For decades it was a popular notion that finding your soulmate, marrying them and living happily ever after was a sure way to find true happiness. But newer studies are showing that’s not the case.
Many people wonder whether these findings could just be attributed to healthy people being more likely to marry in the first place (selection effect). But rigorous research shows that marriage matters for health and happiness in many ways.
The benefits of marriage are surprisingly widespread and well-documented. Married people are less prone to depression, suicide, illness, and addiction. They also have better financial security, and in many cases, healthier physical health.
It’s been found that married people tend to eat better, take fewer risks, exercise more, and visit the doctor more regularly than singles do. Researchers speculate that these positive behaviors stem from the emotional reassurance, support system, and sense of security that marriage provides over cohabitation.
Further, marital strain can increase the risk of health-compromising behaviors like substance abuse as a coping mechanism (Whisman, Simpson, & Hughes, 2012). However, more basic research on how and for whom marital quality impacts health is needed to identify plausible psychosocial pathways. This research could lead to more effective interventions to improve marital functioning and ultimately promote health. Married people are generally happier too. A study of 17 developed nations showed that those who stay married are more satisfied with their lives, regardless of age or income.
A well-functioning marriage is a buffer against life’s ups and downs. Research shows that people in happy, long-term marriages experience less depression, anxiety and stress. It’s because married couples are less likely to take out their frustrations on each other and tend to rely on each other for support in times of trouble.
Healthy spouses communicate frequently, not only about their kids’ schedules and grocery lists but about their hopes, dreams and fears as well. They share financial information openly and honestly so that each person knows where the other is at financially and can reassure them if needed.
The best part is, when they are stressed, healthy couples don’t fall into a “just surviving” mode where they do the bare minimum to keep their houses clean and their bills paid but neglect their relationship. Instead they prioritize communication and seek out activities that allow them to spend quality time together, even if it’s working on a jigsaw puzzle or painting the house.
More Time Together
The fact is, in order to build a long-term marriage, you have to spend time together. It’s important to set aside your phones and computers, go for a walk together, try a new restaurant or activity, and simply talk to each other. This will keep your relationship feeling fresh and connected.
Studies have shown that spouses who feel close to one another are happier than those who don’t. This may be because married people have more opportunities to express their love and affection for one another, but it could also be because married couples are able to share responsibilities and work through problems together.
The health benefits of long-term marriages may be due to specialization of labor and shared resources that allow married couples to do more than one another, whereas cohabitators have to shoulder all of life’s burdens on their own (Musick and Bumpass 2012). This could explain why people in better physical shape enter into marriage at an earlier age than those who don’t.
A More Meaningful Life
When people get married, they commit themselves to each other for life. While this commitment may not be as high in cohabiting unions, the official nature of marriage – with its vows and legal protection – often conveys to friends and family that a couple will work on their relationship even when times are tough. This heightened sense of security (Waite and Gallagher 2002; Cherlin 2004) can reduce feelings of uncertainty about the future, which improves overall well-being.
It’s true that mountains of research show that children reared outside of intact marriages are more likely to drop out of school, engage in risky sexual behavior, be abused or victimized, experience depression and addiction, and suffer from poor health. However, framing the marriage debate solely in terms of the potential harm to kids obscures as much as it reveals. The case for marriage is far greater than that. It also confers profound benefits on adults and helps them live better, more meaningful lives.