Article By Tyler J. VanderWeele Ph.D.
Marriage is, and remains, one of the most enduring social institutions and a central foundation of family life.
Numerous prior studies have suggested that marriage itself supports both the flourishing of spouses and children.
Most studies indicate marriage has important effects on human well-being, from increased longevity to lower depression to greater happiness and greater thriving of children. Meta-analyses of more rigorous longitudinal studies have indicated fairly consistent evidence for effects, for example, on physical health and longevity, and on mental health.
Nonetheless, a mini-subfield within academia has developed that attempts to critique or disprove the effects of marriage on human well-being. One relatively recent (and not entirely unreasonable) critique of the existing literature is that most studies and analyses do not properly account for the fact that becoming married also puts one at risk of divorce, and divorce itself is associated with worse well-being outcomes. Most analyses examining these questions effectively compare the currently married to the previously married (but now divorced). This can make marriage look more beneficial than it is because it pulls out marriages that did not work out well and ended in divorce, and thus only examines the more successful and happier marriages.
Because of this, one critic went so far as to accuse prior analyses of employing what she called a “cheater technique.” The reality is more subtle: There are different types of questions that one can ask about marriage and human flourishing. One question is what the average effects are of getting married on human well-being (including risking the possibility of a subsequent divorce). A different question is what the effects seem to be of staying married. Most prior analyses and studies have studied the latter question, and so in some ways the “cheater technique” critique has largely gone unaddressed.
Our most recent study of marriage and divorce has thus focused on the former question to attempt to examine this outstanding critique and to take into account the possibility that deciding to get married might for some eventually lead to divorce.
Our Study on Marriage
To address the question of the effects of deciding to get married on well-being (rather than just deciding to stay in a happy marriage) requires a large sample and a long follow-up time, because one cannot just look at existing marriages; one must look at a group that was initially unmarried and then compare those who subsequently decided to get married with those who did not and follow them up. There also needs to be sufficient time to assess the effects on health and well-being, along with the possibility of subsequent divorce.
Fortunately, the data from Harvard’s Nurses’ Health Study II helps provide what is needed. We used data on 11,830 nurses who were unmarried in 1989 and then compared those who married over the next four years versus those who did not, and followed up these groups for 25 years to examine their health and well-being outcomes later in life. Some of those who got married in that four-year stretch did end up becoming divorced subsequently, and so their outcomes are included also amongst those who decided to get married.
Our analyses looked at a number of different well-being outcomes after 25 years, including physical health and longevity, health behaviors, psychological well-being, depression, among others. Whenever possible, our analyses also controlled for these same outcomes in 1989 prior to their potential marriage, along with a host of other social, demographic, economic, and health-related variables to try to eliminate the possibility either of confounding, or determine that it was mostly those who were initially healthy and happy who went on to get married. All of these strategies help strengthen causal inference.
In spite of this more rigorous design and control, and even after including the outcomes of those who subsequently got divorced amongst the group that became married, our analyses more or less still corroborated much of the prior literature on the topic. Namely, we found moderate effects of becoming married on increasing happiness, purpose in life, and hopefulness, and on reducing depressive symptoms and loneliness. We also found substantial effects—about 30 percent declines—on reducing smoking, coronary heart disease, and stroke, and on mortality from all causes during the 25-year follow-up. These are notable effects on important outcomes. Our study did not indicate effects on all outcomes; there was little evidence of any effect on subsequently being overweight/obese or on cancer, or on heavy drinking, or on diet quality. Yet there wasn’t much evidence for adverse effects on these outcomes either. The beneficial effects that the study did uncover helps address the existing critiques and indicates important effects of deciding to marry on health and well-being, even taking into account the possibility that marriage carries the risk of divorce.
Our study did not directly assess the mechanisms by which marriage affects all of these health and well-being outcomes, but the effects on a fairly diverse range of outcomes is suggestive. Some of the effects likely result from companionship. Some may be related to health behaviors. Especially later in life, some may be related to the provision of care.
Contrary to portrayals in the popular media, some studies indicate, on average, higher levels of sexual satisfaction within marriage. Some of the effects likely arise from the experience of being loved, and indeed from at least some sense of security and stability offered by one’s lifelong marriage vows.
The research arguably has some important implications for supporting marriage within society. Marriage is an important pathway to human flourishing. It increases physical health, mental health, happiness, and purpose, and it both constitutes and contributes to close social relationships. Moreover, the effects of marriage on the well-being of children may be even more profound than on spouses. Having children itself might even be viewed as a form of flourishing.
Marriage is, of course, not always easy and can cause strain, challenges, and even anguish, but perhaps in part by working through some of those difficulties, it helps develop a stronger character, a deeper commitment, and a greater sense of purpose in some cases. While numerous activities are available that evidence indicates boost health and happiness, there are fewer easy activities to improve meaning and purpose, or character, or relationships. For these things longer-term commitments and communities and institutions are perhaps especially important, and marriage is arguably one such institution.
Given the important effects of marriage on health and wellbeing, societies should support marriage. Marriage penalties in the welfare system that disincentive marriage should be eliminated. Better parental leave and child support policies could be put into place. Societal expectations over having an expensive wedding or a costly ring, which can discourage those less advantaged from marrying, could be altered. And marriage itself could be supported by providing greater marital counseling resources: Evidence-based online marriage programs could be widely disseminated to help address marital problems before they get so bad that divorce seems like the only option. Inevitably, some marriages do not work out and causes of this can be diverse, but given the negative effects of divorce itself (which our study also documented), if some of these could be prevented by offering further support, this too could improve societal well-being. However, this very possibility also points to the need of supporting the flourishing not only of those in marriage, but for all.
Supporting Flourishing for All
The results of our study relating marriage and well-being should in no way be interpreted as somehow indicating the superiority of married persons, or as an excuse to neglect the well-being of those who are not married. Different people have different callings and we need to support the flourishing of people in all states of life. Various religious teachings in fact sometimes even suggest that a committed single life can be a higher calling, at least in part because of the capacity to love and care for and serve a wider array of people. Single people—religious or not—play critical roles in the life of our society. Moreover, although marriage is an important pathway to the flourishing of spouses and children, efforts should most certainly be made to support and assist single parents as well. The challenges of navigating life and of parents are magnified yet further without the help of a partner, and we should give serious thought to how we might best support the flourishing of such parents and children, potentially again through better parental leave policies, parenting resources, and child support services. We must work towards supporting all persons in flourishing.
Marriage is a core pathway to human flourishing. It is not the only pathway, but it has been and will continue to be an important one for many people, for the raising of children, and for the continuation of society. Efforts should be made to support marriage; to help spouses, and children, and also all parents and all people to flourish. Doing so is part of what constitutes a flourishing society.
A version of this article originally appeared here on psychologytoday.com