Book Excerpt: Elizabeth Gilbert on the Marriage Benefit Imbalance

Photo by Elycefeliz on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License.

Photo by Elycefeliz on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons License.

At this point in my life, I still move around a bit too much for me to be comfortable building up much of a library. I regularly go through and clean out my books and donate any that don't have special meaning to me. 

I will never give away Elizabeth Gilbert's books. I've had "Eat Pray Love" for years; my copy is lovingly highlighted, dogeared, and underlined. On my recent move from Chicago to Northern Virginia, I listened to an audio book of her work "Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage" and then promptly bought a hardcopy of it. I've already started highlighting it and underlining it; there's a very good chance that part of its words on the radical nature of marriage will end up in my wedding ceremony. It's fantastic and fascinating and if my blog ends up being a quarter as brilliant, insightful, and educational as that book, I will be incredibly pleased with myself.

Today's excerpt, however, is a bit more realistic and depressing: 

...[W]e have to start with the cold, ugly fact that marriage does not benefit women as much as it benefits men. I did not invent this fact, and I don't like saying it, but it's a sad truth, backed up by study after study. By contrast, marriage as an institution has always been terrifically beneficial for men. If you are a man, say the actuarial charts, the smartest decision you can possibly make for yourself-assuming that you would like to lead a long, happy, healthy, prosperous existence-is to get married. Married men perform dazzlingly better in life than single men. Married men live longer than single men; married men accumulate more wealth than single men; married men excel at their careers above single men; married men are far less likely to die a violent death than single men; married men report themselves to be much happier than single men; and married men suffer less from alcoholism, drug addiction, and depression than do single men.

"A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage," wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1813, but he was dead wrong, or at least with regard to male human happiness. There doesn't seem to be anything, statistically speaking, that a man does not gain by getting married.

Dishearteningly, the reverse is not true. Modern married women do not fare better in life than their single counterparts. Married women in America do not live longer than single women; married women do not accumulate as much wealth as a single woman (you take a 7 percent pay cut, on average, just for getting hitched); married women do not thrive in their careers to the extent single women do; married women are significantly less healthy than single women; married women are more likely to suffer from depression than single women; and married women are more likely to die a violent death than single women--usually at the hands of a husband, which raises the grim reality that, statistically speaking, the most dangerous person in the average woman's life is her own man.

All this adds up to what puzzled sociologists call the "Marriage Benefit Imbalance"--a tidy name for an almost freakishly doleful conclusion: that women generally lose in teh exchange of marriage vows, while men win big.

Now before we all lie down under our desks and weep--which is what this conclusion makes me want to do--I must assure everyone that the situation is getting better. As the years go by and more women become autonomous, the Marriage Benefit Imbalance diminishes, and there are some factors that can narrow this inequity considerably. The more education a married woman has, the more money she earns, the later in life she marries, the fewer children she bears, and the more help her husband offers with household chores, the better her quality of life in marriage will be. If there was ever a good moment in Western history, then, for a woman to become a wife, this would probably be it. If you are advising your daughter on her future, and you want her to be a happy adult someday, then you might want to encourage her to finish her schooling, delay marriage for as long as possible, earn her own living, limit the number of children she has, and find a man who doesn't mind cleaning the bathtub. Then your daughter may have a chance at leading a life that is nearly as healthy and wealthy and happy as her future husband's life will be.