A new study touting the “benefits” of cohabitation is based on deeply flawed ideas about human nature and fulfillment, according to a leading scholar on the social role of families.

“It's garbage-in, garbage out,” said Dr. Scott Yenor, the Boise State University political science professor whose book “Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought” (Baylor University Press, 2011) surveys changing ideas about society's fundamental institution.

CNA spoke with Yenor about a paper published in the February 2012 installment of the Journal of Marriage and Family, entitled “Reexamining the Case for Marriage: Union Formation and Changes in Well-being.”

The study, Yenor says, “uses the 'thinnest' understanding of human happiness – one that requires the least of any human being – and judges relationships on that basis.” 

Lead author Dr. Kelly Musick, a Cornell University professor of policy analysis and management, says her research “shows that marriage is by no means unique in promoting well being, and that other forms of romantic relationships can provide many of the same benefits” to individuals.

“While married couples experienced health gains,” Musick says of her findings, “cohabiting couples experienced greater gains in happiness and self-esteem. For some, cohabitation may come with fewer unwanted obligations than marriage and allow for more flexibility, autonomy, and personal growth.”

But Yenor says Musick's study, coauthored with University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Larry Bumpass, reveals more about the authors' flawed assumptions, than it does about marriage and cohabitation.

“The standard that they're judging institutions by, is the self-assessment of individual happiness,” Yenor explained. “The questions that they ask these people are along the lines of: 'Do you feel good about yourself?' They use such low standards to judge these situations.”

“The lower the bar, the easier it is to hop over. They asked questions like whether married and cohabiting people were 'satisfied with themselves.' That's a very low bar.”

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Musick and Bumpass used data from the National Survey of Families and Households to examine the difference between married and cohabiting couples in seven areas: happiness, symptoms of depression, health, self-esteem, relationship with parents, contact with parents, and time with friends.

The authors of “Reexamining the Case for Marriage” focused exclusively on benchmarks for the well-being and social lives of individual adults. Their work is a response to other sociologists who have attempted to base pro-marriage arguments on findings about individual adult well-being.

Children thus receive few mentions from Bumpass and Musick, though it is noted they “tend to be part of the marriage package.”

As Yenor pointed out, none of the benchmarks they used to judge the “benefits” of marriage against cohabitation actually involved the respondent's evaluation of the relationship itself.

Many kinds of questions, he said, could gauge the quality of a relationship between two people – rather than just the reported happiness of the individuals involved.

He suggested asking: “Do you trust the other person? Are you more 'one' with the other person? Do you pool your resources? Do you share labor? Do you share goals? Do you talk about the things you hold in common, and try to make them better?”

“Those are the things I would expect marriage to be better for, than cohabitation – not things like, 'Taken altogether, are you happy?'”

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But Yenor observed that the authors of “Reexamining the Case for Marriage” were responding, in large part, to pro-marriage studies that may have made the same kinds of troubling omissions.

In his opinion, these defenders of marriage may have given too much ground to their opponents' assumptions, by focusing on marriage as a source of individual fulfillment for adults.

“What a lot of conservative scholars have done with the family – and this is what the journal article's going against – is to say: 'Even given the pitifully thin goal of modern self-esteem, marriage is better than cohabitation.'”

“Usually you want to judge marriage on other grounds: 'Is it good for the kids? Is love present? Are people living more virtuous lives?' But since society's rejected those kinds of standards, conservative defenders of marriage are willing to use the standard: 'Does it provide happiness and self-esteem?'”

“What I try to argue in my book, is that defenders of marriage and family life need to defend it on 'thicker' grounds,” said Yenor.

“Once we give up, and say marriage is about promoting individual happiness and self-esteem, we've already lost most of the battle. The marriage that exists to promote those goals is already going to be a weak marriage.”

“We need to defend marriage as a serious community that requires commitment, time, and investment – getting away from the goals that modern autonomy has set, and back to what the family's true goals are.”

Pro-family sociologists, Yenor warned, will find the institution of family “increasingly difficult to defend” on the basis of their opponents' own assumptions about mere individual happiness.

Although Yenor is himself Lutheran rather than Catholic, his book “Family Politics” concludes with a discussion of Pope John Paul II's ideas about love, marriage, the family, and society.

He told CNA that sociologists, like other scholars, can learn much from the late philosopher-pope.

“What he does is defend necessary connections,” Yenor recounted. “There are things that are connected, in the created order – and there are many attempts in the modern world, to sever those things that are connected.

“Love and marriage are connected – and when you try to disconnect them, you end up with less love, and bad relationships. Likewise, contraception severs the connection between sex and procreation. When you sever that connection, you end up with people using each other, and neglected children.”

“In a way, he's a great sociologist,” Yenor said of Pope John Paul II. “The original French sociologists of the 1800s were trying to establish, through social science, the connections that exist as sources of order in the world.”

“What John Paul does, is show that those sources of order and fulfillment” – particularly the lifelong marriage of a man and a woman – “are rooted in human nature, which can't be changed and manipulated.”