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Marriage

Do Marriage and Parenthood Increase Life’s Meaning?

Differences between women and men on marriage, parenthood, and meaningfulness.

Do married people experience life as more meaningful than unmarried people? The reply is a bit complex. According to Tatjana Schnell’s The Psychology of Meaning in Life, married people have, on average, a higher sense of meaning in life than non-married people. However, as always, we should remember that correlation does not attest causation. It may be that marriage contributes to sensed meaning in life. But it may also be that people who sense their lives as more meaningful are more prone to try marriage or, once married, to stay so.

Further, the picture becomes more complicated once we remember that some people live together as couples for years without getting married. The relations of such cohabiting couples seem quite similar to those of married couples. But do they show the same average sensed meaning in life? Perhaps surprisingly, the average sensed meaning in life of people who are married is also higher than the sensed meaning in life of people in cohabiting relationships.

The picture becomes even more complicated once gender in heterosexual couples is taken into account. Although married men’s sensed meaning in life is higher than cohabiting men’s and single men’s sensed meaning in life, there are no similar differences between married, cohabiting, and single women’s sensed meaning in life. That may seem surprising if one holds that cultural or social pressures on women to marry or be in relationships is higher than such pressures on men. One would expect such pressures to decrease single and cohabiting women’s sensed meaning in life as compared with those of married women.

However, perhaps the explanation is that, precisely because of these cultural and social pressures, women agree to put up in marriages with a lot of negative phenomena that diminish their sensed meaning in life while enhancing men’s sensed meaning in life. Thus, following cultural and social expectations in marriage enhances women’s sensed meaning in life in one way (they feel they comply with those cultural and social expectations) but decreases their sensed meaning in life in another way (because of those cultural and social expectations, they put up with much that they don’t like).

Of course, these findings (and possible explanations) should be treated with caution. For example, there may be significant differences between cohabiting couples who live together for shorter spans of time and those who live together for many years. The latter’s rates of meaning in life may be similar to those of married couples.

Further, it may be that some of those who choose to marry rather than to cohabit do so because they are religious, and religious people have, on average, higher sensed meaning in life than non-religious people. Perhaps if only non-religious people were examined, the difference in sensed meaning in life between cohabiting and married couples would be smaller or not exist at all.

Research has also suggested that when people become parents, their “life satisfaction” decreases (as parenthood involves many frustrations and requires many sacrifices), but their sensed meaning in life increases. Again, however, there are gender differences. While sensed meaning in life is higher for mothers than for childless women, it is lower for fathers than for childless men. Perhaps cultural and social expectations, or maybe biological factors, may help explain these differences.

References

Schnell, T. 2021. The Psychology of Meaning in Life. New York: Routledge.

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