A recently married man and woman sharing a moment.

Why marriage is good for men

Jun 5, 2024
Brad Wilcox

Is marriage a bad deal for men? Some loud voices on both the political Left and Right suggest it is. Reactionary online influencers like Andrew Tate tell us: “The problem is, there is zero advantage to marriage in the Western world for a man,” adding, “there is zero statistical advantage.” He warns young men today, “If you use your mind, if you use your head instead of your heart, and you look at the advantages of getting married, there are absolutely none.” Tate’s anti-nuptial view is based in part on his belief that most marriages end in divorce for men—for which men pay a big price financially and emotionally. Based on my conversations with teenage boys and young men across America, I can report that his views on this issue have found a receptive audience.

Meanwhile, over on the left, intellectuals like Matt Bruenig, the president of the People’s Policy Project, offer a different but equally dismissive take on marriage. Although they acknowledge that married men are more likely to be flourishing financially, they argue that marriage per se has no value for men. The apparent value of marriage can be almost entirely attributed to what social scientists call “selection effects.” That is, certain types of men are more likely to succeed in life, which increases their marriageability, but the institution itself does not make an independent contribution to men’s financial well-being. In Bruenig’s words: “With marriage, you have an institution that attracts and retains more economically secure and stable people, not an institution that creates them.” In his view, marriage rewards successful men, but does not increase the odds that ordinary men succeed.

These are sharp critiques of marriages from two very different men. But their views reflect a broader skepticism about the value of marriage on both the alt-right and the progressive left.

So, is it true? Does marriage have “zero statistical advantage” for today’s men? Is marriage just one more trophy for men who have already made it, of little intrinsic importance beyond symbolizing success?

Let’s take Tate’s advice and use our minds rather than our hearts to examine the social science about marriage when it comes to three important outcomes for men: money, happiness, and death.

Married men are richer men

On finances, the data is strong and clear. Stably married men (men who have gotten and stayed married) heading into retirement have about ten times more household assets saved up over their lifetime than their divorced or never-married male peers. After factoring in differences in education level, race, and employment, the average marriage premium in household assets for stably married men amounts to more than $290,000, compared to their unmarried fellow men.

That sounds like exactly the opposite of “zero statistical advantage.”

There’s a similar story for income. Even controlling for household size, age, education, race, and ethnicity, married men have 40 percent more household income than their unmarried peers. Similarly, married men in their prime years are 55 percent less likely to be living in poverty.

The question about selection effects, the one Matt Bruenig asks, is an important one. Clearly this is part of the story. But it is far from all of it. Research from twin studies is helpful here, and one study finds that men who are married earn about 26 percent more than their unmarried twin brother. All this suggests that marriage per se helps to boost the financial fortunes of men.

This is because, as I argue in my book Get Married: Why Americans Must Defy the Elites, Forge Strong Families, and Save Civilization, the responsibility norms associated with marriage mean that men work harder, smarter, and more responsibly. We know, for instance, that married men work more hours and are less likely to be fired than their similarly credentialed but unmarried peers.

Married men are happier men

Money matters, but some things are more important. Things like happiness. So how is marriage related to men’s happiness? Again, the evidence is clear. Married men are about twice as likely to “very happy” with their lives, compared to unmarried men, according to the data. Notably, married fathers do especially well on this front. Nearly 60 percent of married fathers report their lives are meaningful “most of the time”, compared to only 38 percent of their single childless peers, according to the Institute for Family Studies/Wheatley Institute Family Survey, conducted by YouGov in 2021.

Regarding happiness in particular, the social scientist James Q. Wilson wrote in 2002: “Married people are happier than unmarried ones of the same age, not only in the United States but in at least seventeen other countries where similar inquiries have been made.” Wilson notes, “there seem to be good reasons for that happiness,” given the strong health and well-being benefits “associated with marriage”. And if anything, the link between marriage and happiness seems slightly stronger for men than for women.

Again, there are likely some selection effects at work here. It makes sense that happier people are more likely to get and stay married. Once again, however, marriage has a positive influence in and of itself. Tyler VanderWeele, a professor of biostatistics at Harvard’s School of Public Health, has studied this question in depth. He writes: “existing longitudinal studies indicate, like the cross-sectional studies, that marriage is associated with higher life satisfaction and greater affective happiness.” VanderWeele argues that “marriage and family appear to be an important pathway to flourishing.”

Married men are healthier men

Men who are unmarried are much more likely to flounder, drift, and end up diseased or dead. The work of Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton shows that hundreds of thousands of men have been lost to “deaths of despair” from overdoses, alcohol-related disease, or suicide. Unmarried men without college degrees are especially likely to succumb to these deaths. University of Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen has studied the relationship between marriage and deaths of despair and describes his findings this way:

“The fact that married people face lower mortality risks than those who are single is a persistent component of the status hierarchy in U.S. families, apparently representing some combination of both positive health selection into marriage and a protective effect of marriage, and this difference has long been greater for men than for women.”

Gallup chief economist Jonathan Rothwell comes to similar conclusions in his research, finding that regional patterns in such deaths are strongly associated with the share of adults married. “In fact,” he observes, “the marriage rate measures are each more important than the college attainment rate, age composition, or racial composition in predicting deaths of despair.”

Marriage reduces the risk of a death from suicide for both men and women, an important finding given the rise in suicide rates among men, especially younger men, over the last decade. Charles Fain Lehman reports for the Institute for Family Studies that the “suicide rate among divorced adults is more than three times that of married adults, while the suicide rate among singles is 1.5 to 2 times the rate among those who are married.” Other research suggests the protective power of marriage when it comes to suicide is especially strong for men. As I observe in Get Married:

“The truth is that women and especially men flying solo in America today are significantly more likely than their married fellow citizens to crash and burn – even to the point of ending up in an early grave.”

America needs more married men

Married men are more financially secure, happier, and less prone to succumbing to deaths of despair. There is also decent evidence that some of the benefits of marriage for men flow from the ways in which marriage as an institution protects men from loneliness, meaninglessness, and helps them work smarter and more successfully.

The good news is that after decades of decline, marriage looks to be strengthening a little. The risk of divorce is now well below 50 percent. In fact, most marriages, perhaps 60%, go the distance. And there are things that men can do—from regular date nights to prioritizing stable employment to shared religious practice—that can further reduce their risk of ending up in divorce court.

Too many men in our society today are drifting, despairing, unmoored, and unhappy. Marriage seems to reduce the incidence of male malaise. Society needs more healthy, happy, productive men, as most women would surely agree. America needs more married men.

Brad Wilcox is Professor of Sociology and Director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
Brad Wilcox
Brad Wilcox (@BradWilcoxIFS) is a professor and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and Future of Freedom Fellow at the Institute for Family Studies.