I'm starting to wonder whether it is simply the norm for social science reporters - even in very high profile publications such as the Washington Post - not to bother reading the research articles they discuss and even link to in their stories. When I first started studying media accounts of the implications of marrying and found statements that seemed at odds with the published work under discussion, I thought they were the exceptions. Now I think that some of these journalists just call a few people, ask about the results and what they mean, and transcribe the answers.
A recent Washington Post story was published under the heading, "Health benefits of falling in love and staying in love." The first section of the story links to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). According to the Post, the report "found that, in general, married people are happier, live longer, drink less and even have fewer doctor's appointments than unmarried folks." I'm not endorsing the report; it is at times marred by the usual problems in this field that I've discussed so often in Singled Out, Single with Attitude, and in this Living Single blog. What is striking, though, is that the reporter's account does not even line up with the claims in the HHS report. That report, for example, does not review studies of happiness.
Here's another example. "Loving spouses," we are told by the Post, tend to "reinforce healthy behaviors such as exercise..." The actual conclusion from the report, though, is that "marriage leads to reductions in exercise, particularly for men" (p. 6). Also missing is another conclusion that would have ruined the Post's narrative about how marriage makes people healthier: "There is also strong evidence suggesting that both men and women experience modest weight gain during marriage" (p. 6). (In previous posts here, I've described research on exercise and on weight.)
After more than a dozen paragraphs on the supposed magic of marriage and romantic love, the reporter turns to those of us not in romantic wonderland, and offers this dollop of condescension (emphasis is mine):
"For those who aren't in love right now, all is not lost."
What follows is an acknowledgement of research showing that "strong connections to friends, family, neighbors or colleagues improve the odds of survival by 50 percent." That's great. I'm glad it was included. Also interesting, though, is what wasn't included: The survival rate of people with a broad range of social relationships (compared to those with less diverse relationships) is greater than the supposed survival advantage of being married. That's especially noteworthy because the marital status comparison uses the typical cheater technique: All the people who got married, hated it, and got divorced are assigned to the unmarried group, even though they did get married.
Tucked into the last paragraph is a rather hyperbolic statement about the risks of marrying and not staying married:
"Divorce can damage one's physical health so dramatically that the person never recovers. A 2009 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that divorced or widowed people have 20 percent more chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, than married people. They also have 23 percent more mobility limitations, such as trouble walking up stairs."
Looking at the research on the implications of divorce more broadly, I don't think the results are so consistently damning. There are even some indications that the implications of divorce may be decreasing in contemporary times. My main point, though, is again about what is missing from that summary paragraph. I read the original research report, and there is a group that does not differ at all from the currently married in terms of the number of chronic health conditions they experience - the people who had always been single. Again, the finding is especially noteworthy because the currently married people were advantaged in that the group excluded people who got married and then got divorced.
Maybe, though, that's why the title of the story was (emphasis, again, is mine): "Health benefits of falling and staying in love." It is a step forward to acknowledge that falling in love is itself not enough.
There was one other point in the story that I liked. It was a parenthetical note:
"There are also practical benefits to marriage that can improve one's health but have nothing to do with love. For instance, married people are more likely to have health insurance..."
I wouldn't call that a practical benefit. I'd call it discrimination. Still, I'll consider it another step forward that the matter was mentioned.
[Thanks to Wendy Braitman of First Person Singular for the heads-up about this article. Also, check out this post at my "All Things Single (and More)" blog for Barbara Walters' great comeback to Piers Morgan's question about which man she'd want to be with if she had just five minutes left to live.]