A Hedonic Take on the Evolution of Marriage and the Case Against Regulating It

From the libertarians over at Cato Unbound, Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers:

[M]arriage isn’t dead, it is, again, transforming. Hedonic marriage is different from productive marriage. In a world of specialization, the old adage was that “opposites attract,” and it made sense for husband and wife to have different interests in different spheres of life. Today, it is more important that we share similar values, enjoy similar activities, and find each other intellectually stimulating. Hedonic marriage leads people to be more likely to marry someone of their similar age, educational background, and even occupation. As likes are increasingly marrying likes, it isn’t surprising that we see increasing political pressure to expand marriage to same-sex couples.

At this juncture it should be clear that any sensible theory of marriage has to acknowledge that it is a responsive and adaptive institution, changing as circumstances change. Why then is the debate about family policy so polarizing? We suspect that much of the disagreement is driven by a failure of political advocates to adapt their understanding of marriage even as circumstances have changed.

Many have cited high and rising divorce rates as pointing to the collapse of the family, and Kay Hymowitz’s essay reprises these themes. Yet the high divorce rates among those marrying in the 1970s reflected a transition, as many married the right partner for the old specialization model of marriage, only to find that pairing hopelessly inadequate in the modern hedonic marriage.

Divorce rates have actually been falling since reaching a peak thirty years ago. And those who have married in recent years have been more likely to stay together than their parents’ generation. These facts should be emphasized and bear repeating — divorce has been falling for three decades — since this important fact is often ignored in the discussion of the current state of the family.