Does marriage make people (un)happy?

Last month, behavioural scientist Paul Dolan from the London School of Economics claimed that unmarried women were notably happier than married women, suggesting that, if women wanted to live the most fulfilled life, they should stay both single and childless.

We may have suspected it already, but now the science backs it up: unmarried and childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population. And they are more likely to live longer than their married and child-rearing peers, according to a leading expert in happiness.

Speaking at the Hay festival on Saturday, Paul Dolan, a professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics, said the latest evidence showed that the traditional markers used to measure success did not correlate with happiness – particularly marriage and raising children.

“We do have some good longitudinal data following the same people over time, but I am going to do a massive disservice to that science and just say: if you’re a man, you should probably get married; if you’re a woman, don’t bother.”

Dolan was promoting his book, Happy Ever After, in which he uses statistics from the American Time Use Survey (ATUS)—which raises an immediate question of whether the survey data was intended to be used in this way. It is also worth asking whether ‘being happy’ is the primary reason to make decisions about the direction of our lives. Guardian columnist Susanne Moore asks in response:

I am not saying marriage does not make some very happy, but happiness, as any Buddhist, or anyone who has glimpsed a few inspirational quotes on Instagram, knows, is a byproduct – not a goal.

Many things may make you inadvertently happy – just as many people feel that what they were promised by the culture would make them happy doesn’t. “The one” can never live up to expectations. And being single and child-free may be fabulous or not. But then, who trusts self-reported happiness?

We live in an age where, if ‘science’ tells you something it is true, then it must be gospel (ironically!), so it is always worth asking what the ‘science’ really is saying. That is why Tim Harford’s programme ‘More or Less’ on BBC Radio 4 and the World Service (available as a podcast) is just about my favourite thing. It turns out that almost nothing that is cited as ‘science’ and supported by ‘statistics’ actually is, since most people are very poor at interpreting data—including Paul Dolan.

As it happened, Harford was doing a seminar at the same Hay Festival as Dolan (and it is well worth listening to!), so I suspect he was particularly motivated to interrogate Dolan’s use of data from the next door venue. Harford picks up on one particular claim by Dolan, that married women say that they are happy—but only when their spouses are in the room. When their spouses are ‘absent’, then it turns out that married women are (in Dolan’s words) ‘f***ing miserable’. This claim rang alarms bells with other statisticians who make use of the same data set—and it turns out that Dolan has misunderstood one of the terms used by ATUS: ‘spouse absent’ does not mean that the spouse isn’t present when the survey was conducted, but that the spouse is living away long-term because, for example, of being posted abroad on military service, or having a job in another state. Lesson number one here: understand the terminology of the material you are using. If you are not sure that is important, just ask Naomi Wolf, who based a central argument of her book about the treatment of those committing homosexual acts in the Victorian period on a complete misunderstanding of the legal term ‘death recorded’ (unfortunately she only found out live on air when being interviewed by a historian about the book).

In fact, it turns out that Dolan’s claims are not supported by the actual data he used. Even assuming ‘reported happiness’ is a valid yardstick, it turns out that, though the data is not very conclusive, both married men and married women report slightly highly levels of happiness in the survey than those who have either never married or are no longer married. So the facts simply do not support the conclusion that Dolan claims from them. It is worth pointing that out, since Dolan’s claims have been very widely reported—just do a search for ‘unmarried women happier’ and you will see how far that has reached.

In his usual thorough way, Harford does not leave it there, but looks more broadly. He interviews economist Betsey Stevenson, who has done her own research on the issues around women, marriage, and the question of subjective well-being as indicated by self-reported ‘happiness’.

The claim that women who marry are less happy than women who stay single flies in the face of every other data set that I have looked at, which tend to show that married women are happier. There is a long literature that shows that women with children are less happy than people without children…

I spent a long time looking at this research before I had my own children, and what I learnt once I had children is that children brought a joy into my life that I had never had before—but they also bring a lot of anxiety, I worry a lot about them, so am I overall more happy every day? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that there is more meaning in my life. So should we use this evidence from a happiness survey to give people life advice? I think we should be really, really careful about that.

Harford goes on to qualify any conclusions from such surveys, since you cannot do randomised trials allocating people to marriage or singleness and measuring the results—’though what a randomised trial that would be!’ he quips. He also notes the age-old truism about statistics: correlation is not causation, and even if there are some correlations between marital state and levels of happiness, that in itself explains nothing. Finally, he actually challenges Dolan in person about the error on ‘spouse absent’ and his misuse of the data. On the first, Dolan agrees to edit the Guardian article, and promises that something will be done about the claim in the book, but he refuses to concede his misuse of the data more broadly. After Dolan blusters but fails to respond to the point, Harford concludes sanguinely:

The interview went on for a long time, and I will spare you. I never did manage to get Dolan to produce any evidence to support his claim—in fact, he argued that the data was not really good enough to claim that anyone was happier being married or unmarried, childless or surrounded by ankle-biters. But it seems he was making some pretty bold claims before the More or Less team parked their tanks on his lawn. You be the judge…

It rather looks as though, as often happens, someone is making an ideologically driven claim and then making selective (or even fanciful) use of statistics to support their position.

Bringing a slightly different angle to questions about marriage and sex is Mark Regnerus, an sociologist in the US. Regnerus reflects on the historical social contract that has been in operation between men and women in relation to marriage. Noting the steep decline in marriage in America, Regnerus considers possible explanations:

Many economists and sociologists argue that this flight from marriage is about men’s low wages. If they were higher, the argument goes, young men would have the confidence to marry. But recent research doesn’t support this view. A May 2017 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, focusing on regions enriched by the fracking boom, found that increased wages in those places did nothing to boost marriage rates.

Another hypothesis blames the decline of marriage on men’s fear of commitment. Maybe they just perceive marriage as a bad deal. But most men, including cads such as Kevin, still expect to marry. They eventually want to fall in love and have children, when their independence becomes less valuable to them. They are waiting longer, however, which is why the median age at marriage for American men has risen steadily and is now approaching 30.

My own research points to a more straightforward and primal explanation for the slowed pace toward marriage: For American men, sex has become rather cheap. As compared to the past, many women today expect little in return for sex, in terms of time, attention, commitment or fidelity. Men, in turn, do not feel compelled to supply these goods as they once did. It is the new sexual norm for Americans, men and women alike, of every age.

What is interesting here is noting the asymmetry between men and women in their attitudes and expectations of marriage and sex, something that in fact Paul Dolan had also noted. These changes in the context and understanding of sex have wide ramifications, and although in part driven by feminist concerns about liberating women from the perceived restrictions of marriage, most of the changes appear to have been to women’s disadvantage and men’s advantage. The summary of his book on the same subject argues:

Sex is cheap. Coupled sexual activity has become more widely available than ever. Cheap sex has been made possible by two technologies that have little to do with each other―the wide uptake of the Pill and high-quality pornography―and its distribution made more efficient by a third, the uptake of online dating. Together, they drive down the cost of real sex, have created a massive slow-down in the development of significant relationships, put women’s fertility at risk, and have even taken a toll on men’s marriageability. What the West has witnessed of late is not the social construction of sexuality or marriage or family forms toward different possibilities as a product of political will, but technology-driven social change. This revolution in sexual autonomy also ushered in an era of plastic sexuality and prompted the flourishing on non-heterosexual identities.

And it concludes by noting:

Sex and its satisfactions are becoming increasingly important in contemporary life. No longer playing a supporting role in enduring relationships, sex has emerged as a central priority in relationship development and continuation. But unravel the layers, and it is obvious that the emergence of “industrial sex” is far more a reflection of men’s interests than women’s.

All of this made me very glad to stumble across another book which appear to have a different focus, but is actually engaging with a closely related cluster of issues: 7 Reasons Your Church Needs More Men. I wonder if the title might be discouraging to some, and this is perhaps why it has been independently published by the Engage Network rather than by a regular publisher. But don’t let that put you off; the insights it offers are hinted at in the subtitle: ‘How to lead a gender balanced church supporting healthy singleness, dating, marriage and youth’ and this range of interests is illustrated by the diagram on the right from the Engage home page.

The book probably demands either an article to itself—or perhaps a series of articles—but the introduction by Annabel Clarke articulates a highly relevant and integrated vision:

The Bible values singleness and marriage. Single people are equally valuable and competent as married people. At the same time, God’s design from the start has been for marriage to reflect his covenant relationship with the church, to be foundational to society, and to be personal experienced by most people.

The book covers a wide range of issues. There is a good theological reflection from Adrian Chatfield on the issues around singleness, marriage and relationships (though I would always caution against ever drawing on the Trinity to discuss human community!); explorations of men’s ministry and singleness, the latter from the excellent Kate Wharton; and overviews of a wide range of related issues. I was particularly impressed with the reflections on why churches attract more men than women, and what might be done about that. There is a discussion about the generational impact if gender imbalance in the church, though I wondered if more could be said about the relationship between marriage, families and ‘biological growth’ in mission, which has been of importance historically.

Contrary to what some conservatives claim, marriage is not the gospel. But it is something to which the gospel speaks powerfully for the sake of human well-being and the flourishing of society. There is much to do—and much we can offer—in helping our culture to recover a positive and healthy view of the married life.

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67 thoughts on “Does marriage make people (un)happy?”

  1. Why say “‘f***ing” when everyone knows that “***” = “uck” and will read it that way anyway? (What other way is there to read it? How else can one? How would one pronounce the “***”?)

    • Why? Because there is no particular need to repeat someone’s profanity, but faithful recording requires noting that a profanity was used.

      In this I am simply following the practice of Tim Harford, who seems to think that profanity is worth avoiding. He achieved this by quoting Dolan as saying ‘”flipping miserable”—but he did no use the word “flipping”‘.

      It shows the extent to which Dolan was making a very bold claim—which had no support whatever in the data.

      (And it is a shame that that is the only thing you thought worth picking up on…?)

      • Ian – I thought it was fascinating and important issue to address and press some more
        I am not persuaded by the academic’s claim
        I only have anecdotal pastoral evidence though
        I know few people who are single who wish to remain so or who if in later life say they dont regret not having partner/family etc
        I think few have the gift of celibacy
        I think we are created for sexual intimacy and marriage is the Biblical locus for that
        I am grateful for my wife of 30years (marriage for me has certainly been wonderful, I hope she would reciprocate)
        I think some people live hellish marriages and are better off out
        I think Church should be better at creating community/family

        • Is there such a thing as a ‘gift of celibacy’? Is it even Biblical? As a gay, single Christian who believes God does not approve of gay sexual relations I have no choice but be celibate (yes I know I do have a choice but you know what I mean). I dont view that as a ‘gift’ but a choice – one could say people like me have been ‘called’ to be celibate, but it is often a struggle, especially when it comes to online shenanigans.


          • First, it’s certainly Biblical, as Paul calls it a gift in 1 Cor 7.7.

            Second, it is certainly a gift in that it is a great example of something given to some and not to others.

          • First, it’s certainly Biblical, as Paul calls it a gift in 1 Cor 7.7.

            It seems… unclear… exactly what Paul is referring to in that verse. It’s directly after a bit about married couples not letting Satan tempt them because of a lack of self-control. Could the ‘gift’ he refers to be that he is particularly good at self-control in general (he always passes the biscuit tray along without taking one) and not anything specifically related to remaining unmarried? That is, he wishes everyone were as good at refusing dessert as he is, but he is aware that some just can’t turn down a tiramisu, but that’s okay, as they have their own gifts?

            Is that not a plausible reading (maybe it’s not, maybe I’ve missed something)?

          • I think celibacy is likelier than self-control, but thank you for pointing out the possibility, which I had missed. I do think
            -Paul is talking on the big scale here;
            -self-control is not in the category of gift (which may or may not come to a specific Christian, as Paul says right here 7.7) but in the category of fruit which the Spirit may be expected to produce.
            -celibacy is certainly a specific aptitude either way.

          • Peter I do hope you feel that people here respect and honour your choices, made very possibly from a heavy heart.

          • celibacy is certainly a specific aptitude either way

            This is the bit I don’t understand, I’m afraid. Celibacy is simply the state of not being married, a state in which one can end up for many different reasons (dedicating one’s life to God’s service might be one; but also one might simply not be attracted to members of the opposite sex, or one might be attracted to members of the opposite sex but never meet one to marry, or there could be more tragic circumstances such as those of Sir Patrick Moore who remained unmarried all his life because his finacée was killed in the Blitz).

            So celibacy per se is simply a state one may either choose or find oneself in, and either way may find agreeable or disagreeable, such as, I don’t know, the state of living in Pimlico. Or vegetarianism.

            How can a simple state be an ‘aptitude’ or a ‘gift’?

          • Sorry, I was much too general. The reasons people undertake celibacy are various:
            (1) It is their gift, and they see it as preferable in their case to marriage.
            (2) They are spiritually wedded to someone they can never physically wed. Includes wedded to God or Christ, so some overlap with (1). But includes Patrick Moore cases too.
            (3) They would like to be married but have not (or not yet) agreed with anyone to do so.

          • The reasons people undertake celibacy are various:

            Okay, so that’s slightly odd phrasing (I don’t think that Sir Patrick Moore, for example, can be said to have ‘undertaken’ celibacy, as ‘undertake’ surely implies some agency, and Sir Patrick Moore was not an agent in his ending up celibate: it was rather something that was done to him by Mr Hitler’s bombs).

            But, looking at reason (1) as it seems to be the relevant one:

            It is their gift, and they see it as preferable in their case to marriage.

            Right so in this case we are talking about people with agency who choose celibacy because they see it as preferable in their case to marriage.

            Again, though, I’m still not sure how it is described as a ‘gift’. Are all preferences gifts? I myself prefer living in a town to living in the big city. Do I have a ‘gift’ of town-living?

            I’m trying to compare it to other ideas of ‘gifts’. We might say someone had a ‘gift’ for missionary work. Now to me that would mean they were skilled at communication, and at self-reliance, quite possibly at languages, and had the disposition to explain the truth to people without getting frustrated and yelling at them (I couldn’t be a missionary).

            I’m stuggling to see what it would mean to say someone had a ‘gift’ for celibacy. That they were particularly good at managing a household on their own without anyone else’s help?

            Perhaps you could break it down what someone who had a ‘gift’ for celibacy would be like.

          • Maybe you do undertake it, otherwise either you would not stick to it or it would not be describable as celibacy, but see (3).

          • Maybe you do undertake it, otherwise either you would not stick to it or it would not be describable as celibacy, but see (3).

            I don’t understand. How can you ‘not stick to it’? If, say, your fiancée dies before your wedding, you don’t exactly have any choice. Had the timing worked slightly differently, Sir Patrick Moore would have been a widower; could he have ‘not stuck to’ being a widower? Bizarre idea.

            Not being married is the default. We are all born celibate. It’s getting married which is the change, which requires things to happen, some of which are in the person’s control (being willing to get married, for example), some of which aren’t (meeting the person to marry, for example; that person not dying before they actually do get to marry). You don’t have to do anything special to ‘stick at’ being unmarried, it’s just what happens if you don’t actively get married.

            And how would being in that situation ‘not be describable as celibacy’? As above, celibacy is simply the state of not being married. If you are not married you are celibate; there’s no ‘describable’ about it. That is what the word means. Just like a shape with three sides is a triangle. You can’t have a shape with three sides that isn’t describable as a triangle; that is just what the word means.

          • I think it is clear what Paul is teaching in 1Cor 7. The priority is to be living in readiness for the coming Kingdom, which is imminent. ‘The appointed time has grown short. From now on, let even those who have wives be as those who had none’ (7.29). Celibacy in 1Cor 7 is short term consecration for the sake of the Lord. And it is a person’s choice not an obligation – ‘if his passions are strong and so it has to be, let him marry. It is no sin’. (7.36). So though many men and women down the centuries have felt a call to stay single there is no idea here of a life-long vocation because they simply did not expect to be around that long.

          • I meant ‘undertake’ as in ‘commit to’. And I was speaking generally, not necessarily about Christians.

          • I meant ‘undertake’ as in ‘commit to’.

            Again, that implies agency. Lots of people stay unmarried not through their own agency, or because of the agency of others (again, Sir Patrick Moore didn’t ‘commit to’ celbacy, Hitler committed him to it by dropping a bomb on the woman he would have married, so he couldn’t marry her).

            And I was speaking generally, not necessarily about Christians.

            Then I’m well confused. I thought the question was of how celibacy could be a gift of God. Non-Christians don’t believe in gifts of God, so how are they relevant?

          • I think it is clear what Paul is teaching in 1Cor 7.

            That would be unusual, for Paul. Do you think my reading is impausible then? What have I missed?

            So though many men and women down the centuries have felt a call to stay single there is no idea here of a life-long vocation because they simply did not expect to be around that long.

            Right, but the point is, not all those who do stay single do so because they felt a call to. Some do so because a bomb was dropped on their fiancée so they couldn’t get married. So just the state of being unmarried, even unmarried for life, is just one of the states people can end up in, by choice or not, and find it agreeable or not.

  2. My understanding is:

    (1) Marriage is the top indicator/predictor of happiness, together with religious involvement.

    (2) Stability and structuredness is, however, an even greater predictor (if that is not Irish). So being stably single and being stably married are both very good.

    (3) Conversely, not having a big-picture plan for your life or a long-term view of things, going with the wind, is (not surprisingly) something that takes away from happiness. For example, either serial ‘relationships’, or not having a clear idea of how life might pan out (for example: immigrant families will have: school – college or university or training – marriage together with abode purchase – children which may lead to upgrade on abode – rather than drifting).

    (4) The unhappiest and least structured by far are single men. Marriage as a predictor of happiness works for both genders but the difference between married and single happiness is far greater for men.

    (5) Our world is now set up for single people economically (see the research of Patricia Morgan). A dangerous trend that works against families. Also that is the reason why there appears to be (but is not actually) a shortage of houses.

    (6) There are a lot of different kinds of ‘single’. A devout spinster, an excellent woman, will be likely to be happy. Our culture is so set up for youngish free and single women (almost in their image) that they will be happy at present. But we can’t define ‘single’ as being the same as ‘not-married’. The phrase ‘not-married’, as mentioned, covers a multitude of completely different and diverse ‘sins’, as it were.

    • Reading this thread on celibacy has caused me to reflect on my own position – something which I have not done for some time.
      I would have been in my early – mid twenties when I was in a Bible study where the leader was teaching from Matt chap 19 on Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce …..and celibacy-
      ‘Some have chosen to live like eunuchs (ie be celibate) for the sake of the kingdom of God. Whoever can receive this saying should receive it’
      This was a light bulb moment for me! yes I could receive it! Although I’d dated a few times – well it was culturally expected wasn’t it – I’d never had a serious relationship and wasn’t that bothered about it – It wasn’t that I am gay as some have suggested – if I had to have a life partner it would have been male it was just too much hassle over something which wasn’t that important to me.
      That ‘word’ from that Bible study confirmed that this was all OK. It was so liberating. For one thing it meant I was no longer looking for ‘the one’ which seemed to occupy a lot of my friends at that time.’The one’ didn’t exist! I had something solid on which to stand against the pressures of family and society and also of those in the church who expected me to get married and ‘settle down’
      Having said that it wasn’t always easy – it was sometimes – and still is – a lonely path. I needed God’s grace. But I think I would have needed tons more grace to marry! (Should I marry that grace may abound?)

      So my reply to S would be celibacy is more than being single because you aren’t (yet) married. It is a gift and a calling. It’s about being able, under God, to embrace your single state, not to be seeking to change it by looking for a spouse, to be contentedly single and accept it as a gift from God, as His way for you. Hope that helps.

      And now? about 40 years later? I can’t claim any magnificent service for the Lord, in some ways I’ve done/do less then some of the married people I know but as I look back I can identify areas of service in which I doubt I would have been involved had I been married so I guess it all makes sense.

      On a not unrelated topic I would echo the comment about the church needing to be more of a family/community. I know (ie it’s not just sensitivity on my part) that I have missed out on social occasions because I am single.

      • Thank you Jean for your wonderful comment …. and I like your modesty at the end (we often can’t say what we have done for God or Christianity as we are nothing more than a very,very small cog in a massive, truly massive wheel)

        • Thanks Clive. Another advantage of being single is that I can stay up ridiculously late doing stuff like contributing to this blog like I did this morning!

      • So my reply to S would be celibacy is more than being single because you aren’t (yet) married. It is a gift and a calling. It’s about being able, under God, to embrace your single state, not to be seeking to change it by looking for a spouse, to be contentedly single and accept it as a gift from God, as His way for you. Hope that helps.

        Okay, so the idea of celibacy being a ‘calling’ I’m fine with. Some people are called to be married, others to be unmarried. Some are called to go abroad as missionaries, others to live at home. God can call people to all sorts of states.

        It’s the idea of it being a ‘gift’ I find a bit bizarre. I mean, okay… is being married a ‘gift’? I can understand one finding one’s spouse a gift, definitely. That God created a person to be your companion, allowed you to find them… yeah, I can see that being a gift. That person would be a gift from God.

        But merely the state of being married? I don’t see how that’s a gift. That’s just a state in which one might happen to find oneself. Just as being unmarried is another state in which one might happen to find oneself. Just as living in London might be a state in which one finds oneself, or having to give up gluten.

        If being contentedly single were a gift from God, then so would be being contentedly married, or contentedly living in London. Which seems to suggest the real gift you’re talking about is simply the gift of contentment with one’s current situation, rather than anything specific about being unmarried.

        Saying celibacy is ‘a gift’ suggests that it’s in some way abnormal, requiring special pleading to make it okay. But it’s not. Everyone is born celibate. To remain so takes no special effort.

        Saying celibacy is ‘a gift’ implies that being married is the natural state, and any deviation from that requires explanation, such as it being God’s special will. But it’s not. It’s just one of the many ways in which a life might end up. No more or less holy or God-given than any other.

        • I’ve no problem with a person having the gift of being married.(rather than having received a spouse from God) I think that is just as valid and as Biblical as someone having the gift of not being married!
          Perhaps look at gift in terms of God-given ability. One person has such an ability to be married, is suited for married life; another has such an ability not to be married and to abstain from sexual relations.

        • According to Jesus Christ in the gospels it is GOD that joins together in marriage and NOT the State. The State can decree what it likes in marriage but it is God that joins male and female together as one. Therefore, surely S it is a gift from God. It is when we try to create a marriage without God it becomes all hit and miss. So I understand Jean’s talk of both marriage being a gift and equally celibacy being a gift.

          So in Matthew 19 it says:
          5 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

          …. and the words “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” are the words in the Christian marriage service.

          Mark 10 verses 7 and 8 say the same thing.

          So marriage is a gift from God is it not?

        • I would define celibacy as choosing not to have sexual relations, rather than simply being unmarried. I appreciate from a Christian pov being unmarried means you should be without sexual relations and therefore celibate. As such ‘Everyone is born celibate. To remain so takes no special effort’ is wrong in my view. It can take great effort given how strong the sexual impulse can be, which is precisely why so many people have more than one sexual partner in their lives, and why I do not view celibacy as a ‘gift’ but rather a choice. But it may be that Paul does view it as a gift, him being one to whom it was given, as evidenced by the fact that he does not ‘burn’ with sexual feelings.


          • Dear Peter

            You wrote “To remain so takes no special effort’ is wrong in my view.” and I agree with you completely on that – That view is wrong (even though it is not the only widespread misunderstanding in society)

      • Hi Jean,

        Thank you for staying up late and making a valuable contribution.

        I think you make a very good point in referring to be ‘contentedly single’. I would suggest that contentment rather than happiness should be our aim. It has biblical support (Phil 4.12) and it is an attitude rather than a feeling.

        Your point about singles in relation to the church is important. Some years ago a friend of mine, Steve Chilcraft, wrote a book “One of Us” which is on this very subject (available second hand online), suggesting how single people should be more included. I feature in the first chapter, which is an illustration of the different kinds of ‘single’ people one can find in the church, which included those married people whose spouses are not church-goers.

        However, beware. Someone who worked for my church and had embraced singleness semi-retired and moved to the country. Not long after, she married a widower.I ceased to be single aged 61. My wife tells me that one of the things which she liked about me was that I seemed content in my singleness, although for me it was probably more of “I am much better off being single than being married to someone unsuitable.”

        Singleness is, as you say, a calling. But God can call you to other things.

        • ‘One of Us’ – one of my fave Abba songs. A gay man who enjoys Abba, go figure.

          I agree with your comments. Singleness should not be thought of as permanent, as if you couldnt meet someone down the line who is your ‘one’. At least for straight people.


        • Why bother marrying after 60? Overwhelming sex drive? Wanting to start a family?
          At 46 I already feel too old.
          According to 1 Timothy 5, women over 60 shouldn’t get married.
          As far as Christian reasons for late marriages I can’t think of any. Preservation of chastity and procreation are the only Biblical reasons to marry.

          And no. You don’t need marriage for companionship either. Companions are friends. Lots of singles enjoy friendships after all.

      • Another follow up comment to your last paragraph…

        This morning at church we had a visitor, a single man in his 60’s. Back home, he had moved church precisely because he was unregarded as a single man. He described how a family with children would be ‘pounced upon’, a couple without children would be talked to, but he as a single man was little more than ignored.

        • Yes I’m familiar with this syndrome – families – & youngish couples of child bearing age – especially welcome.
          I’ve recently moved house and last month had the standard leaflet through the door from the local parish church (I’m of another denomination!) The leaflet enthused about it is a family church, how families are welcome and lists all the children’s activities. Fine. But not even a sentence about any other activities, that everyone is welcome. Perhaps they aren’t? that’s certainly the impression from the leaflet!

    • I like Number 6, Christopher. There are few true Singles in the Biblical sense and it irritates me so few Christian articles or studies acknowledge the difference between the Carrie Bradshaw types and the true old maids like some I know including me.
      There’s a BIG DIFFERENCE between the two and I wonder why Christian groups like Focus on the Family make no distinction.
      There’s different kinds of happiness too. Mindless hedonism or a sense of purpose and meaning? Healthy, rich, young singles probably do experience more pleasure.
      Marrying with the sole purpose of making yourself happy is a bad idea anyhow.

  3. So basically Jesus and Paul must have both been pretty miserable most of their lives. And what does it say about single, gay men like myself? How depressing!

    • No. They knew great joy, as will all who give their lives over to the Way. They will also know great suffering, the other side of the coin.

      The single men are only coming about, with all their unhappiness, because the culture has turned away from marriage. And marriage, with its challenge to become enough of a man, to kill your lions, to gain the woman’s hand, to have sex treated as a carrot unobtainable in other ways, is precisely psychologically what single men need. No wonder they are now (post sexual revolution) sometimes so miserable.

      In Jesus and Paul’s culture, men could easily marry. That meant that those that did not, did not want to, and thought they had something better (or better for them). No comparison with today’s culture.

      And I strongly agree with Simon that it is given to few to be celibate. But it is amazing the power of cultural norms.

      The sexual revolution thought there could be one gain; it did not think of the 50 interconnected losses that that gain might automatically trigger.

      • Question please Christopher. This challenge – ” to become enough of a man, to kill your lions, to gain the woman’s hand” – is that (a) the challenge for men in a particular culture, or is it (b) the universal challenge for every man in every culture wanting to marry? If (a), what specific culture are you addressing? If (b), how do you justify your assertion?

        • I think it is undeniable that a culture that relinquishes the riches of the romantic impulse/instinct/tradition (or even, worse, gives it little consideration either way) impoverishes itself.

          The insight that ‘life is an adventure’ is central.

          But, if so, romance must also be central. It is, further, a prime means by which we enter into the dance of the generations, whereas this generation is among the least historically aware.

          Men need a challenge. Or they wilt or become depressed.

          Women love to be swept off their feet, pursued etc..

          Under feminism of the less savoury varieties, many are encouraged to deny these impulses which they still secretly have.

          Muslims were recently criticised in Birmingham for saying God made men for women’e pleasure and women for men’s. Yet nothing could be more obvious to most cultures and most generations and to those with even a cursory knowledge of biology and/or cultural history.

          And yes – there is sociobiology and/or anthropology – some things are far deeper and more universal than a particular culture at a particular time.

          Don’t you think this positive view of life knocks the dreary culture-of-death into a cocked hat?

          • “Men need a challenge… women love to be swept off their feet.” These are stereotypes and here, on a bible website, I am looking for bible justification.

          • Where do stereotypes spring from unless from experience?

            Also when people question them from a position of the culture not allowing one to say things, then one has always to be suspicious about the accuracy levels.

            We are viewing the Bible in different ways. I begin with reality, and say that the Biblical worldview (which postdated reality) is accurate to reality, captures it accurately. You are perhaps saying ‘not in Bible, not in life’. But many real things are not in the Bible, and that has no bearing at all on whether they are real or accurate.

          • Or, to summarise, you seem to be wanting to ditch romance. A sensible perspective would be wanting to maximise romance, so wanting to ditch it is a long distance from being sensible.

          • Well, there is little or no romance in biblical marriages, nor in the cultures which produced those texts.

          • there is little or no romance in biblical marriages

            You don’t think that Jacob working seven years for the love of Rachael is romantic?!?!

            And I thought I had a heart of stone.

          • I am unsure whether you are saying (i) “These stereotypes are how things generally are” or (ii) “These stereotypes are how things ought to be.” If (i) then it’s just a discussion, if (ii) then I disagree.

            In answer to your question, do I want to ditch romance, then no, but I want to make romance optional. Specifically, where there is a single man seeking a Christian partner, then I want him to be free to look into his friend’s eyes and say to her “here is how much of the Shell pattern I conform to” and to ask her “What about yourself?” without there being more virtuous answers or less virtuous answers.

          • Penelope, your reposte does not change the fact that “….Jacob working seven years for the love of Rachael is romantic…”. It is romantic and that reply therefore stands.
            The other word you have chosen is not Biblical anyway!

      • A number of us Gen X women missed out on marriage.

        We’re virgins over 45. We have striven to serve God faithfully with little or no support from His church.

        A lack of men from our generation at church. Many left to get drunk and play around. (This is before the misandrist Third Wave arose.)

        We could have become unequally yoked. Or left church to embrace the S*x in the City lifestyle.

        Some of us did. But some of us love Jesus too much.

  4. Replacing the original “fucking” with “f***ing” just looks prudish and prissy. If you are quoting someone, quote them. If not, paraphrase. Sometimes quoting a person in full and unexpurgated makes them look stupid; sometimes it retains the force of their original comment; always it respects their choice and use of words.

    I could see there might be exceptions (the n-word is often called “the n-word”) but a racial slur is not the same as a sexual expletive, it’s a prejudiced attack on a whole group of people. “Fuck”, on the other hand, is fine old English word in the best traditions of bawdy ballads and barrack room banter. Who are you afraid of offending? Not any readers of English literature from the last 1,000 years. Maybe a maiden aunt or an elderly bishop.

    As for why that the that is the only thing I thought worth picking up on? Style matters, accuracy matters, and the Dolan / Harford thing didn’t really interest me much.

    The Freudian in me also wondered about the irony of redacting “fuck” in a piece about marriage and sex.

    Which beings me to the second piece: I did find Mark Regnerus’ thoughts interesting. The easy access to “high-quality pornography” (whatever that means. High definition? Good looking people?) generally I suspect by men coupled with (or rather NOT couple with) — but here I am being anecdotal — the widespread availability and use of vibrators by women means that individuals can meet their own sexual needs without bothering with another person, much less a relationship.

    Whether such sexual or pseudo-sexual activity counts as “fucking” or “f***ing” is a moot point.

    Maybe we should use the full word for real, sex between human beings and the bowdlerised version for cyber or solo sex, which surely can only ever be three stars out of five at best anyway. So for that “f***ing” seems entirely appropriate.

    • I think you are missing the point that the word was not used in the context of sexual activity, unless the reason for the alleged misery was either because the wives wanted sex but were not getting it, or did not not like the sex they were getting.

      This ‘fine Anglo-Saxon’ word is so overused and it seems it is used a little more than an intensifier, a version of ‘very’ but attempting to be ‘street’ or ‘edgy’ but actually displaying a lack of vocabulary.

      All of this is irrelevant to the topic of happiness and marriage.

  5. Helpful as always Ian. I think that you have a typo in the penultimate para – surely it is more women than men.

    Lastly greetings from SF – the epicentre of the sexual revolution.

  6. I think that the most interesting comment in the article is that from Suzanne Moore. She seems to understand that happiness is not the goal of life and that the pursuit of happiness is a chasing after the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I came across recently a quotation from Freud (Sigmund, not Clement) that the object of psychoanalysis was to replace neurosis with “normal human unhappiness”.

    In respect of marriage, I would suggest that to marry because you think it will make you happy is a very poor basis for marrying. After all, the expectations are set in the promises made, to live together for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse in sickness and in health, until death do us part. The marriage commitments give not a bed of roses, but a bumpy ride and look forward to the great unhappiness of bereavment.

    • There are (of course!) good reasons for getting married. Love. Sex. Also participation in the dance of the generations, intimations of which become clearer as one approaches the big day. The main thing is that not marrying is now being seen as an equally likely option, but all one can say is that absolutely none of anyone’s male line and absolutely none of anyone’s female line has thought that for millions of years.

    • ‘and look forward to the great unhappiness of bereavment.’

      We all suffer grief, but as someone has said, that is the price we pay for love. And most people would not have not had a relationship of love despite possible bereavement at the end.

      Loss, in all its varieties, is part and parcel of life.


  7. I am probably too late for this comment – but Paul’s gift of singleness (if that is what he meant) was surely, as with all gifts, a gift for the church. In other words his personal circumstances meant he was single – a circumstance he might have regretted – but it meant he could devote more of his time to the church.

    • I doubt that is the case or how Paul understood this ‘gift’. He writes it in the context of refraining from marriage which then as now was the norm, especially for Jews. It seems to me because he found it relatively easy to live a non-sexual life, he interpreted that as having a gift, in other words God had given him grace.

      • I am afraid not. It was the norm for rabbis to be married by the age of 30. It is interesting Paul was not. It could be he was widowed or divorced?

        • I didn’t mean to imply Paul could not have been married earlier in his life, but as you say was no longer married due to death or divorce. Though it should be said simply being the norm for a rabbi does not mean he automatically was and I understand it was only an actual requirement for a member of the Sanhedrin. Or it may ge he had every intention, but his conversion and changed purpose got in the way. But it is interesting that the Greek word he uses for unmarried in 1 Corinthians 1 ‘ to the unmarried and widows…’ was rarely used in Greek and not at all during the Koine period. It may be that word actually refers to male widows, implying that he is that.

          But regardless, Paul is talking about his life as it is now which is one full of grace in various ways, his celibacy being one.

    • This is somewhat tangential, but in that interesting link there is this:
      Kiddushin 82a does argue that an unmarried man cannot teach children, but this appears to be a concern about the appearance of impropriety, not a question about his ability or knowledge.
      My immediate thought was how this might relate to the rebuke the disciples gave to those bringing children to Jesus.

      • Yes. Interesting. I think the point I was trying to make is that any gift we have is surely not for our benefit but for the benefit of the church. I was suggesting this could be Paul’s perspective. In other words his singleness was a gift to the church that enabled him to devote more of his ministry to it. Just as it is said that an elder should have only one wife. I believe at this time it was not a moral injunction rather it was suggesting a man with two wives would have no time for the church!

  8. Few true singles in the biblical sense.

    I got angry at a survey Focus On the Family did comparing “singles” to marrieds in happiness rates. Why did Dobson lump chaste celibates/virgins in with people doing the bar scene? (Or the “swipe right” scene now.)

    Chaste singles have no more in common with our libertine counterparts than we do married people. Maybe even less.

    Happiness is very overrated. A life of unbridled hedonism probably is the most conducive to pleasure and self centeredness. What people usually think of as “happiness.” Especially those feminists.


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