Has marriage lost its health benefits in the modern world?

Contrary to comprehensive research demonstrating that marriage is good for your health, a US study has revealed that modern marriages do not benefit from the same ‘protective effect’ enjoyed by older couples.

Previously, marriage has been praised for keeping people, especially men, happy and healthy. Tying the knot has been linked to lowering blood pressure, cholesterol and heart disease and preventing diabetes. Married couples, by being invested in each other’s health, were thought to spur the other on to look after themselves.

However, recently academics have been poking holes in this theory. For instance, as the marriage rate has been dropping the fastest among socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, it is probable that those getting married are those who are most likely to be able to afford to keep themselves healthy whether they are hitched or not. There has also been suspicion over treating marriage as the cause of good health rather than a possible contributor alongside other socioeconomic and environmental factors.

The report ‘Does Marriage Protect Health? A Birth Cohort Comparison, released by Dmitry Tumin of The Ohio State University College of Medicine earlier this month, gives weight to this argument. Published in Social Science Quarterly, the study suggests that modern life has put an end to the health benefits of marriage.

The aim of the study was to find whether the subjective general health of those who have never married and those in their first marriage changes depending on the year they were born. Using the 1984-2011 Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the academics divided their respondents into three birth cohorts: 1955-1964, 1965-1974, 1975-1984, and four marriage cohorts: before 1985, 1985-1994, 1995-2004, 2005 or later. The data also records race, educational attainment, fertility and gender. In total, 12,373 individuals (6,222 men and 6,151 women) gave an average of six observations of their general health over time, on a five-point scale.

The study found that, for women, there is very little association between length of marriage and general health, and none at all for men. Looking at data surrounding the female respondents married for 10 or more years, those in the oldest group had better health than those who never married. However this effect dwindles in the middle cohort and the health advantages of ‘long’ marriage are negligible in the youngest group. The researcher also noted that the gap between the self-rated health of married and never-married men has been steadily closing since the 70s.

The report puts forward a variety of potential factors as to why marriage may have lost its protective effect on health. One of the main reasons is that the shift from single life to married life is now rarely a shock. Modern couples tend to live together, even for many years, before deciding to tie the knot. Since couples often have much longer ‘acclimatisation’ periods, it is possible that there is now not much disparity between the health of the married and not-married. As the deinstitutionalisation of marriage in America has been ‘both swift and far-reaching’, many couples are choosing not to marry at all. The decline in the stigma surrounding never marrying is reflected in the drop in marriage rates and the knock-on effect on divorce rates.

Although in every birth cohort the first marriages start within a 20-year bracket, people are increasingly marrying later in life. Compounded with better awareness about gender equality, this means that many individuals have had the time to build up their own finances and find a personal support system before entering marriage. The research explains that people are also increasingly relying on their parents for money over a spouse. In this way, marriage is no longer the solve-all solution for future financial and emotional security. On the contrary, it seems that marriage can even have the opposite effect:

‘Today’s married couples may indeed experience marriage more as a source of conflict and stress than as a resource that safeguards their health’.

The report suggests that the pressures of modern life are guilty of taking away the old protective effect of marriage. Nowadays, with hyper-connectivity and social media, married couples spend much less time together and have networks of friends for support. The strain of upholding a relationship where both partners work full-time is also significant as work-life balance has been a growing conflict for families since the second half of the 20th century.

With the conclusion: ‘in recent cohorts, general health has become less responsive to getting and staying married’, the report has set out clearly that the ‘marriage effect’ is absent in men, and weak in women. But before we get too disenchanted with the notion of saying “I do”, it is important to remember that this research does have its limits. In not following participants once their first marriage has ended, the report does not offer any information on the effect of divorce and remarriage on health. Nor is there any way of telling that the marriages it did count were happy ones and thus the impact of marriage on mental health. In addition, the data does not account for same-sex marriage and civil partnerships. As same-sex marriage is not yet legal across the US, it may take some time before, if ever, we get a fuller picture of the effect of marriage on health.

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