It is part of the conventional wisdom that people who marry become healthier than they were when they were single. But is that really so? In “Does marriage protect health? A birth cohort comparison,” a study published this month in Social Science Quarterly, sociologist Dmitry Tumin provides a compelling answer to that question. He examined men’s marriages and women’s, marriages of people who were born in three different decades (1955-1964; 1965-1974; and 1975-1984), and people who had been married for three different lengths of time (up to 4 years; 5 to 9 years; and 10 years or longer). In nearly every instance, the answer to the key question — do people who marry become healthier than they were when they were single? — was no.
Participants were 12,373 adults from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. In that survey, members of households throughout the U.S. reported their health repeatedly over time. The health of their grown children was also tracked after they left to form their own households. Participants described their general health on a 5-point scale ranging from “excellent” to “poor.” Although lifelong single people were included in some of the analyses, the most sophisticated answer to the question of whether getting married improves health came from before and after comparisons of people who were single and then married.
Do People Who Marry Get Healthier? The Answer Is Almost Always No
To determine whether people who get married get healthier than they were when they were single, all people who ever marry should be included in the analyses. In Professor Tumin’s study, only a select group of married people were included — those who were in their first marriage. Anyone who married and then divorced was excluded from the study. That means that the study was biased toward yielding favorable findings about any potential health benefits of marriage.
Even though only a select group of marriages were skimmed off the top of the group of all marriages, that was not enough to produce evidence suggesting that getting married makes people healthier than they were when they were single.
Consider, first, the results for the men:
In short, marriage did nothing for men’s health.
Now consider the results for the women:
In short, in every analysis except one, marriage did nothing for women’s health. The one exception was for women who had been married for the first time for at least 10 years. They were slightly healthier after they married than they were before — but only if they were from the oldest cohort of women. Among the youngest cohort, the women with the longest marriages tended to be slightly less healthy than they were when they were single. (For more on sex differences, see "Is it true that single women and married men do the best?")
In other analyses, the married people were compared to the lifelong single people. Again, the married people included only those people who were currently married for the first time—not anyone who got married and then got divorced. So again, the methodology gave an unfair advantage to marriage. As the author acknowledged, in these kinds of analyses, the married and single people differ in all sorts of ways other than their marital status, so any differences in health may be about those differences rather than marriage. The married people did have better health than the single people in these comparisons. When two different statistical analyses were compared, the differences between the married and single people were always smaller for the analyses that did a better job of controlling for the ways that married and single people might differ other than their marital status. But even the most sophisticated analyses did not take into account all the important ways the groups could differ, such as the greater income and wealth of people who are married.
Tumin draws two main conclusions from his findings. First, as analyses become more sophisticated, any health benefits of marriage become harder to find. In the most sophisticated analyses from his study, there were no health benefits whatsoever for men who married for the first time. There was only one hint of a benefit for women — and even that finding was reversed for the youngest cohort of women. Second, any health benefits of marrying may be dissipating over time. That conclusion was based on the finding that the longest marriages (10 years or more) had positive health implications for the oldest women but tended to have negative implications for the youngest women. Today’s (relatively) young men get no health benefit from marrying and the young women who have been married for at least 10 years were slightly healthier when they were single.
Marrying Does Not Protect Health, and May Even Undermine It
On June 13, 2016, the cover story of Time was titled, “How to stay married (and why).” Time was wrong then in insisting that marrying makes people healthier, and over time, the evidence against the fortune cookie message (get married, get healthier) has become even more compelling.
Just a few months ago, a 16-year study of more than 11,000 Swiss adults was published. It showed that people who married either experienced no change in their health (by one measure) or suffered slightly worse health (by another measure) compared to when they were single. An American study from 2012 showed an improvement in health for those who had been married just a few years, but no health benefits for those who had been married longer. This “honeymoon effect” has turned up occasionally in studies of health and happiness. Sometimes people who get married and stay married (but not those who divorce) experience an initial increase in well-being when they first marry, but then they go back to the same level of health or happiness that they had when they were single.
It is time for Time to rewrite the story of marriage and health. Everyone else who has repeated the claim that marrying makes people healthier should do the same.
Why Isn’t Marriage Good for Health?
So why isn’t marriage protective of health anymore (if it ever was)? Tumin speculates that things have gotten more difficult for married couples. For example, there are “greater economic strains placed on couples expected to maintain dual incomes.” Also, “perceived work-family conflict has increased.” But the economic strains on single people are likely to be much greater, because they have only their own income, and they are deeply disadvantaged financially by laws and practices that favor married people. What’s more, efforts to address work-life balance are more often focused on married people and the important people in their lives, rather than on single people and the people who matter most to them.
The author also points to the “declining stigma of remaining never married” (without citing the research on singlism) and the “greater resources available to the unmarried” now than in the past. By resources, he seems to mean that parents sometimes help their unmarried children financially, and that single people can get social support from friends and family. These explanations do not fully acknowledge the active role single people play in living healthy lives, as, for example, by exercising more than married people do.
It is remarkable that people who marry do not become healthier than they were when they were single, considering all the ways that they are benefited and protected by laws and marketplace practices (singlism) and the additional ways they are valued and respected and celebrated just because they are married (matrimania). It is even more remarkable that single people are doing so well. Because researchers have focused overwhelmingly on trying to understand married people, we have only the beginnings of an understanding about why so many single people are thriving.
Tumin, D. (2017). Does marriage protect health? A birth cohort comparison. Social Science Quarterly.