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Marriage

Does Marriage Actually Make People Happier?

... and how it affects men and women differently.

Key points

  • Married people are generally happier than singles, but psychologists debate whether marriage causes or selects for happiness.
  • The current study finds that women get a boost in happiness just before the wedding, and men just after it, but it doesn’t last.
  • Happy marriages are built by happy partners who have realistic expectations about their future life together.

Decades of research have shown that people who are married are, on average, happier and healthier than those who are not. However, researchers still debate the reason for this.

One explanation is that marriage causes better physical and psychological health outcomes. Couples provide support for each other in ways that friends or family members may not be able to. And just knowing that you have someone to rely on can give you the strength to face the challenges that life throws your way.

Married couples also encourage their partners to lead healthy lives. For instance, the irregular eating and heavy drinking habits that are so often a part of the single lifestyle are detrimental to both mental and physical health in the long run. In contrast, the settled lifestyle of a married couple, with its regular meals, reduced drinking, and relatively fixed social network provides health benefits.

Another explanation is that marriage selects people who are already healthy and happy. After all, it’s easier to attract a mate if you’ve got a pleasant personality and reasonably good looks. Likewise, people who are in poor health or who suffer from mental disorders are less likely to get married, and this alone could be what accounts for the observation that married people are happier in general than those who are single.

Does Marriage Cause or Select for Happiness?

To further explore this question of whether marriage causes or selects for health and happiness, University of Denver psychologist Charlie Huntington and colleagues conducted a study that followed 168 soon-to-be-married individuals through their transition into married life. The results of this study were recently reported in the Journal of Family Psychology.

The participants were surveyed every four months over a nearly two-year span. Each time, they responded to questions that assessed their general health, alcohol use, life satisfaction, and psychological distress. In this way, the researchers could detect changes in physical and mental health in the time leading up to the wedding day as well as the time following it.

Changes in general health and alcohol use were similar for both men and women. In particular, their general health increased during the months before the wedding but then decreased in the months afterward. And in reverse fashion, their alcohol use decreased before marriage but then increased afterward.

This finding suggests that people strive to engage in healthy behaviors as the big day approaches, but that they soon revert to old habits. As the researchers note, the health benefits of getting married seem to be gained mostly in the weeks before and after the wedding ceremony, but these effects are short-lived.

The Wedding Bump

Compared with health trends, changes in psychological well-being were more complex and depended on the sex of the individual. In terms of life satisfaction, women saw an increase before the wedding day. Afterward, though, it dropped to a level below what it had been before they got engaged. This pattern suggests that many women approach marriage with unrealistic expectations and end up disappointed with the day-to-day realities of marriage.

The men, however, seem to benefit psychologically from marriage. Their life satisfaction remains steady in the months leading up to the wedding, but it gets a big boost afterward, at least during the first few months they’re married. This pattern suggests that marriage turns out to be more beneficial for men than they’d expected it to be. In other words, the expectations before and the experience after the wedding are the opposite for men and women.

Psychological distress also shows opposite patterns for women and men, and it reflects the levels of life satisfaction each felt before and after getting married. That is, the women reported a sharp decrease in psychological distress before the wedding and a sharp increase afterward. In contrast, the men saw a small increase before the big day with a return back to their pre-engagement state afterward.

So, will getting married make you healthy and happy? According to the data collected by Huntington and colleagues, the answer is probably not. As the researchers point out, both men and women get a boost in general health during the engagement period. However, this is probably due to being on their best behavior during this time, as evidenced by the drop in alcohol consumption before marriage and a return to old habits afterward.

As for psychological well-being, the women get a boost before marriage with a return to pre-engagement levels shortly afterward, while the men reported being happier during the months after the wedding than before. Still, it’s unclear how long this boost in men’s life satisfaction after marriage lasts.

Happy Marriages are Built by Happy Partners

According to Huntington and colleagues, the data don’t support the contention that marriage causes health and happiness. Rather, they’re more consistent with the notion that marriage selects for these. In other words, people don’t get healthy and happy because they get married, but rather it’s the other way around. That is, healthy, happy people are more likely to get married than those who aren't, most likely because health and happiness are attractive features in a mate.

Although the researchers didn’t explore this idea with the participants, the data suggest that many people enter into marriage with unreasonable expectations. If you think you’ll find happiness after marrying your soulmate, you’re bound to be disappointed. Getting married is a big event in people’s lives, one that is filled with both excitement and stress. But after the honeymoon is over, you’ll likely settle back into the same levels of physical and psychological well-being that you had before you got married.

In sum, it’s best to understand that healthy, happy marriages are built by healthy, happy people. Get yourself into a state of physical and psychological well-being first, and you’ll be more likely to attract someone you can build a strong and supportive marriage with.

Facebook image: Lucky Business/Shutterstock

References

Huntington, C., Stanley, S. M., Doss, B. D., & Rhoades, G. K. (2021). Happy, healthy, and wedded? How the transition to marriage affects mental and physical health. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication.

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