Between You and Me

Why some relationships work—and others don't

Does Marriage Matter?

Does marriage make us more committed? According to testosterone, no.

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With good weather comes the height of wedding season and there is definitely a frenzy in the air as couples are preparing for their big day. So during this time, it seems only right to ask… does marriage matter?

Our society certainly seems to think so. As young girls, my best friend and I used to dress up in her mom’s dresses and “play wedding.” In early elementary school we had imaginary husbands. In high school we looked at bridal magazines and talked about when we would meet our future husbands. In college we had conversations about how we would know when we'd met "the one." And it's not just us--close relationships research historically focused on the marital relationship, the political world is in upheaval over the meaning of marriage, tabloids make their money by filling their magazines with celebrity weddings (and divorces), and Beyonce let all the guys know “if you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it.”

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But, if I’m being honest here, nothing about my relationship changed when I got married. Yes, he’d “put a ring on it,” but in our daily lives there were really no discernible differences pre- to post- marriage. We'd been in a committed relationship for years, and having a wedding and becoming a "spouse" wasn't a life- or relationship-changing event.

So does marriage matter? To answer this question, we turn to an unlikely source: testosterone. Testosterone is associated with aggression, competition and mate-seeking behaviors. In line with this, early research on male testosterone found a relationship between men’s testosterone level and their marital status. For example, in a study by Peter Gray and colleagues (2002), men who were married had lower testosterone than men who were not married, suggesting that marriage mattered. That is, in comparison to unmarried men, married men were likely to be less focused on mate-seeking and more focused on pair-bonding and paternal care. However, a study by Terry Burnham, Gray, and colleagues (2003), questioned whether it was really about marriage, or if simply being in a committed relationship would also be associated with lower testosterone and thus a focus on pair-bonding instead of mate-seeking.

What did their results show? As pictured, single men had higher testosterone than married men or men in committed relationships and there was no significant difference in testosterone between married and committed men.* Together, these findings suggest that, at least at the level of the male hormone, marriage doesn’t matter.

Of course, these studies don’t tap into the question of whether marriage has an impact at social and psychological levels and the answer to that will likely change as society's views of marriage change. But as we move into an era where marriage is a hot button issue, I think it's important to ask whether having a “spouse” is actually more meaningful than having a “significant other."

Given the recent passages of marriage-equality acts and the continuing fight in many states for equal rights for homosexuals, I feel it is important to note that this post is in no way a statement about marriage equality and equal rights. Whether people should have the right to marry whom they choose, and whether that marriage will change their hormones (and feelings for each other) are two important but different questions.

Amie M. Gordon, Ph.D. is a post-doctoral scholar in Social-Personality Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

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