I have always been single, but until the late 90s, I never studied single life from the perspective of a social scientist. When I saw headlines proclaiming that if only you would get married, your life would be so much better, I had no reason to doubt them – even though I loved my single life (except for all of the singlism).
Then I started doing research on the topic, and reading the relevant articles in the scientific journals. I was shocked to discover that many of the media declarations about the transformative power of marriage were grossly exaggerated or just plain false. Now I like to collect misleading headlines, critique them, and make fun of them.
On the topic of whether getting married will make you less depressed, my “favorite” headline was on MSNBC, and it was their proposed treatment for depression. Their exact claim was, “New treatment for depression – marriage.”
Most of the research on marital status and mental health studies people at just one point in time. Typically, people who are currently married are compared to people who are divorced or widowed or have always been single.
In one example involving more than 1,000 Canadian adults, there were two groups who had the fewest number of depressive symptoms. One was the group that all of the pro-marriage headlines bring to mind – the people who were currently married. They had fewer symptoms of depression than the people who were divorced or widowed. But guess who had about the same small number of symptoms of depression as the currently married? The people who had always been single. The results were similar in study involving American adults.
Sometimes these kinds of results are summarized by headlines declaring that married people are the healthiest. For example, data from a detailed CDC (Center for Disease Control) study of numerous aspects of health, reviewed in Singled Out, showed that the currently married and the always-single people were generally the healthiest, with the divorced and widowed less healthy. The CDC press release, however, was titled, “Married Adults Are Healthiest.”
Those kinds of headlines – “Married adults are healthiest” and “new treatment for depression – marriage” – give the scientifically unsupported impression that if only you get married, you will become healthier and less depressed. The actual results, though, show nothing of the sort. After all, the divorced and widowed people did get married at one point, and they ended up less healthy and more depressed. Plus, the people who stayed single were about as healthy and as unlikely to be depressed as the people who were currently married.
Suppose the studies had shown that the currently married people were less depressed than the people who stayed single, instead of what they really did show (that the currently married and the always-single were about the same). Would that mean that getting married makes you less depressed? No. Remember that the various groups of people were assessed at only one point in time. Maybe the married people were already less depressed even before they married, and getting married had nothing to do with their health or well-being.
To see whether getting married makes a difference, it is important to follow the same people over time as they get married or get unmarried or stay single. If marriage really is good for mental health (or anything else), then people who get married should become healthier and less depressed than they were before they married. In Part 2, I will describe the results of studies in which the mental health of adults was evaluated at several different points in time.
Putting ring on the finger photo available from Shutterstock.