Marriage over the past few decades has been associated with many benefits, including improved happiness and wellbeing, reduced levels of depression, reduced levels of substance abuse and violence, improved health, and increased longevity. Married individuals also tend to be economically better off, although governments encourage the family unit via policy and subsidize it heavily.
Ask every social scientist: there is no doubt that being married is an excellent correlator with myriad positive variables. It is correlated with a plethora of economic, physical, and social benefits. In fact, following a major review of studies related to family status and physical and mental health, some researchers concluded that the question is not whether marriage can be associated with improved quality of life, but how it does so and at what stage.
Most of these studies, however, did not address some critical issues and recent studies make things even more complicated.
1. The selection effect
Before we get to the new findings, let’s start with the obvious: correlation does not mean causation. Indeed, several studies dealt with this question, this way or another, and I already discussed this in length here and here. There are many studies that argue that besides a short-lived “honeymoon” effect, there is no real benefit in marriage or just a weak one.
The argument is that one of the main reasons for the bombasting positive correlations of marriage with quality of life is self-selection into marriage. In other words, happier and healthier individuals with more earning power are more likely to marry (due to many reasons, not only positive ones).
Evidence supporting a selection effect into marriage has been found with a variety of mechanisms, including stronger economic background, psychological wellbeing, and physical health. An additional longitudinal twin study also found that men with higher levels of sociability were more likely to marry, further supporting the possibility of a selection mechanism. Old studies and very recent ones show that all of the ostensible benefits of marriage are cut significantly after accounting for the selection effect.
2. Does marriage benefit everyone in the same way?
Now, it is easier to understand some new findings that illuminate the diversity within the married population. A recent study examined the benefits of marriage across a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults and compared those who were “very happy” in marriage to those who were “pretty happy” in marriage, “not too happy” in marriage, never married, divorced/separated, and widowed. Their findings, published by the Journal of Happiness Studies, are quite striking.
First, those who were “not too happy” in marriage were over twice as likely to report worse health and almost 40% more likely to die over the follow-up period compared with the “very happy” group, accounting for other factors.
Second, and maybe more surprising, the “not too happy” married group had equal or even worse health and mortality risks compared to those who were never married, divorced/separated, or widowed.
The authors conclude that despite the fact that the “literature on the health and longevity benefits of marriage is well established,” their results suggest that “individuals in unhappy marriages may be a vulnerable population.”
3. What about cases where marriage fail?
Even if there is a weak causation effect and even if we ignore the diversity among the married population, one should be careful in advocating marriage. The reason is simple: marriage often ends, especially today, and this actually makes people worse off than the never-married group, as I explain in my book, Happy Singlehood.
We cannot really say that marriage is beneficial if those who chose that path may end up worse off. It is like looking at the statistics of a given surgery and say: those who succeed are doing ok, but around 50% of cases fail and they are actually worse off. Moreover, they are not part of the surgery's statistics in most cases because they are put in a different category (in our case it is under the "divorced" category instead of under the "ever married" one). Will you consider such a surgery a success?
4. It’s even more complicated and no one measures this
The question gets even more complicated once we account for discriminatory practices, policy deficits, and social pressure experienced by single people. There are no good studies showing this effect in numbers, but just imagine how difficult it is to live an unmarried life facing social criticism all over. Sometimes it is hidden (e.g. not getting invited to couples’ social gathering or being required to work extra hours because others have family obligations) and sometimes it’s overt (e.g. spousal health insurance benefits). But, the negative effect is almost always guaranteed.
The point is that some of the benefits are not internal to marriage, but external. If we want to achieve these benefits we might simply stop criticizing singlehood, instead of forcing everyone into the wedlock.
5. The benefits of being single
Lastly, it is important to consider the myriad benefits of being single that usually get ignored. Singles are more likely to experience personal growth, they have more friends, they are generally more satisfied with their sexual lives, and they show higher levels of sexual self-esteem and sexual communication skills. They also seem especially inclined to try new things and to pursue their passions. They might also enjoy their solitude and, in some cases, they even experience better health.
So, does marriage really carry benefits with it? We should be very careful in using this argument, to say the least.