In 1986, Newsweek published a cover story with the sensational claim that a 40-year old woman who had never married was “more likely to be killed by a terrorist” than to ever get married. Even thought the viral powers of social media were decades in the future, the story took off. It was discussed everywhere, mostly unquestioningly. Finally, Susan Faludi took it apart in her brilliant Backlash book, but by then, the damage was done. Decades later, even Newsweek copped to getting it wrong, though they did so in a story that itself was matrimanical.
During the panic about the terrorists getting to you before a husband would, a therapist told Newsweek that “everybody was talking about it and everybody was hysterical.” When I first started studying (and not just practicing) single life a while back, I talked to women who were in their twenties or thirties when that story hit the presses. They did not call themselves “hysterical” (why would a therapist use that word?), but they were concerned, and the reports affected their lives and their decision-making. One woman even told me that she got married because of it. She had real doubts about the person she was seeing, but she went ahead with the wedding anyway. Then she got divorced.
What the Evidence Actually Shows
I bet we would all like to think that we are not swayed by dopey, sensationalized media reports. We probably believe that we are unaffected even by the articles that appear to be mere summaries of the latest research. I’d like to believe that, too, but I doubt that it is true.
There are endless stories in the media claiming that if you get married, you will be happier, healthier, live longer, and all the rest. Just about all of the studies in question are fundamentally flawed. There are some basic methodological standards all social scientists and all reporters should observe. For example:
- Correlation is not causality. If you compare people of different marital statuses at one point in time, you cannot learn anything about whether, say, getting married results in getting happier, healthier, or anything else. You need to follow the same people over time and see how their health or happiness (etc.) changes as their marital status changes.
- If you want to study something like a drug, you can’t evaluate it only by looking at the people who liked the drug and kept taking it. You need to include everyone who ever took it. The same is true for marriage. You can’t evaluate the implications of getting married by including in your marriage group only those people who got married and stayed married, and setting aside all the people who got married, hated it, and got divorced.
I have been critiquing these studies, and the media reports of them, since I started researching Singled Out. You can find the most detailed discussion of what’s wrong with them in that book. Since then, I’ve been critiquing studies that get attention in the media. Did you see the latest one with the totally irresponsible and scientifically indefensible headline, “Marriage is good for the heart”? It’s not. In fact, if the AP reporter or any other media person had actually looked at the publically available data (see here for where to find it), they would have seen that for coronary heart disease, the data actually showed that everyone who had ever married had higher rates of that illness than the people who had stayed single. I critiqued that study and some of the credulous media reports of the study here.
Here is my conclusion from about two decades of studying, very closely, studies of the implications of marital status:
No study has ever shown that getting married results in lasting improvements to health or happiness.
You can read what’s behind my assertion in Singled Out as well as in these collections of articles I wrote:
Getting married and (not) getting healthy
Getting married and (not) getting happier
Getting married and (not) living longer
Getting married and lots of other outcomes
I want to tell you why I am qualified to make these claims: I am a Harvard Ph.D. with well over 100 scholarly publications in some of the most prestigious journals in the field of psychology. I have taught graduate courses in research methods for decades. But that should not matter. You don’t need to have any qualifications at all to have some good sense about how this research is done and how it is reported.
If you think you have seen a study that shows that getting married results in lasting benefits, please let me know. I’ve been looking for many years, and despite the relentless media hype, I still have found no such evidence that meets even the most minimal scientific standards.
In my next post, I’ll return to the question of why bad reporting matters.