In 2011, a group of authors analyzed the results of 18 long-term studies of the implications of getting married for happiness. They wanted to know whether getting married makes people lastingly happier. The answer was no.
I described those findings in detail here, so I’ll just offer a brief overview before telling you about how social scientists tried to salvage the case for marriage in a subsequent paper.
This article is going to be longer than usual, because I want to be very clear about what is wrong with the arguments that getting married makes you happier (or healthier or live longer or have better sex or anything else). There is, though, a “Bottom Line” at the end of the article, so feel free to skip to that.
Results of 18 Long-Term Studies
In all 18 studies, the researchers began asking people about their well-being (happiness, life satisfaction, or satisfaction with their relationship partner) before they got married and continued asking them the same questions for some time afterwards. They found no evidence that getting married results in lasting increases in happiness or life satisfaction or satisfaction with the relationship.
A few things made the results especially striking. First, the design of at least half of the studies (and maybe as many as 16 of the 18) was biased in favor of showing positive implications of getting married. That’s because only those who got married and stayed married were included in the research. If you want to know whether getting married will make you happier, you need to look at all of the people who got married, and not just those who got married and stayed married. If you are thinking of marrying, you have no way of knowing for sure if you will end up staying married.
The second remarkable thing about the findings is that there was only one hint, on only one of the three measures, that getting married produced any improvement in well-being. Right around the time of the wedding, people reported somewhat greater life satisfaction. However, that was just a honeymoon effect, and over time, it wore off. Over time, married people ended up no more satisfied with their life than they were when they were single.
With regard to happiness and satisfaction with your partner, there was not even a honeymoon effect. Happiness did not change. On the average, satisfaction with your relationship was actually worse just after the wedding than just before, and it kept going downhill in the subsequent years.
That should have put an end to all the mythology about how getting married makes you happier and more satisfied.
But of course, it didn’t. We are so attached to our beliefs in the mythical transformative power of marrying that even scientists won’t let them go.
Trying Again to Make the Case for Getting Married and Getting Happier
In the new study (probably one of the original 18, reanalyzed), the authors looked only at life satisfaction and found the same thing as before. In analyses of just those people who got married and stayed married, there was a brief honeymoon effect around the time of the wedding. Then the married people ended up just as satisfied or dissatisfied as they were when they were single.
So how did the authors find a way to make getting married look like a boon to happiness?
First, they looked at normative changes in life satisfaction over the course of the adult years. Setting aside considerations of marital status, the study showed (as have other studies) that life satisfaction decreases over time. Then they looked specifically at the people who stayed single, and found that their life satisfaction showed some decrease over time. From that, they tried to make the argument that if the people who had gotten married and stayed married had instead stayed single, they would have been less happy.
Here are some of the specifics.
- The authors tried to match each person in the got-married-and-stayed-married group to a similar person who had stayed single. Specifically, they tried to find a single person who was as similar as possible in age, sex, education and income. They didn’t say when they assessed income. The matching was not totally successful. For example, the single people, on the average, were four years older than those who got married and stayed married.
- At the time of the marriage, those who got married and stayed married reported life satisfaction that was .48 of one point, on a 7-point scale, higher than the matched single people. In the years afterwards, that difference between the married and single people tightened, and those who married and stayed married averaged .28 of one point on a 7-point scale greater life satisfaction than those who stayed single.
Here’s what the authors said about their results: “marriage is not associated with increases in long-term happiness, but people who get married are happier in the long run than if they had remained single.”
As I described previously, other people – including social scientists who should know better – seem to be using the results as evidence that if you get married, you will become happier.
What’s Wrong with Using the Study to Claim that Getting Married Makes You Happier?
There are at least two major problems:
Because the married people included only those who got married and stayed married, it is not fair or accurate to say, on the basis of the study, that “people who get married are happier in the long run than if they had remained single.” Married people who get married and then divorce become less happy over the course of their marriages. Findings suggest that they are generally not happier than people who stay single. (See, for example, pp. 36-37 of Singled Out.) On the average, their happiness does not begin to increase again until sometime after the divorce.
The authors are comparing the people who married and stayed married to those who stay single. They are saying that if the stay-married people had never married at all, their happiness would have been the same as that of people who stayed single. (So, over time, lower by less than one-third of one point on a 7-point scale. Remember, this is what we are talking about here: .28 of 1 point on a 7-point scale.) But the stay-married people and the stay-single people are different people. They may have different motivations, different values, different interests. They may be different kinds of people in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.
Let me start with the people who stayed single. As I noted previously, Harvard professor and Stumbling on Happiness author Dan Gilbert is telling audiences that if they get married, they will get happier. So is Dan Buettner, Blue Zones author who recently published his advice in a magazine for the 37 million members of AARP. Neither the AARP story nor the story about Gilbert’s talk include any references, but suppose the two Dans were basing their argument on this study.
Consider that some of the single people who stay single are single-at-heart. People who are single-at-heart love their solitude. They are not all that interested in a long-term romantic partner. Among those who have been in relationships that ended, their primary reaction to the break-up was more often relief than sadness or pain. They don’t want the same plus-one with them for every social event; sometimes they like to go with friends, sometimes alone, and other times they would prefer to stay home. They like handling challenges mostly on their own.
Do you really think that if such people got married, they would be happier? I sure don’t. And nothing in the study I have been describing indicates otherwise.
Now consider those who got married and stayed married. True, they ended up .28 of one point happier than those who stayed single. But they are different people, so we don’t know if the fraction of a point difference in happiness had anything to do with marriage. Maybe the kind of people who get married and stay married are people who maintain a certain level of happiness no matter what. Maybe they would have been just as happy if they had stayed single.
Here’s another possibility. Maybe for some people, marriage really does matter. Maybe it matters in different ways for different kinds of people. So for some people, they really do become happier if they marry (and don’t divorce), and happier than they would have been if they stayed single. For others (perhaps the single-at-heart), they live their happiest lives when single. If they got married, they would end up less happy than they would if they had stayed single. For still another group of people, marriage just might not matter at all. They have a certain level of happiness, and getting married or staying single has nothing to do with it. With regard to their happiness or satisfaction, they are who they are.
The important point is that, contrary to what the authors stated in their article (and what media reports repeated and what scholars who should know better also repeated), the study did not conclusively demonstrate that “people who get married are happier in the long run than if they had remained single.”
To their credit, the authors acknowledged point #2 (above) toward the end of their article: “Of course, those who eventually marry may differ in significant ways from those who do not, and even these analyses with an important control group must be interpreted cautiously.” The authors tried to match the stay-married and the stay-single on age, but they were not entirely successful. The singles were older than the married people, and remember that in that sample, the older people were less happy than the younger ones. Even more importantly, the authors did not match the single and married people on other characteristics that could have mattered, such as all the ways in which people who are single-at-heart and stay single probably differ from people who get married and stay married.
Even setting aside the single-at-heart arguments, it simply is not possible to match single and married people so that the only way they differ is in their marital status. Lots of extras come with the official status of being married, that are not a necessary or inherent part of the marital package. American policymakers chose to shower married people with more than 1,000 perks and protections that are not afforded to single people. The United States (and many other countries) is still filled with matrimaniacs who glorify marriage and married people, and stigmatize people who are single. What if single people had the same legal and economic advantages that married people do, and were equally respected?
The combined results of 18 long-term studies showed that getting married did not make people any happier and that satisfaction with the relationship actually decreased over time. The only hint of a benefit was a brief increase in life satisfaction around the time of the wedding, which soon went away. All of these failures to find that getting married makes you happier came from a set of studies biased in favor of making marriage look better than it really is.
In a subsequent study that made the bias even stronger by definitively including in the married group only those who got married and stayed married, that group of people (who got married and stayed married) still did not report any greater life satisfaction over the long run than they had experienced when they were single.
The authors then tried to argue that “people who get married are happier in the long run than if they had remained single,” but for all of the reasons I described above, that is not a compelling argument either. And even with all of the ways in which the study was biased to favor the conclusion that getting married will make you happier, the best they could do was find a difference in happiness of less than a third of a point on a 7-point scale. What would have happened if they included all of the people who ever married in the marriage group? Probably even that small difference would disappear.
In this article, I have focused on the implications of marrying for happiness. The methodological points I am making, though, are equally relevant to studies of getting married and getting healthier, having more or better sex, living longer, and everything else.
All of these unsuccessful attempts to make married people look better should be more than enough to keep other scholars and journalists from jumping off the deep end with their fortune cookie proclamations, “Get married, get happier.” But sadly, they aren’t. The marriage-addled scientists and writers and pundits just keep on perpetrating the myth that getting married magically transforms sad singles into blissful couples. That’s just embarrassing.
Arguing couple photo available from Shutterstock