It seems so intuitively plausible that if you get married, you will be happier and healthier. Lots of media headlines have claimed that this is so. But it is not true. That’s what I discovered when I first started reading original research reports for myself. (I did so as someone who has published lots of studies in scientific journals and taught graduate courses in research methods for decades.)
I’ve explained many times why the claims about the benefits of marrying are greatly exaggerated or just plain false. I was asked about this again recently, so I’m including my answer in my new series, “Questions I’ve been asked.” My answer is on the long side for a blog post; you can find shorter versions here.
People often quote studies that point to the benefits of marriage over singleness, but you dispute their validity. Why?
I knew, when I first decided to write my first book on the topic (Singled Out), that I would need to delve into the social scientific studies on the implications of getting married. I had never read any of the original research reports, but I was very familiar with what the popular press had to say – that people who marry become happier and healthier and live longer and all the rest.
I didn’t think I would be happier if I married. And as for longevity, it’s like that cartoon where one guy says to the other, “is it true that married people live longer?” and the other guy says, “It only feels longer.” But I thought I was the exception. At the time, I had no reason to doubt that in general, marriage was good for people.
My hope, when I started collecting stacks of studies, was that I would find some wrinkles somewhere. For example, maybe for women, at a certain age, single life was just as good or even better than married life.
I was just stunned when I started reading the actual research reports. At the time, the vast majority of studies were cross-sectional. They compared people who were currently married with people who were single, and if the married people were doing better, they would say (or reporters would say), “see, marriage makes people happier! See, single people, if you get married, you will be happier!”
First, this is a correlation. It can’t tell us anything about causation.
Second, a related point, the married people might differ from the single people in all sorts of ways that could account for the difference. Maybe the married people weren’t happier (or healthier or whatever) because they were married, but because they had more money or because they were healthier to begin with or or or or or… well, the possibilities are endless. Sometimes researchers try to control for this or that, but they can never control for every possibility, and they never even think of some of the most important ones (such as whether the single people want to be single).
Third, this comparison is cheating! By including in the married group only those people who are currently married, the researchers are ignoring all those people – probably more than 40% — who got married, hated it, and refused to stay married. So you can’t say, “see, single people, if you marry, you will get happier.” Because they could instead end up divorced and less happy.
The analogy I like to use is a drug company touting their new drug. They do a study in which 40% of the people in the drug condition hate the drug and refuse to keep taking it. Then, when they go to submit the study for publication, they include in the drug group only those people who stayed on the drug! And when they write TV ads, they say, “look, our drug works! People taking the drug are doing better than people not taking it.” No self-respecting journal would ever publish that. And even TV viewers with no scientific training whatsoever, if they were told about what was done, would realize that they were being taken for a ride.
Fourth, even with this cheater technique giving married people a big, fat unfair advantage, sometimes those studies showed that there was little difference between the married and the unmarried people. Some of them even found advantages for the lifelong single people.
Longitudinal studies are much better, though still not perfect. (What we really want to do, methodologically, is randomly assign people to get married or get married and then divorced or stay single, etc., but of course, we can’t do that.) The number of such studies has been growing. By 2012, there were already at least 18 studies of happiness in which the same people were studied over time as they went from being single to getting married.
A review of those studies showed that people who got married typically did not become any happier. At best, they experienced a brief increase in their satisfaction with their life right around the time of the wedding, but then over time, their happiness steadily decreased. And, only those people who got married and stayed married enjoyed that honeymoon effect! The people who eventually divorced were already becoming less happy, rather than more so, as the day of their wedding approached. They ended up less happy than they were when they were single.
Some of the most recent and most sophisticated studies are even more shattering of the myths about the supposed benefits of marrying. For example, on some measures, people who get married get less healthy than they were before.