Part 2: If You Marry, Will You Be Less Depressed?
Part 1 of this two-part article was about studies which compare the depression levels, at just one point in time, of people who are currently married, divorced, widowed, or had always been single. The studies show that the currently married and the always-single have similarly low levels of depression, whereas the previously married (divorced and widowed) tend to report more depression.
Because we do not know how depressed the various people were before they got married or unmarried, we can’t really know whether marriage had anything to do with how they felt. That’s true regardless of whether the experience in question is depression or bipolar disorder or physical health or anything else.
Longitudinal research, in which the same people are evaluated at several different points in time, is a better way of figuring out whether getting married matters. Here, briefly, are the results of three different studies examining whether people who marry become less depressed.
The first study focused on young adults. The results were straightforward. Those who got married between the ages of 21 and 24 did not become any less depressed than those who stayed single.
A second study went on for seven years. The authors were interested in learning about the benefits of marriage. The adults who participated were either 18, 21, or 24 years old when the study started. The authors did not compare everyone who ever got married to those who stayed single. Instead, they set aside anyone who got separated or divorced during the study “because they clearly are not deriving any benefits from marriage.”
At this point, your mouth should be hanging open. In a study to learn whether marriage was beneficial, the authors removed from their analyses all of the people for whom marriage clearly was not beneficial. Even with this jaw-dropping advantage accorded to the married group, only the men, and not the women, became less depressed after marrying.
There is another longitudinal dataset, the National Survey of Families and Households, that has been analyzed by several different teams of social scientists. The different teams zeroed in on different age groups and different comparisons. All of them, though, compared only those people who got married and stayed married to those who stayed single. The people who got married and then divorced were not included in the analyses. That means that marriage was again given an unfair advantage, because only marriages that did not end in divorce were considered. Results were analyzed for a 5-year period.
In the most thorough analysis of the dataset, the authors wondered whether the implications of getting married would be different for those who were especially depressed before they married. So they looked separately at the 20% of the people who were most depressed. Those people who got married and stayed married did in fact become less depressed than those who stayed single. (Remember, those who got married and then divorced were excluded entirely.) The other 80%, who were not particularly depressed at the outset of the study, did not become any less depressed if they married. They reported the same low levels of depression as those who stayed single.
Among the 20% who did seem to benefit, there was one more qualification. In the authors words, “In most cases, above-average marital happiness was necessary for conferring the psychological benefits of a transition into marriage.”
In summary, according to this last study, people who get married become less depressed than those who stay single under the following conditions:
- Set aside anyone who got married and then got divorced. They don’t count.
- Focus only on the 20% of the people who were already depressed before they got married.
- Look primarily at those who, once they married, experienced better than average happiness; and
- Include only those who have been married no more than 5 years.
This third study, with all of the qualifications I just described, was the one that was the basis of the MSNBC headline I mentioned in Part 1 of this article, “New treatment for depression – marriage.”
I don’t think so. You don’t know, if you decide to marry, whether you will end up staying married or whether you will be among the nearly 50% who end up divorced. If you do divorce, you may well become worse off than if you had never married at all. Even if you do stay married, any benefits of marriage may not last. In studies of happiness, for example, early honeymoon effects often diminish over time.
You may have reasons for wanting to marry (or not, if you are single at heart), but hoping that marriage will cure your depression should not be one of them.
Wedding rings photo available from Shutterstock.
DePaulo, B. (2012). Part 2: If You Marry, Will You Be Less Depressed?. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 8, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/single-at-heart/2012/03/part-2-if-you-marry-will-you-be-less-depressed/