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Is Good Marriage Good for Your Health?

Where’s the story on what makes for a better single life?

Coming this Sunday to the New York Times Magazine (already available online here) is an article by Tara Parker-Pope titled, "Is marriage good for your health?" Compared to so much else that has been written on the topic, Parker-Pope advances the argument in a significant way with this statement:

"The mere fact of being married, it seems, isn't enough to protect your health."

Much of the rest of the article appears to be addressing a more specific question: Is a good marriage good for your health?

The question you should ask is the same one I teach my students to ask during the first meeting of my research methods classes: Compared to what?

Is a good marriage better than a bad marriage? I don't have any doubts about that, and Parker-Pope describes some ingenious studies of how couples who fight in particularly hostile ways actually have wounds that heal more slowly than couples who are not as nasty. But the question of whether good marriages are better than bad ones has a bit of a "duh" quality about it.

What about the more interesting question of whether life in a good marriage is better than a comparable single life? Research on marital status is a burgeoning long-standing industry, complete with decades of journals, books, doctoral programs, research funding, conferences, paid spokespersons, and advocacy groups. But the question of whether life in a good marriage is better than a comparable single life is, so far as I know, unanswered.

Simply comparing good marriages to bad ones obviously does not answer the question. But neither do other studies that, on the surface, seem headed to an answer. Suppose, for example, that you are a researcher who believes that marriage is good for you. But when you do your study, you don't find the advantage you were looking for. Well, then you can look at the people who are happily married (or who fight constructively, or who regard their spouse as a confidant, or whatever other criterion you want to choose for skimming the most successfully married people off the top of the group) and see if they look better than single people.

Do you see what's wrong with that? If not, consider this hypothetical study. A cruise line, Royal Pacific, wants to claim that its travelers are happier than those who board a competing line, Cruise Festival. When they first look at the data, though, they find no differences. So now they choose only those Royal Pacific travelers who are happiest with their cruising experience, and compare them to all of the Cruise Festival travelers. Then they air a chirpy ad claiming that happy Royal Pacific vacationers are happier than Cruise Festival vacationers.

That's obviously dopey, right? Yet, of all of the studies that look at a select sub-group of married people, I don't know of any that compare the skimmed-off-the-top marrieds to a comparable group of skimmed-off-the-top single people. (If I've missed any, please let me know.) In fact, you can even find claims made by celebrated scholars, and published in reputable sources, that are just like the hypothetical Royal Pacific boast. For example, E. Mavis Hetherington, in her book on divorce, states, "happily married couples are healthier, happier, wealthier, and sexier than are singles, especially single men." Seriously. That claim got by a co-author, an editor, everyone else at a major publishing house who might have seen it, and any colleagues who may have read it in advance of publication.

What the NY Times Article Still Gets Wrong

Early in the article, Parker-Pope proclaims that in 150 years of research, "scientists have continued to document the ‘marriage advantage': the fact that married people, on average, appear to be healthier and happier and live longer than single people." She precedes that statement with a qualifier: "Critics, of course, have rightly cautioned about the risk of conflating correlation with causation. (Better health among the married sometimes simply reflects the fact that healthy people are more likely to get married in the first place.)." Parker-Pope is correct that this is the chink in the marriage-wins armor that researchers are most inclined to acknowledge. But it is not at all the biggest problem with the "currently-married people are better" argument.

If you look only at people who are currently married, you are considering only those people who got married and stayed married. Those who divorce - well over 40% of those who marry - are set aside. Those who got married and hated it get to leave the married group. But when those researchers compare the currently married to, say, the people who have always been single, they do not look only at the 50-some percent who are most satisfied with their single lives.

Still, even put at such a disadvantage, people who have always been single are often quite similar to the currently married. (And, as Parker-Pope does note, they typically fare better than those who got married and then got unmarried.) Yet, even from studies that do find an advantage favoring the currently married, you cannot draw the implication that if you get married, you'll be better off, too. You cannot even draw the more plausible implication that if you get married and stay married, you'll be better off. That's because we cannot simply assume that if all of those people who divorced had stayed married, they'd be just fine. (To be clear, Parker-Pope is not explicitly making such claims about the implications of getting married in this article. That twist of logic, though, is a common one in popular press reporting on marital status studies, as I've documented in Singled Out, Single with Attitude, and many posts to the Living Single blog.)

Now see if you can tell what's wrong with this next claim. (It's not that egregious, so take it as a challenge.) Discussing one particular study, Parker-Pope says:

"people who had divorced or been widowed had worse health problems than men and women who had been single their entire lives. In formerly married individuals, it was as if the marriage advantage had never existed."

See the problem? Parker-Pope is implying that the "marriage advantage" (which is bogus, but I'm making a different point here) has been neutralized. But that's too kind. It's not that the divorced and widowed no longer enjoy a purported advantage - they actually do worse than if they had stayed single.

About Specific Studies Described in the NY Times Article (and Some Others) - What They Really Did Show

In that study Parker-Pope mentioned showing that the previously married had worse health than those who had always been single, there were other findings of interest. I reviewed the research in detail in this post. Here are a few highlights:

1. People who have always been single have no more chronic health conditions than people who are currently married.
2. Women who have always been single report health that is just as good as women who got married and stayed married.
3. Men who got married were LESS healthy the younger they married. (This was true even for those who got married and stayed married. What's especially noteworthy about this is that the authors pursued this analysis in their attempt to show that marriage is so good for you, that the more years you spend married, the healthier you will be. Surprise! The opposite was true, even for the most select group of men who got married and stayed married.)

The author Parker-Pope quotes when discussing the research is Linda Waite. Read this to get a sense of why you need to be a bit cautious when listening to her claims and to see how she misstates even her own findings in her journal article. (Check this out, too.)

A few more relevant studies:

• Parker-Pope mentions in passing a study of the link between marital status and dementia. Click here for the details of that delirious Alzheimer's study.

• Want to know about marital status and living longer? Follow this link.

• Want to know how many lifelong singles rate their health as good or excellent? It is 92.6%. Details are here.

• For other discussions of what the research on various aspects of health (as linked to marital status) really do show, see Chapter 2 of Singled Out, the section of Single with Attitude called "If marriage were a drug, the FDA would not approve it," and other recent posts to the Living Single blog, such as:

Is marriage toxic to women? No, misleading reporting is

Does marriage civilize men?

Avoid stroke by marrying? A case study in misrepresentation of marriage findings

Getting married and getting sex (or not)

Final Word

There's more to say about this NY Times Magazine piece, but I'll limit myself (for now) to just one more observation. Have you read the story? Notice how (appropriately) respectful it is of married people - there's no mocking or taunting. Notice, too, the intellectual curiosity of Parker-Pope. She's wondering, what's going on here? How can a style of interacting with a conjugal partner have anything to do with how quickly a welt heals? I like that, too.

But what I want to know is, when are we going to see the same treatment of single people? Where are the singles books with titles parallel to Parker-Pope's "For Better: The Science of Good Marriage"? Where are the studies that look closely at single people, trying to figure out how so many of them fare so well? A dating-advice blogger, in trying to make the case that she wasn't prejudiced against single people, said that "being single is way better in a lot of ways than being in a terrible marriage." That's grudging. We need to do better.

I'm not saying that everyone loves living single. But lots of us do. Wouldn't it be nice - and scientifically appropriate - to see an examination of what makes "for better" single life, the same way Parker-Pope looked at married life?

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