.

    I think a lot of times our discontentment comes not so much from the negative, but rather he fact that we’ve also experienced a lot of positive when we’ve had multiple partners. And are basically unable to find all the positive qualities we’ve come to appreciate combined in one partner.

    The less partners you have, the less experience you have with qualities that are truly a match for you. This applies to anything from how he treats you to how good he is in bed, to general compatibility.

    Her first partner might only be ok in bed. And she’ll be satisfied with that, especially since the general idea is still that women aren’t sexual creatures, so she’s not expecting it to be all that to begin with. And she might keep thinking so for the rest of her life, and be satisfied with it – if they stay together. If they don’t, she might just end up finding someone who totally rocks her boat down the road. And, all of a sudden, every mediocre-in-bed partner after that will never give her the same satisfaction.

    A woman who’s had more partners is a) more likely to measure all partners to a much higher standard, and b) more likely to have had more bad encounters as well (not just sexual, but relating to all qualities). I think it’s natural for frustration to be higher.

    So the results of this study are somewhat deceiving. Because it does not take the behavior of the man involved, or the mindset of the woman into account at all.

    As with anything else in life, the lower your expectations, the happier you will be. It’s really that simple. But whether that actually makes for “high-quality” is a whole other story.


  15. 15

    Going out on a limb, I’ll guess that this study was done in the U.S, and most women who reported having no/few intimate partners before marriage identify as conservative. If that is true (and it might not be), then do we need to look any further to invalidate the results of this study, at least as it pertains to the well-being of women?

    Look at the state of conservative women in the U.S. today. Conservative white women make up one of the strongest bases of Trump supporters. It doesn’t seem to matter to them that he brags about grabbing pussies or calls Christine Blasey Ford’s assault accusation a hoax, or ordered the separating of refugee children from mothers. They are still ‘happy’ with him.

    So what does their ‘happiness’ say about the welfare of women? NOTHING. if they report they are happier in marriages, that could still mean that they are getting abused, or not being treated as a respected equal, or doing much more than their fair share of work.

    I’m not saying that these women are not happy. They might really think they are. But using their own self-reported happiness as a means to generate advice to the rest of us women who don’t tolerate bad behavior? No thank you.

    1. 15.1



      1. 15.1.1

        Sylvana, now I see that you and I were writing the exact same message – except that you couched yours in your friend’s experience, and I couched mine in the context of the Pussy-Grabber-in-Chief.

        Either way, the message is the same. What inexperienced, cowed, or controlled women rate as ‘happy’ could look to the rest of  us like Stockholm Syndrome. So no thank you, we will pass on that version of happiness, and exercise the benefits of experience, freedom, and choosing for ourselves.

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