Does Family Matter? Assessing Marriage photo: copyright Paul Toepfer Photography


1. Marriage: A panacea?

2. Good for the old folks?

3. Is bridal sweet?

4. Love for sale?

Marriage of Mr and Mrs Witham, which took place at St Margaret's Church, Barking, in about 1913. Photo: The London Borough of Barking & Dagenham

Study: Married, working mothers had the least risk of a mental disorder.

The National Survey of Family Growth tracked marriage rates among women who had a first child inside or outside marriage. In all groups, bearing a first child while married was associated with much higher rates of marriage later in life. Data from "Is Marriage a Panacea..." (see bibliography).

Newlyweds cut cake, mutter "Cheese!" for trillionth time.

Photo: (c) Paul Toepfer Photography

Good ol' days
Back in the 1950s, when Father Knew Best, you hardly read a negative word about marriage. It was the foundation of a stable society, the birthplace of healthy, productive kids, the linchpin of civilization.

old black and white wedding photo of bride,groom and all the relatives

At least, it was ubiquitous: In 1950, only 4 percent of American kids were born outside marriage.

But in the 1960s, some feminists and advocates of "human potential" began to see marriage as patriarchy, even slavery for women. In 1972, feminist scholar Jesse Bernard argued that while marriage made men healthier in the head, it made women sicker, upstairs.

Her argument helped found a critique of marriage as good for guys but murder on mothers (and women in general).

Since the 1950s, that critique, along with many other economic and social forces, sparked plunging rates of marriage and soaring rates of divorce. Half a century later, marriage is no longer a given for children: About 33 percent of American kids are born outside wedlock, and roughly half of all kids will spend some time in a single-parent family.

Graph shows marital status based on race.

Fighting back
Smiling bride and groom cut flowery cake. Over the past decade, these statistics have spawned a counter-revolution. Based partly on traditional values and religious beliefs, and partly on convincing social-science studies of the benefits of marriage, the counter-revolutionaries argue that if you are looking for healthy, secure adults, and healthy, secure kids, you gotta look into marriage.

In short, they say, it's not just the fellas who benefit from a trip to the hitching post, but kids and even women as well.

These critics scorn those who would bridle the bridal path.

Today, a raft of statistics show that marriage is, on average, good for all three parties:

Good for your bod: Unmarried (including divorced, single and widowed) people are "far more likely to die from all causes, including coronary heart disease, stroke, pneumonia, many kinds of cancer, cirrhosis of the liver, automobile accidents, murder and suicide -- all leading causes of death," according to Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and author of "The Case for Marriage..." (see bibliography).

Good for your bean: Married people have lower rates of suicide, depression, and other mental disorders.

Good for your bottom line: The average married couple has far more than twice the income and net worth of the average single person. A couple can live cheaper than two single people, and the average married man earns more and works harder than the average single man.

Good for your brood: Married couples have more time and money to devote to their kids. They also have a broader range of talents, interests and social connections. As a result, their kids tend to be healthier, more secure, better educated, and more likely to succeed in school, in the workforce, and in their own relationships.

technicolor wedding ceremony outdoors

Down on marriage? Not down under...
Emulating Bernard's influential 1972 book (see "The Future..." in the bibliography). much of the skepticism and hostility to marriage focused on its supposed harm to the mental health of women. In recent years, that view has faded, under the impact of studies like one reported in 2002 by David de Vaus.

His study of 10,641 Australian adults found that each sex had its characteristic mental disorders: While men swilled booze and snarfed other drugs, women suffered from mood and anxiety disorders. For neither sex, however, did problems appear more often among the married.

Wow! In many ways, de Vaus's data read like a testament to the marital vow:

Married men and women were least likely to have mental disorders.

Separated or divorced people were most likely to have mood or anxiety disorders.

Adults who had never married were most likely to have substance-abuse problems.

The women who had least risk of a mental disorder were married and working with kids at home.

Married, full-time mothers had only a slightly higher rate of mental disorders.

The highest rate of mental disorder was among men without marriage, job or children.

While these findings contradict the gloomy assessment of Jesse Bernard, de Vaus noted that she focused on mental disorders that unduly affect women, skewing her results.

Elvis poses with 'just married' limo in front of Viva Las Vegas Hotel
Marital bliss begins at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel. Elvis photo courtesy Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel.

Blissfully ever after?
Evidence keeps piling up. In September, for example, Health Psychology published a 13-year study (see "Marital Status......" in the bibliography) on the cardiovascular impact of marriage in middle-aged women.sepia-toned photo of newlyweds kissing in front of the state capital A satisfying marriage was associated with healthier levels of cholesterol and blood pressure, and with fewer of the psychosocial factors linked to cardiovascular disease, like depression, anxiety and anger.

Photo: (c) Paul Toepfer Photography

These health advantages tended to disappear in poor marriages. Thus studies that have not found a health advantage among married women may have failed to distinguished healthy from unhealthy marriages.

When we focus on happiness, the marriage picture is equally gratifying. In general, according to Waite, happiness fits marriage like a wedding band fits a ring finger: "The happiness advantage of married people is very large and quite similar for men and women and appears in every country on which we have information" (p. 168, "The Case ..." in the bibliography).

One warning: Everything we have reported is statistical data. And statistics apply to groups, not individuals.

But does the data prove that marriage is good for men and women?

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