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Marriage and well-being

In western societies today divorce is much more common than it was forty years ago. For some countries, such as Sweden, the percentage of marriages that end in divorce is now as high as 55% (1) and in the UK the figure is almost 47%. So should we now conclude that people’s expectations and lives have changed so much that marriage as an institution has gone out of fashion?

If we simply look at marriage in terms of its traditional social and economic functions this might be a reasonable conclusion. These days husbands are now much less likely to be the sole breadwinner and wives are no longer obliged to stay at home and raise the family, however this does not to mean to say that the changes in society have robbed today’s marriages of any benefits. On the contrary, research shows that marriage has the strongest correlation with happiness and well-being.

Virtually all the data shows that people who are married tend to have better psychological well-being than unmarried people. One American study investigating the rates of treatment for mental illness found that - compared to married people - unmarried, divorced or single people had substantially higher rates of treatment (2). Also married people, tend to live longer, report better economic status, better sexual relationships and more satisfaction with life (3).

Why is marriage associated with well-being?

The main reason there is a strong association between well-being, happiness and marriage, some theorist argue, is that people who are happy and have high levels of life satisfaction are more likely to get married than those who don't (4). This is referred to as 'social selection theory'.  In other words, it’s not being married that confers these benefits but the fact that people who are happy are more likely to attract mates; or who feel so positive about their partners that they are willing to enter into a legal contract with them.


Other theorists argue that the reason marriage is correlated with well-being is because married couples usually engage in healthier living styles. The findings show that married people, unlike single, divorced or cohabiting couples, tend to have healthier diet and smoke and drink less. Such life choices are mainly down to the fact that once people make the promise to ‘love and cherish one another until death do us part’ they usually put more effort into improving their lives together. In other words, “Marriage is a kind of biological cooperative whose members look after one another and receive mental health benefits”. (5)

Yet another theory on marriage and well-being contends that marriage is a close and very personal social union, binding couples in a mutual give-and-take understanding (6). This social union is believed to protect couples from the emotional and psychological stress resulting from life struggles. Thus, the theory goes, when faced with problems, married people cope better, because they have a supporting spouse and someone to offer practical and financial support. In other words, marriage “gives each partner a dependable companion, a lover, and a friend”. (7).  One study carried out in America, found that among male students studying medicine at UCLA, those who were married, experienced less stress and anxiety during their studies (8).
 

Is marriage always associated with well-being? 

Of course, no one would argue that marriage on its own is a guarantee for happiness and well-being – but rather it is the quality of the relationship which affects the couple’s well-being. The fact that quality matters is shown by the association between marital satisfaction and well-being (9). Unsurprisingly couples that are satisfied with their marital status report higher levels of well-being, while couples that are dissatisfied with their marital status, tend to report lower levels of well-being when compared to singles, divorced or cohabiting couples. Considering the high rates of divorce in modern society, it is safe to say that only very few couples who are dissatisfied with their marriages will stay married. In most cases if one or both partners are unhappy the marriage will end in divorce.

References

(1) DWordDive (2007). Divorce rates around the world. Retrieved 2009-06-04, from
http://www.darndivorce.com/divorce-rates-around-the-world/

(2) Gove, R. W., Style, B. C., and Hughes, M. (1990). The effect of marriage on the wellbeing of adults: A theoretical analysis. Journal of family issues, 11, 4-35.

(3) Kahneman, D., Diener, E., and Schwarz, N. (1999). Well-being: The foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications. Pg 361

(4) Gove, R. W., Style, B. C., and Hughes, M. (1990). The effect of marriage on the wellbeing of adults: A theoretical analysis. Journal of family issues, 11, 4-35.

(5) Kahneman, D., Diener, E., and Schwarz, N. (1999). Well-being: The foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications.

(6) Shapiro, A., and Keyes, C. L. M. (2008) Marital Status and Social Well-being: Are the Married Always better off? Social Indicators Research, 88, 329-346. Pg 2

(7) Kahneman, D., Diener, E., and Schwarz, N. (1999). Well-being: The foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications. Pg 380

(8) Kahneman, D., Diener, E., and Schwarz, N. (1999). Well-being: The foundations of Hedonic Psychology. New York: Russell Sage Foundation Publications. Pg 361

(9) Gove, R. W., Style, B. C., and Hughes, M. (1990). The effect of marriage on the wellbeing of adults: A theoretical analysis. Journal of family issues, 11, 4-35.

 
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