Marriage Markets (2014)

Teal Deer


This book is a detailed analysis of the puzzle of why (some) marriages in the U.S. are becoming increasingly unstable. It argues that changes in job opportunities create bifurcated marriage markets which lead to bifurcated marriage behavior. In doing so, the book touches on issues of gender, race, and class, and argues that this bifurcated marriage behavior can exacerbate societal inequality.

Note: This book is primarily concerned with cisgender heterosexual (cishet) relationships, which is a large subset of relationships that dominates U.S. marriage behavior. The marriage markets it focuses on involve people who are only interested in dating the opposite gender (heterosexual marriage markets), and it connects large changes in relationships between men and women to the ability of female-bodied people to control their reproduction (mostly concerned about how reproductive autonomy changes cis women’s power in society).

Marriage MarketsMarriage Markets (2014) by June Carbone and Naomi Cahn

The stat most people have about divorce rates is that 50% of marriages end in divorce. This stat has actually not been true for the past couple of decades though — since peaking in the 80s, divorce rates are falling and unlikely to reach the 50% projection that was made for 80s marriages. However, this is still not the full story of changing divorce rates in the U.S. As this book points out, if you separate the rates of marriage, divorce, and extramarital childbirth by class (or in the case of this book, by education, which is used as a proxy for socioeconomic class), you’ll find that the trends since the 60s are bifurcated. Among the college-educated (what the book calls the “elite third” of the U.S. population), people are likely to marry, divorce rates are steadily dropping (from a high of ~24-27% ten-year divorce rate in the 70s down to 17% in the 90s), and extramarital childbirth is largely unheard of and has remained steady in the white population (~2% of births), although has increased among black women (~25% of births in the 2000s, up from < 5% in the 1980s). Among the other two-thirds of the population (high school diploma only or no diploma), ten-year divorce rates have since the 70s climbed, declined, and most recently started to inch up again (~34% in the 70s up to ~36% in the 90s). In addition, rates of extramarital childbirth among the bottom two-thirds of the U.S. have dramatically increased in both white and black women (source: W. Bradford Wilcox, “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America”, Figure 1 and S2).

In other words, divorce rates are falling significantly in some populations, but are rising in others. Right-wing theories of disappearing marriage pin the blame on the success of liberal ideas and policies — widespread access to birth control, the sexual revolution, women entering the workforce / abandonment of the traditional breadwinner/homemaker model of marriage. However, these explanations are thwarted by some puzzling realities: more education corresponds to greater workforce participation by women AND lower divorce rates and children born out of wedlock; and middle and lower class people tend to be more religious and/or more conservative and strongly value marriage AND are increasingly giving up on marriage and not waiting for marriage to have children.

I view this book as an illustration of the point I made earlier that intersectionality is necessary for a more accurate analysis of the world. The authors look at the issue of changing marriage behavior in the U.S. through the lenses of gender, race, and class disparities. In doing so, they put forward an analysis summarized by the following flowchart.

Marriage Markets flowchart

In particular, they describe the changes happening in the “middle third” where people are in transition from believing in marriage to giving up on it. The bargaining power of women in relationships has increased so that they are able to walk away from unhappy marriages, but it is not so high that they are able to extract behavioral compromises from men (which would improve the quality of the marriages). Simultaneously, the cushier blue-collar jobs that used to be available to men with a high school degree or some college education have been hollowed out. Combined with an aggressive system of incarceration that disproportionately affects men and black and brown people, women in the middle and bottom are increasingly less able to rely on men as a source of income (because of gender norms, they also cannot necessarily rely on men to compensate a lack of income with more housework or childcare either, and/or they may still be invested in their husband at least trying to find work). This makes the prospect of marriage less appealing. The authors also argue that the raw gender imbalances in dating markets change how respectfully people treat their partners in relationships, which again changes how worthwhile it is to enter into marriage. The authors, who are both law professors, also argue that the way divorce is handled by the legal system changes the incentives of entering a marriage in a way that encourages elite couples to marry and lower-class couples to avoid marriage.

The undesirability of marriage, however, doesn’t affect many people’s desire to have children. Increasingly, women in the middle and bottom decide to have children but decline to marry the baby’s father, instead relying on their parents and other family members as a support network for raising the child, rather than their romantic partner (a way of running one’s household that could be described as “matriarchal”). The increasing rate of extramarital childbirth is thus a rational decision in light of the fact that, depending on their social class, women are often better off not tying their life prospects to a male partner, and not waiting for a very good marriage (which may never materialize) before starting a family. Meanwhile, at the top, people marry later and largely have children in stable marriages. When people marry later they tend to marry within their class. These two trends are worrying because it means that the most well-off in society tend to have stable two-parent two-income families with high-paying, flexible jobs while poorer families tend to be single-parent ones with few provisions for paid maternity leave, child sick leave, etc., and less money to invest in their children’s education and development. In other words, because the U.S. is not willing to endorse the legitimacy of single parenthood, we do not have the social welfare system in place to give single mothers the same resources to raise their children that elite two-parent households have. The result is that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and the next generation is likely to be even more unequal than the last.

There’s a lot to go over here, so let’s get started!

Changing power relationships between men and women

The authors argue that social changes and greater awareness and resources for women in abusive relationships makes it easier and safer to leave bad relationships. Education and career pathways opened up following legal victories in the 60s and 70s such as the establishment of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the passing of the Women’s Educational Equity Act, etc., giving women access to better-paid jobs. In addition, cultural and legal changes including the rise of no-fault divorce made relying on one’s spouse for financial support a dangerous strategy (as women in a homemaker position could be divorced at any time for any reason), pushing women to invest more in their careers and become self-reliant. As a result, women are in a much better position to leave bad relationships (and in fact, the majority of divorces are initiated by women).

However, the tables have not been turned. Women are not so powerful that they can control their partners’ behavior. As such, if they end up with a partner who abuses them, chronically cheats on them, doesn’t pull their weight, or holds the woman back (this kind of “caddish behavior” is discussed later in this post), often the only recourse is to leave. In other words, women are able to secure a divorce but they are not able to secure a good marriage, and the cost calculation is often such that being single is better than being in a bad relationship, which makes women more cautious to marry and more likely to divorce.

Two gender-imbalanced marriage markets

Increased educational and career opportunities have allowed more women to rise into middle-tier jobs. At the same time, professions started adding more compensation tiers, meaning it takes longer and is more difficult to rise to the top tier of a profession, protecting the position of older men who got in early relative to newcomer women. Finally, the high-paying blue-collar jobs available to largely untrained and uneducated men (in e.g. manufacturing) have disappeared. In short, more women are clustered in middle-tier jobs while men are overrepresented both at the top tier of income and at the very bottom, i.e. the unemployed or precariously employed. To add to this, greater societal inequality / widespread poverty have some effects that disproportionately affect men and remove them from the dating pool (e.g. substance abuse, homicide, and imprisonment). The result is that at the top end of income, “marriageable men” outnumber women. As you go down, it flips and there are significantly more “marriageable women” than there are “marriageable men”.

This kind of “hollowing out” of jobs happened to black men before it happened to white men, resulting in many of the processes described in this book happening in black communities, where it, like many other side-effects of unemployment and poverty, was interpreted as the result of black culture and pathologized. Because of poverty and racism, the raw gender disparities in the black population are even more pronounced. Just in terms of raw numbers, among 25-34 year olds, the total man:woman ratio is 89:100 (black) vs. 102:100 (white) due to gender ratio differences at birth and early death among black men. There is also generally a gender gap in high school graduation rates, which is even more prominent in the black population (46% for black men vs. 60% for black women – note: this is older data; since 2003, high school graduation rates have risen significantly, including in the black population). Without a high school degree and with jobs not needing education or training drying up, many people are pushed into a shadow economy and end up in prison. The result is an even more gender-skewed dating market.

Behavioral changes from gender imbalances

A major component of this book is arguing that gender-skewed dating markets themselves change the behavior of men and women within the market. These effects depend on the relative power of men and women, but in the U.S., college campuses where women outnumber men correlate with women being less satisfied with men on campus, having fewer dates, and having more sex while in a relationship. The authors argue that when women outnumber men in a dating market, and when men have more or roughly the same power as women, men have few incentives to treat their partners well. If their partner leaves them, there are many more waiting on the wings willing to give them a try. When men play the market this way, women become distrustful, are wary of entering marriages, and instead invest in themselves to become independent. By contrast, when men outnumber women, treating a woman badly — when women are able to walk away from a relationship and there are more men waiting on the wings — is a costly action.

I’m a little skeptical of this; as the author notes, the studies that form this line of research are limited to campus behavior, so (1) there are factors at play in the datasets themselves like what type of universities tend to have gender skews (e.g. universities where men significantly outnumber women are uncommon, and are dominated by tech schools); and (2) it’s not clear whether these studies of college-going young adults extends to the larger groups and dating markets the authors are interested in (college-goers themselves form the “elite” dating market which is supposed to be male-dominated, even though college graduates are mostly women). But mainly, I’m meh about this line of research because it rests on the idea that if women have more bargaining power in relationships, they extract more dates and less sex, and vice versa for men, and I find that to be a bit gender essentialist. (If you want an overview of this line of research on gender ratios and dating behavior, this is a good place to start.)

If you look at the diagram above, you do not necessarily need to buy this component to buy the connection between (un)employment and changing marriage behavior, as the pathways still exist. But the inclusion of this mechanism accelerates the process, and I think it is one possible answer to the puzzle of why upper-class marriages tend to be stable even though men still have the opportunity to be abusive, philandering, unsupportive, etc. and women still have the opportunity to walk away from such marriages if they end up that way. The working theory provided by this book is that scarcity and gender ratios are themselves forces that change incentives and behavior. So, if you don’t buy the gender ratio explanation, another explanation is needed to explain the stability of upper-class marriages.

Unreliable male partners

Chronic unemployment, incarceration, substance abuse, employment in a dangerous shadow economy, etc. are all things that make men less appealing as partners or effectively remove them from the dating pool. However, you might also wonder why, in a time of high unemployment, you don’t get a gender-flipped breadwinner/homemaker model emerging spontaneously i.e. chronically unemployed men instead compensating by handling child-raising and housework. The authors cite data indicating that unemployed men actually do less housework than their employed counterparts. While this may have been true after the recession, the most recent data show that unemployment actually does result in men doing more housework, but that they do less housework overall than employed women, and do less childcare than employed men. The extra time largely goes into leisure activities such as watching TV. In other words, men who are unemployed largely do not embrace the homemaker role either.

Marriage Markets details that in such a situation the men in a relationship become “an extra mouth to feed”, an overall drain on resources within the family. And indeed, the less a household makes, the more likely the wife is to be the breadwinner. (Note: Strangely, if you look at the entire groups of men and women, women at all educational levels (including less than high school education) still make less than men, which is a bit hmm 🤔 but there are several possible ways you can square these two pieces of information with each other (for example, pay gap data probably filter out unemployed people).

A new cultural and legal model of marriage

Another element changing marriage behavior is a new model of marriage that has replaced the older breadwinner/homemaker model. The authors summarize this new model as being an interdependent model of marriage. Under this model, the two people in a marriage are collectively responsible for earning money, doing housework, and caring for children. One person may specialize in certain roles, or both people may take on all roles, maybe stepping in every so often to cover for their partner as necessary (for example, holding down breadwinning after the other person is laid off, or taking turns taking off work in order to raise a young child). Although the type of their contributions to their household may vary over time, or may be a different type than their partner’s, all contributions are shared between / the mutual property of both partners. This is what the interdependent model looks like.

This interdependent model of marriage has become the dominant one, culturally-speaking — it enjoys widespread support among Americans, as measured by attitude surveys. People nationwide strongly accept working women and two-income households; view childcare as the equal responsibility of both parents; disagree that men should necessarily be the breadwinner; and report equal decision-making in relationships. As this interdependent model has gained acceptance, it has also been baked into the legal system as well. The default arrangements of marriage and divorce laws follow from this new model of marriage. The default arrangement upon breaking up a marriage is (1) to split property 50-50, (2) no awarding of alimony or financial support for the other partner, and (3) shared custody of children in lieu of child support. The first and last follow from believing that both partners contribute to and own their joint household while married, even if the contributions are not of the same kind (childcare vs. income, for example). The second I think is an extension of the interdependent two-parent household to one-parent households — regardless of number, the parent(s) of the household are jointly responsible for income and homemaking, which means that there is an expectation that single-parent households be fully self-sufficient.

This legal model has the effect of incentivizing legal marriage at the top while making it even more risky at the bottom. At the top, women have better bargaining power within the relationship (from gender ratios), but marriage is still a good deal for men, especially if they can secure a prenuptial agreement in cases where they highly outearn their partner. If it comes to divorce, their property is protected, they have no financial obligations to their partner, and the court will very likely make sure they still have a role in their children’s lives. At the bottom, women have low bargaining power in the relationship (from gender ratios) AND ALSO stand to lose if it comes to divorce. If low-income women outearn their partners, lacking the resources to get a lawyer to draw up a prenup, divorce means they lose property they had a significant part in accumulating and will likely have to share custody of children as well. By contrast, if a woman declines to “make it official”, she retains control over her property and her children if the relationship goes south. So at the bottom, marriage is least appealing and entered into cautiously; a woman may still decide to live with a partner and raise children together, though (resulting in high rates of extramarital childbirth). In the middle, it’s unclear whether marriage is worth it, so a more typical pattern is a series of marriage and divorces. Neither of these behaviors (avoiding marriage or serial marriage) is because of a moral decay or lack of investment or buy-in to marriages — there is massive buy-in from all classes in the importance and desirability of marriage. But only a subset of people can make a good marriage happen.

Tangent: Child custody policies can serve to promote or undermine marriage

The book goes on an interesting tangent about how there is a debate in the U.S. legal system about how to define parenthood / award custody. For a cishet relationship, the mother is automatically granted parent status by virtue of giving birth to the child. But to whom do you award “father” status? There are three main proposals:

• Genetic: the biological mother and biological father have 50% stake in their biological children
• Marital: fatherhood is awarded to the mother’s husband at time of birth (if she is married), or can be claimed later by the woman’s current spouse
• Function: fatherhood can be established by demonstrating that a man had a significant role / investment in raising children during the period following the child’s birth, regardless of whether the man is biologically related to the child or was married to the mother at the time

The last two are matriarchal policies — because women choose who to marry and who to include in the children’s life, defining fatherhood through marital status or function puts the ability to award fatherhood (or not) in the hands of the mother. For this reason, conservatives tend to favor the genetic policy because they dislike granting women sole control over their children. However, the genetic policy has the effect of undermining marriage because it challenges the ability to form a nuclear family unit defined by marriage (if a woman remarries, the child may have a split family not bound by marriage). This conflicts with conservatives’ stated goal of strengthening marriage.

The only policy of the above that strengthens marriage is the marital policy. However, in the current reality of high rates of out-of-wedlock childbirth, the authors argue that the most appropriate policy is the function policy.

Class-divergent behavior exacerbate inequality and that’s bad

One societal trend — driven by birth control and educational opportunities for women, among other things — is that people are marrying at a later age. When people marry early, there are more cross-class marriages because there is uncertainty about where a person will eventually end up, socioeconomically. However, when people marry later, that uncertainty largely goes away, resulting in people largely marrying within their class. Because of the class-divergent marriage behavior laid out above, children in elite marriages tend to grow up in more stable and two-income families, while children in middle/lower-class marriages tend to be largely in single-income single-mother households, augmented from time to time with the contributions of the mother’s romantic partner when she has one. When you have two high-earning jobs with perks that provide a fair amount of security, parents are able to invest heavily in children and provide them a rich learning environment. However, because of the stigmatization of single-motherhood that is only recently starting to weaken, children in lower-class households grow up in a very anemic household that results in weak academic achievement.

The authors argue that such a big inequality in investment in children will result in the total human capital in the U.S. shrinking in the future. (There are many other reasons why inequality is bad, but the authors focus on this in particular.)

What should be done?

Assuming you want marriages to be more stable, the authors argue for a wide variety of policy changes that are needed to rebuild marriage as an institution (attacking the roots of the problem) and to mitigate the bad effects of a reality of class-divergent marriage behavior (damage control).

Attack the roots + damage mitigation: Rebuild jobs in the lower/middle class

• Need to go back to the goal of a full employment economy. Provide government subsidies for job training and deploy government as an “employer of last resort” to provide employment for people who for whatever reason (disability, addiction, education, etc.) have difficulty holding a job.
• Need to Make Jobs Great Again: good jobs have stability, promotion opportunities, benefits, and flexibility. We should demand that all jobs be good jobs. Raise minimum wage.
• Unemployment needs to be less costly. There needs to be a social safety net and some benefits (healthcare, disability coverage, etc.) need to not be provided through employers anymore.

Damage mitigation: Disrupt short-termism and inequality that create more inequality

• The authors propose a cluster of policies that punish short-termism in the way businesses are run, such as increased transparency, clawbacks, etc.
• Reduce top incomes, create compensation caps, raise taxes, etc.

Damage mitigation: Create a safety net for children

Kind of interestingly, the authors think that the right’s hardline stance on abortion has the effect of weakening their demonization of single mothers. When abortion is presented as murder, you start getting examples of single mothers signaling their virtue by choosing to have a child even when it is uncertain whether they’d have the resources to give that child a good life. When single motherhood is presented as the clear lesser evil when compared to abortion, it is not sustainable to continue railing against single mothers as a social ill. (I… am not sure I agree. While it does certainly come off as hypocritical to encourage single mothers to keep the baby and also shame them and withhold help when they do, I think Republicans regularly do that thing, and the underlying consistent principle seems more about shaming women for having sex…) In any case, the authors believe that there is a possibility for abandonment of single-motherhood shaming and a bipartisan agreement to equalize investment in children regardless of their family structure.

• Rebuild support for children from birth to workforce entry. Provide free/low-cost pre/postnatal assistance and education, pre-kindergarten, after-school programs, college counseling and alumni programs, and college. Well, weirdly the authors don’t actually advocate for that last one outside of community colleges, despite the fact that it would have obvious effects of lowering the barriers to going to college (when college is prohibitively expensive, most low-income people are not going to pursue it) and is similar to every other policy they advocate for.
• Support single mothers and other parents in their ability to care for their children. This includes paid leave for new parents and for family illness, and family-friendly policies (such as compressed workweeks, accommodating shift scheduling, above-mentioned after-school programs, etc.).

Attack the roots + damage mitigation: Implement marriage-promotion policies geared toward lower/middle classes

The authors argue that widespread access to the following would promote marriage, and can be justified through the lens of making sure people are prepared for child-rearing regardless of marriage status (the bipartisan compromise position):

• Encourage women to work outside the home and invest in their career (have the ability to support their children on their own, as well as help augment the income of a low-income household if they marry, which helps a marriage be less stressful).
• Educate people about the qualities of a good romantic relationship, develop communication and respectful behavior in relationships (promotes stable marriages).
• Educate people universally about contraception and make contraception easy to obtain (controlling the timing of children is important for reducing stress in a marriage and so the authors argue contraception usage and marriage promotion are aligned).

Damage mitigation: Legal issues regarding custody need to be ironed out in a way that respects the reality of high rates of extramarital childbirth

Modern systems need to be flexible enough to recognize more than two claims to parenthood. Biology-based parenthood should remain an option if parents opt to use it, but in the absence of that, the default way of acknowledging parenthood should lie in demonstrating that one has functioned as a parental figure to the child for a certain period of the child’s life. The authors point out that the legalization of same-sex marriage has the effect of pushing the legal system in the right direction: looking at parental relationships and contributions to a relationship without gender stereotyping, introducing the possibility of multiple parental figures whose claim to parenthood is divorced from genetics, etc.

Marriage Markets also talks about how in some places there is a requirement that women have to track down a child’s biological father and demand child support as a prerequisite to being able to apply for state aid. The authors argue these policies are a waste of resources and just serve to strain the relationship between men and women — many men at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder don’t make enough to provide any monetary child support, but far from being “deadbeat dads”, will contribute wherever they can in non-monetary forms like services and gifts.


Marriage Markets presents a compelling argument that employment is tied to marriage behavior, and also that marriage behavior is tied to inequality. I also find it a compelling illustration that intersectional analyses are crucial for understanding the world. I also think this book is a more detailed exploration of some of the themes of What’s the Matter with Kansas. In particular, I think this book touches on what I meant when I said that capitalism takes people’s social mores and chews them up for breakfast — promoting the institution of marriage and discouraging premarital sex are somewhat at odds with rampant inequality, precarious employment, and widespread poverty. I think the debate over divorce rates also illustrates the process described in WTMWK of disguising the socioeconomic basis of behavior, thus reducing problems to pure “culture” / “liberalism.” By hiding the class disparities in divorce and extramarital childbirth, conservatives argue that (1) divorce rates and out-of-wedlock childbirth are rising (only true for subsections of the population), and (2) this is due to the widespread success of liberalism (in this case, liberal ideas that strengthen women’s power/status/freedom such as increased access to contraception, premarital sex/hookup culture, acceptance of working women, elimination of gender roles in marriage, etc.). The second falls apart because those things are widely accepted in elite marriages, which remain stable. (Unlike WTMWK, though, Marriage Markets is an academic book and so a bit more difficult/dry to read!)

Buy from Oxford University Press

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