What's Wrong with Telling Married People to Stay Married?
What TIME gets wrong about the science of getting married and staying married
Posted June 13, 2016
The cover story of the June 13, 2016 issue of Time magazine is titled, "How to stay married (and why)." Does that sound innocuous to you? What could possibly be wrong with telling married couples to stay married?
A lot, it turns out, especially if you are claiming to do so on the basis of scientific research. In this article, I'll explain what Time got wrong and why it matters. In another, I'll approach this from a broader perspective, looking at the long parade of similar articles Time has published, and what it means when a major publication continues to glorify married people and derogate singles at a time when more people than ever before are living single.
Time Magazine's Worldview: Married People Are Better Than Single People
Inside Time magazine is the tag line and main point of the article, "Staying married is more challenging than ever. But new data says it's worth it."
No, it doesn't.
Consider the argument Time is making in the heart of the article: If you are not married, you should get married. If you are married, you should stay married. If you stay married, you will be better off. Over time, your marriage will get better and better.
The claim on the cover of Time, that you should stay married, is not just a statement about the people who already decided to get married and stay married. Suppose everyone who got married and stayed married told interviewers that they thought marriage was swell. Well, sure; they stayed married when they could have gotten divorced. (And you don't need a degree in psychology to know a bit about cognitive dissonance.)
The blanket proclamation that married people should stay married is only of any interest because of the implication that all those millions of people who have gotten divorced would have been better off if they just stayed married. (A parenthetical aside allows for one exception: "…therapists are clear that…if a spouse is in physical danger, he or she must leave.")
Where is the definitive evidence that, as long as they are not getting beaten to a bloody pulp, married people should just stay married? There isn't any.
Here's the problem. No study has ever definitively shown that people are better off staying married than divorcing. Nor is there compelling evidence that people end up better off if they get married than they would have been if they stayed single.
I'll start with the argument about staying married. To get solid scientific evidence as to whether people are better off divorcing or staying married, you would need to get a sample of couples considering divorce, then randomly assign half of them to stay married and the other half to divorce. Ethically, that's undoable.
Random assignment is at the heart of scientific research that tries to establish a causal relationship and not just some murky correlational link. If people instead choose for themselves whether to stay married or get divorced, then the people who choose to stay married will probably differ in important ways than the ones who choose to divorce, and their marriages probably differ, too.
Let's say, for example, that the people who choose to divorce are in marriages marked by more intense conflicts than the people who choose to stay married. Then imagine studies showing that the people who stayed married were healthier than those who divorced. Time wants us to believe that they are healthier because they stayed married. But maybe there is a different explanation – for example, that their marriages were less painful to begin with.
Suppose some people contemplating divorce read the Time cover story and decide to just stay married. It is entirely possible that they will end up even less healthy than they would have if they divorced. Maybe they know themselves, their partners, and their marriages better than Time does. Maybe whatever it was that left them contemplating the big step of ending a marriage was affecting their health, and moving on actually was the healthiest decision.
Publishing articles such as this one is not a morally neutral act. Time is doling out advice, not knowing whether its counsel is actually wrong and could lead to harm. And it is borrowing from the credibility of science in so doing. (Along the way, Time is also shaming and disparaging single people and their children, but that's the topic of my other article on this cover story.)
Although it is not possible to do the kinds of studies necessary to support the claims that Time is making, other relevant studies have been published. It may be useful to look at them, keeping in mind that their results can only be regarded as suggestive and never definitive.
Among the many studies of marriage are several longitudinal studies that follow the same people for many years. In one of the longest-running studies (ongoing for more than 20 years), adults in Germany have been asked about their satisfaction with their lives once a year, every year, starting at age 16. Researchers have plotted the results for people who got married and stayed married. If Time is correct in its claims, then those people should become more and more satisfied over the course of their marriages, even if the early years were not that great. In the words of the gerontologist Time quoted, "Couples who have made it all the way later into life have found it [marriage] to be a peak experience, a sublime experience…"
That sounds good, but it is not what the findings showed. The people who got married and stayed married became a bit happier at first, around the time of the wedding, then went back to being about as satisfied with their lives as they were when they were single. (You can see some graphs of the results in Singled Out.) So even among this very select group – the people who chose to marry and who stayed married the entire time – marriage apparently did not end up the "peak experience" that Time tells us it would. They ended up no happier than they were way back when they were single.
A study from the Netherlands produced similar findings, though it took the Dutch couples longer to settle into their pre-marriage level of happiness. In an American study, couples were not followed for as many years as they were in the other studies. Again, though, any apparent benefits of marrying showed up in the first few years. For example, across everyone who got married and stayed married, there were no improvements in health compared to when they were single. To find any apparent health benefits, the authors had to restrict their analyses to those who were married no more than three years.
All three of these long-term studies suggest just the opposite of the story Time is telling, that if you just stay married, things will get better and better. They didn't. And that's from the very biased sample of just those people who chose to stay married. We don't know what would happen if all the people who chose to divorce had stayed married instead.
Where is the definitive evidence that single people should get married because that will make them happier, healthier, more connected interpersonally, and more likely to live a long life? There isn't any.
The June 13, 2016 Time article, like so many others before it, is filled with inaccurate or misleading claims, all of which are wrong in the same way: They make married people seem better than they really are, and single people worse.
Here's an example: "Studies suggest that married people have better health, wealth and even better sex than singles, and will probably die happier."
I won't dispute the part about wealth. Married people who stay married do end up wealthier, not because they are such paragons of financial virtue, but because the federal government gifts them with more than 1,000 unearned benefits and protections, many of which are financial, simply for being married. They also get discounts on insurance, memberships, and a wide variety of products and services, subsidized by the single people who are paying full price.
But the rest of it, about getting married and getting better health, better sex, and dying happier? No.
Here's another statement. Can you see why it is even more egregious than the first? "Most scholars agree that the beneficial health effects are robust: happily married people are less likely to have strokes, heart disease or depression, and they respond better to stress and heal more quickly."
There is a weasel word in there: "happily." Now Time is not just comparing currently married people to single people. (That's already a totally rigged comparison, as it pretends that the people who got married, hated it, and got divorced should be set aside. Why let their bad experiences ruin the adulatory story that is being told about marriage?). It is comparing only those people who are happily married to all single people, regardless of whether they are happily single. If undergraduates, in their very first research methods course, proposed a comparison like that on another topic, they would get laughed out of class. But Time published it as a statement from Science.
I've debunked the claims about the supposed superiority of married people so many times, it has become truly tiresome. So I'll mention just a few points here. As I noted above, longitudinal studies show that people who get married and stay married end up no happier than they were when they were single. And that's a wildly biased assessment, because it includes only those people who got married and chose to stay married. Remember, the advice Time is peddling is to get married. But if you get married, you may end up among the great big chunk of people who end up divorced. In longitudinal studies such as the German one, people who are headed toward divorce do not even get that initial bump in happiness around the time of the wedding. They are already becoming less happy than when they were single and not within striking distance of their wedding.
Time thinks the later years are especially wonderful. But again, it is wrong about that. In the American study, the authors compared people who had been married more than three years to those staying single. The married people were not advantaged in any way. They were not happier, healthier, or less depressed, and they did not have higher self-esteem. The only significant difference favored the single people: They had stronger social ties with their parents and friends.
[I have lots more to say about the false but relentlessly-perpetuated claim that getting married makes people better off socially, emotionally, and psychologically. If you are interested, read Chapter 2 (and some of the others, too) in Singled Out; my updated and even more powerful arguments in Marriage vs. Single Life: How Science and the Media Got It So Wrong; the one key chapter from that book (plus an intro) in The Science of Marriage: What We Know That Just Isn't So; or my very brief version in this article in the Washington Post.]
In fairness, Time does include a one-sentence quote from me in its article, and I'm grateful for that:
Bella DePaulo, a scientist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, argues that all studies of marriage are flawed: "If you want to say that getting married and staying married is better for your health than staying single," she says, then you need to compare the people who chose to stay married with those who chose to stay single. I don't know of any studies that have done so."
Read the entire article, though, if you can get past the pay wall, and I think you will find that my message is not Time's. The magazine is solidly on the side of married people, and has been for decades. If getting married really did transform miserable, lonely, sickly single people into happy, healthy, and connected married people, then we single people would just have to suck it up. But it doesn't. Time magazine, it seems to me, is peddling pro-marriage ideology under the guise of science.