We know about the trajectories of happiness for German and Dutch people who get married and stay married. Longitudinal research (in which the same people are followed for years — in the German study, more than 20 years) has shown that when people marry, those who will stay married enjoy a “honeymoon effect.”
They become a bit happier around the time of the marriage, but then that happiness dissipates over time. On the average, the Germans who married and stayed married returned to the same level of happiness they experienced when they were single, and that happened within a few years. The increase in happiness lasted longer for the Dutch.
In my writings on marital status and happiness (in Singled Out and elsewhere), I’ve pointed out that those happiness studies don’t really tell us how happiness will change when you marry, because the honeymoon effect occurs only for those who stay married. Those who marry and then divorce actually become a bit less happy as their wedding day approaches and that decline continues until the year before the divorce becomes final.
Individual people approaching marriage do not know which group they will end up in – the one that stays married or the one that gets divorced. If we want to know the implications for happiness (or anything else) of getting married, we need to look at the results for everyone who marries, and not just those who stay married.
At last, there is a longitudinal study in which the data were analyzed in the appropriate way — all people who ever married during the course of the study were compared to those who stayed single. It just appeared online in the February 2012 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family. A national sample of Americans was surveyed in 1987 or1988 and then again six years later, between 1992 and 1994.
Authors Kelly Musick and Larry Bumpass analyzed the data from more than 2,700 adults under the age of 50 who were single and not cohabiting when they were first surveyed. They examined the implications of getting married or cohabiting on not just happiness, but also depression, health, self-esteem, and social ties. In this post, I’ll describe the health and well-being of people who become partnered, whether by marrying or cohabiting. I’ll save for another post the differences between those who marry and those who cohabit. I’ll also postpone my discussion of the implications of getting partnered for social ties.
First, the authors repeated the same (or similar) analyses that had been conducted in the German and Dutch studies – they looked only at those people who got married (or started cohabiting) and stayed that way. Because the previous studies showed that any increases in happiness tended to dissipate over time, the authors looked separately at those who became partnered recently (within the past three years) and those who had gotten partnered less recently (between 4 and 6 years ago). In the Dutch study, it took more than 6 years for the happiness levels to return to where they were before the participants got married.
In the American study, some of the dogs just did not bark. People who became partnered did not report any better health than those who stayed single. Those who were partnered recently had not become any healthier and those who had been partnered for a longer time had not become any healthier either.
Those who had gotten partnered within the past three years reported higher self-esteem than those who stayed single. For those who had gotten partnered more than three years ago, though, their self-esteem was no different from those who stayed single.
This select group of people who got partnered and stayed that way did report greater happiness and less depression than those who stayed single. However, those effects were smaller among those who had been partnered for more than 3 years.
Now, at last, the results I’ve been waiting for all these years: If you include in the analyses all of the people who ever got partnered, how do they compare to those who stayed single? Again, the newness of the union matters. Those who had gotten partnered recently did report better outcomes on all of the measures of psychological well-being. But, for those who had gotten partnered between four and six years ago, there were no differences whatsoever between them and the people who had stayed single.
The bottom line is dramatically different from the mythology about the transformative effects of getting married. If you include everyone who got married or started cohabiting over the course of the six year study – and not just those couples who stayed together – then those who got partnered between four and six years ago differed not at all from those who stayed single. They were not happier, they were not any less depressed, they were not healthier, and they had no higher self-esteem.
Now let’s all stand back and wait to see whether those findings make headlines.
Unhappy couple photo available from Shutterstock.