Michal Plachy/Shutterstock
Source: Michal Plachy/Shutterstock

What happens to your health when you get married? You probably think you know the answer. It is part of the conventional wisdom of our time that getting married makes people healthier and happier, and better off in all sorts of other ways. Some celebrated scholars insist that this is true. Such assumptions have even made it into rulings by the Supreme Court.

A new study sticks a big, fat fork into the claim that if you get married, you will get healthier. I described the findings a few days ago in an op-ed in the New York Times. Here, with the luxury of more space, I’d like to share more of the details of this research, and what it all means.

The study, by Matthijs Kalmijn, just appeared online in the journal Social Forces. Over the course of 16 years, more than 11,000 adults in Switzerland were telephoned once a year and asked about their health and well-being.

They were asked three questions about their overall health: how they would rate their health, overall; how satisfied they were with their health; and the degree to which their health was an impediment to their everyday life activities. They were also asked three questions about illness: their degree of suffering from illness in the past year; the number of doctor visits; and their degree of reliance on medication to be able to function.

If getting married makes people healthier, then people who marry should report greater health and less illness than when they were single. If the benefits that people supposedly get from marriage (such as love and support and caring, as well as a spouse who makes sure you eat your vegetables and don’t drink or smoke too much) accumulate over time, then health should get better and better over the years of a marriage.

None of those things happened.

People who got married actually got a little less healthy overall than they were when they were single. Then, over the course of their marriage, their health got a bit worse. With regard to illness, marriage didn’t matter at all. People who got married did not become any more or less ill than they were when they were single, and their level of illness did not change over the course of their marriage.

In an American study, representative national samples of adults were asked about their health every year from 1972 through 2003. (They were different people each year – the same people were not followed over time.) Authors Liu and Umberson concluded: “encouraging marriage in order to promote health may be misguided. In fact, getting married increases one’s risk for eventual marital dissolution, and marital dissolution seems to be worse for self-rated health now than at any point in the past three decades.”

Think about those results for a minute. How many times have you been told that marriage makes people healthier? It is easy to imagine why it would. I’m not just talking about all that spousal love and support and nagging about eating vegetables and not smoking.

Also relevant are all the benefits and protections that married people get that single people do not. In the U.S, for example, these benefits include financial perks that translate into greater access to high quality health insurance and health care. Married people also have more direct access to health insurance, as, for example, when they can obtain it through their spouses' employer-sponsored plans. The caring that married people give and receive is also covered in ways that single people’s is not. The Family and Medical Leave Act, for example, allows married people in eligible workplaces to take time off to care for a spouse, but a single person cannot take time to care for someone comparable such as a close friend or sibling, and no such person can take time off to care for the single person.

Despite all the potential benefits that married people have and single people do not, people who marry do not become any healthier or any less ill. If anything, they get a little less healthy, and then their health continues to deteriorate a bit more over the course of the marriage.

That’s quite remarkable, and something to keep in mind next time you hear that marriage makes people healthier.

Americans are probably even more invested in the happiness promise of the conventional wisdom than the promise about health. It is the stuff of fairy tales that people who get married live happily ever after.

The belief that marrying makes people happier was knocked down a long time ago, with data from at least 18 studies in which the same people were followed over time. A review of those studies found that in most of them, happiness (or other kinds of well-being, such as life satisfaction) did not increase at all when people got married. At best, people got a little more satisfied with their lives around the time of their wedding, then went back to being as satisfied or as dissatisfied as they were when they were single.

Participants were also asked about their life satisfaction in the Swiss study. They did become a bit more satisfied when they married. Then, as usual, their satisfaction started to slide, and kept slipping over the course of their marriage. In the Swiss study, though, it decreased much more slowly than in most previous studies of well-being in marriage.

What about depression? The Swiss participants were asked a question every year about that, too. They indicated how often they had “negative feelings such as feeling disheartened, desperate, anxious, or depressed.” The people who married became a bit less depressed at first. But then, as with their life satisfaction and their overall health, things got worse over the course of their marriage.

Here’s what we’ve learned so far: Going from being single to getting married just doesn’t matter all that much. Overall health gets a bit worse. Level of illness doesn’t change. Life satisfaction increases a little bit and depression decreases a little bit – at first. Then, as the years go by, health declines, life satisfaction declines, and depression grows.

Note that even if studies showed that people who married got much happier and healthier and stayed that way, that would not necessarily mean that if single people get married, they would get happier and healthier, too. That’s because the people who marry and the people who stay single are different people. Some single people are single because they choose to be. They appreciate, maybe even savor, what single life has to offer. They don’t want the same things that people who marry want.

There is one more transition that Kalmijn studied, and that one did matter. I’m talking about getting divorced. People who got divorced became significantly more depressed and less satisfied with their lives. The negative implications of getting divorced for depression were 2.5 times greater than the positive implications of getting married. For life satisfaction, the difference was even greater. The negative implications of getting divorced were more than 3 times greater than the positive implications of getting married.

As I explained in my op-ed, these patterns help us understand:

     "...why so many of us have been so sure for so long that marriage makes people happier and healthier. In the typical study, only people who are currently married are included in the married group. Then, if the currently married people do better than people who are not married, single people are told that if they get married, they will do better, too. But many people who marry — probably more than 40 percent — divorce and end up less happy than when they were single. A better way to assess the likely implications of marriage is to compare everyone who ever married to people who never married. Very few studies ever do that.

     “Imagine that a pharmaceutical company, in testing a new drug, found that 40 percent of the people on the drug refused to keep taking it. Then imagine that the company simply ignored those people, or included them with the people who never took the drug. They might then find that people currently on the drug are doing better than people not on the drug. But would you take a drug based on that argument?”

People who get married have a lot going for them. They get all those legal benefits and protections, and greater access to health care. They get the love and support of a spouse, plus that monitoring of their health. Their lives are celebrated, while single people are often stereotyped and stigmatized.

So how is it possible that getting married does not result in big and lasting increases in health and happiness? Even more intriguingly, how is it possible that single people are doing so well? I think that’s one of the most important unanswered questions about the millions of single people in the U.S. and around the world. Other than yours truly, I don’t know of anyone who is explicitly trying to address it. I offered my best answer so far in my TEDx talk. As we social scientists like to say, more research is needed.

Here’s something else I just published a few days ago: “Single workers aren’t there to pick up the slack for their married bosses and coworkers.” Also take a look at my TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single." And this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life is always available. Check out my website, too.

You are reading

Living Single

Health Benefits Unlikely Even from the Longest Marriages

Do people who marry get healthier? New research says no.

What’s in It for Women? Vs. What’s in It for My Husband?

A new psychological insight into single and married women voters.

The Life-Changing Magic of Going Your Own Way

Guest blogger Ellen Worthing on kayaking and the road not taken