Marriage, families and society

Marriage is not a panacea

Sir, – Breda O’Brien advocates for marriage on the ground that it is good for couples, families and society (“Family referendum: I’m voting No because I will not be hypocritical about marriage”, Opinion & Analysis, February 18th).

It is true that research has found that children who grow up in two-parent married families in Ireland do better on range of outcomes than those who grow up in cohabiting or one-parent families (Fahey, Keilthy and Polek 2013 and Hannan, Halpin and Coleman 2013). However, the crux of the issue rests on the answer to the question of why.

We found that much of the benefits of marriage are not related to marriage per se but to the socioeconomic background of mothers (See Hannan and Halpin 2014). In terms of educational outcomes, for example. children in cohabiting families scored 11 percentage points less on a reading test at age nine. Mothers who cohabit are, however, younger and have less access to a wide range of social and economic resources. Once we match families on these characteristics, the difference in reading scores is reduced to 4.4 per cent.

In other words, marriage is not a panacea. International research which uses statistical models to control for the differing characteristics of families consistently acknowledges that selection into marriage matters more than marriage itself. In conclusion, policy debates might more valuably focus on these other disadvantages than on family structure. – Yours, etc,



Department of Sociology,

University of Limerick.