Is Marriage Toxic to Women? Part I

Is marriage in the 21st century toxic to women? Yes, say many.

Posted Mar 25, 2010

marriage toxic to women
Source: pixabay/pexels

Is marriage in the 21st century toxic to women? Yes, say many. My friends (especially women) from around the world on YouTube are constantly posting comments like "marriage is dying," and that living together is "so much better." Sure it's true that around the world more people are living together than are married.

It's also true that in her recent bestseller, Elizabeth Gilbert claims that her research shows that married women are less successful, more depressed, less healthy and more likely to die a violent death than single women. Citing what she calls the "Marriage Benefit Imbalance" Gilbert points out that, while women fare poorly, men actually benefit physically and psychologically from marriage. Nonetheless, she winds up, like many other women, getting married herself by the end of her book. Hmm.

In response to this controversy I decided to look at the hundreds of studies conducted around the world on the impact of marriage on women's mental health, general well-being and finances. In this four-part series we'll look at these areas one by one and see what the latest research shows. You know, when I got my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, I learned a basic truth of science: Don't rely on one study or one author's work especially if there are others that contradict it. So while I admire Gilbert as a writer I have to say I'm disappointed that she relied on the work of one sociologist who did her research in the 1970s. Nevertheless, let's consider the argument that marriage is toxic for women and then suspend a full verdict until you've had a chance to read this entire series.

The "Marriage Benefit Imbalance" was first popularized in 1982 by Jessie Bernard in her book, The Future of Marriage. This work created a lasting myth that women do not benefit from marriage. Bernard argued that there are two marriages: his and hers. She tried to prove this by showing: that women were unpaid for their parenting and domestic responsibilities and therefore not as valued as men's work outside the home; that men, by controlling the finances had power over women in marriage; and that married men lived longer than single men while married women did not live longer than singles. Bernard also claimed that married men reported they were happier than single men but also that they were happier than married women.

And the list of the supposedly toxic effects of marriage continued. Bernard claimed that more women than men are unhappy in marriage, so unhappy that they are depressed and have poorer mental health than single women. In short, Bernard believed that marriage was a good deal for men and not so kind to women.

Well, a lot has changed since the 70s. Marriage is no longer the hallowed institution it once was. Greater numbers of unmarried couples are living together; the age at first marriage is higher; more women are participating in higher education; have better paying jobs and brighter career opportunities; and greater numbers of women are choosing to become single mothers, either through adoption or insemination with donor sperm. Women are more independent all the way around. So they need marriage less. And yet, despite all of these advances, many women still want to get married.

Let's face it: we all would agree that nothing is worse than an abusive marriage and that for many women single life works just fine, thank you. But I think it's worth understanding if marriage really is a bad deal for women and what marriage can and can't do for you. And that's exactly what we'll do together in this series as we look at women, marriage and mental health, general health/well-being and money.

Diana Kirschner Ph.D.'s bestselling dating advice book, Love in 90 Days, is the basis for her PBS Special on love. It's just out in paperback with a new chapter on Dating Games Men Play. Dr. Diana is a frequent guest psychologist on The Today Show. Connect with Dr. Diana and get her free relationship advice newsletter.