Suppose you ask a bunch of young people (no older than 22) whether they want to get married, and if they do, at what age they would like to marry. Then imagine that you checked in on them when they got to age 40, to see if or when they married, and how depressed they feel. Do you think their level of depression would depend on whether they managed to marry at around the age they hoped they would?
If you made me predict before I saw the results of the study, I’m not sure I would have expected the study to show anything interesting. After all, do really young people (some were teens at the beginning of the study) have a strong and stable sense of their ideal age for getting married?
Well, I would have been wrong. People who got married younger than they had hoped were more depressed than those who had married around the age they hoped to marry. In fact, the younger they married (relative to their ideal age of marriage), the more depressed they were. Those who married later than they had hoped were also more depressed than those who married when they wanted to marry, but the effects were stronger for those who married younger than they wished.
In the study, only those people who said they wanted to get married were included. The authors compared those who had not married by age 40 to those who had married and were still in their first marriage. Long-time readers of this blog (and of Singled Out) know what that means – it is a cheater technique that gives an unfair advantage to the married group. Only those who got married and stayed married are included in the married group – the ones who hated their marriages and got divorced are set aside. The single people included all single people – except those who wanted to be single! So, the married group includes those who are especially likely to be happily married, and the single group includes those especially likely to be unhappily single. (The author never acknowledges this glaring issue, but that’s typical.)
Even with that big and unfair advantage given to the people who were married, the only married people who were significantly less likely to be depressed than the single people were the ones who married around the time they wished or a bit later. Those who married more than five years younger than they had hoped reported levels of depression about the same as those who stayed single. (Remember that all of the single people were singles who wanted to marry – anyone who wanted to stay single was kicked out of the study.)
From the graph (Figure 1 on p. 751, if you can access it), it looks like those who married 11 years (or even more) younger than their ideal were even more depressed than those who stayed single, but the difference may not have been significant. Those who married 11 or more years later than their ideal age reported about the same levels of depression as those who were still single at age 40 even though they had wanted to marry.
A few other points about the study: