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Marriage

Newsweek’s Turn to Post Misleading Account of Latest Marriage Study

The latest bogus claims about getting married and getting healthy

A new day has dawned, and with it another study of marriage misrepresented in the media. As always, the inaccuracies are in one direction only - implying that getting married results in better outcomes than it actually does. I've been at this for a while, and I have yet to find a media report that misrepresents findings in a way that makes singles look better than they actually are. (I don't even want that - I want accuracy.)

Here are some of the headlines that WERE published, supposedly as descriptions of the latest study of marriage:

• "Getting married - and staying married - is good for your health" (from Health Behavior News Service)
• "Lasting marriage linked to better health" (from Reuters)
• "Divorce hurts health even after remarriage" (from MSNBC.com)
• "Another reason to stay married" (from Newsweek)

Here are some of the headlines you did NOT see, that actually would be accurate descriptions of the results of the study:

1. People who have always been single are healthier than the previously married. (The advantage held for all four measures of health: number of chronic conditions, number of mobility limitations, self-rated health, and depression. Significance tests were not reported.)

2. People who have always been single have no more chronic health conditions than people who are currently married. (This is especially noteworthy because this is not a comparison of all people who stayed single with all people who had ever gotten married. Instead, it just compares the ever-single to those who are currently married. Anyone who got married, hated it - maybe even suffered poor health during marriage - and got divorced and stayed that way - is taken out of the married group. Do you see how this makes marriage look better than it really is?)

3. Women who have always been single report health that is just as good as women who got married and stayed married. (This comparison uses a married group that is even more selective. Single women - all of them - are compared NOT to all currently married women - a group that would include those who were previously divorced or widowed and got remarried - but just to those who married and stayed married. In the study, the continuously married represent just about 57% of all those who ever did marry. Of course, there is no comparable selection of just a particular subgroup of singles. Yet, even by this rigged comparison, the always-single women [though not the men] do just fine.)

4. 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. Among those who married and then got divorced or widowed, the results still were not as the authors expected. Those who got married at a later age - both men and women - reported better overall health and fewer chronic conditions and mobility limitations than those who married at a younger age.)

Now consider this quote, taken directly from the original report: "Those who have married once and remained married are consistently, strongly, and broadly advantaged." Considering results #2 and #3 above, this statement simply cannot be true.

I'm making two points. One, the media got this study wrong. Two, the authors were not entirely accurate either. They report one set of findings in the tables depicting their results, then say something else about those findings when they get to the end of the article and want to sum up their findings. Perhaps it is worth noting that one of the authors is Linda Waite, co-author of "The Case for Marriage," a book with one misleading and inaccurate statement about marriage after another - as I documented in detail in Chapter 2 of Singled Out.

The Basics of the Study

The authors analyzed interview data from a national sample of 8,809 Americans between the ages of 51 and 61. They were interested not just in the participants' current marital status, but their history of staying single or married, or transitioning in or out of marriage. These are all plusses - it is a big study, a representative study, and the authors are looking at the details of marital status history, not just big blobs of current marital-status categories. Moreover, their study included not just one but four measures of health. (The study was longitudinal, but the authors only look at one-point in time, with all the resulting interpretive ambiguities.)

In their sample, some stayed single the entire time (close to 4%). Of those who ever married, about 22% got widowed or divorced and did not remarry (they are the previously married); and about 20% got remarried after their previous marriage ended; the others stayed married.

The authors wanted to show that the previously married would have worse health than the currently married - and they did. They also thought that more marital disruptions would mean worse health, but they found little evidence for that. They also found that those who divorced and then remarried had worse health than those who stayed married, but better health than those who divorced and stayed that way. (What is also evident from Table 3 is that those who stayed single did just as well or better than the remarried with regard to chronic health conditions and mobility limitations, though not the other two measures.)

What the Media Reports Got Wrong

Sadly, Newsweek's report of the study was the most egregious. Their headline was, "Another reason to stay married." Their tease was, "A new study shows that couples who split face health risks."

Reporters Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert use Governor Mark Sanford (he of Argentine soul-mate infamy) and Jon and Kate Gosselin as examples. The study, they claim, "suggests that the course the Sanfords are pursuing could ultimately work out better" because they are the ones who are trying to stay together.

In the original study, those who got married and chose to stay that way had better health than those who got divorced. What the reporters seem to be implying is that if only all those people who divorced had just stayed married, their health would be better. But that study shows nothing of the sort. Nor does it in any way suggest that the Sanfords will have better health if they stay together and the Gosselins will end up decrepit, depressed, and diseased if they stay split. The only way we could know whether divorce results in worse health than staying married would be to randomly assign people to divorce or to stay married - which of course, we can't do. We can, though, be accurate and honest in reporting and extrapolating from the studies we do conduct.

Think about the people who get to the point of considering divorce. High-profile quips to the contrary, divorce isn't something most people do offhandedly because they can't be bothered to stay together. There might be relentless infidelity, constant arguing and conflict, emotional abuse, maybe even drug or alcohol abuse or violence. It is irresponsible to suggest that if only all the married people would just stay married, they'd be healthier.

Astonishingly, Newsweek will not even concede that much. After quoting Waite as saying that the currently widowed, divorced, and separated pretty consistently have worse health than the currently married, the reporters say this: "So does that mean that every troubled marriage should be saved? No one study could ever answer such a broad question." Many psychologists, they add (without naming any), would argue against continuing a marriage involving intense violence or untreated drug or alcohol addiction - that could "make it hard for a couple to repair a bad marriage." (Note the tentativeness. Apparently, it is an open question to the reporters as to whether a spouse who is being severely physically abused would have better health by staying in the marriage than by leaving it.)

The Newsweek reporters describe Waite's "Case for Marriage" book as influential (without noting any of the problems with it, as delineated here) and even invoke the debate over whether the government should fund marriage-promotion programs. They concede that such programs are controversial, but again, no one gets a say in this article except Linda Waite.

Let me clarify my position. I'm not arguing for divorce. I'm arguing for accuracy in reporting. I'm also cautioning against the needless stigmatizing of people who make difficult and painful choices, and against the piling up of bogus, stinky, pseudo-scientific arguments in supposed support of the gratuitous stigmatizing claims.

Lessons for Journalists and Cautionary Notes for Consumers of Media Reports About Marriage

Please, journalists, don't just read or reprint the press release. Go to the original report in the scientific journal. Once there, don't just look at the abstract or the discussion section, where the authors put their gloss on what they have found. LOOK AT THE NUMBERS. Think about the arguments the authors are trying to make, and whether the design of the study could ever have produced definitive results relevant to those arguments. When you do your interviews, don't talk only to the study authors. Talk to someone who may have a different point of view, AND who has read the original journal article. Readers, be wary of any media report that does not seem to have met these standards.

Quick Recap of Marriage and Health

Let's see if I can briefly summarize the results of this recent study.

• If you get married and then divorce, you will have worse health than if you never got married in the first place, or if you get married and stayed married.

• If you get married and you are miserable and you don't get divorced - well, we don't know from this study what will happen to your health. That's not tested.

• If you are a woman and you get married and stay married throughout the course of the study, you won't have any better health than if you stayed single. (You will if you're a man.)

• Beyond the study's end: When the interviews were conducted, participants were, at most, 62 years old. Even those who had married just once and stayed that way won't be married forever. Death happens. If it is your spouse who dies, then you will have worse health than the people who are still married. But if it is you who dies first, well - then you're dead!

[To read other posts to the Living Single blog, click here. And, thanks to all the readers who sent me various links to reports of the study described in this post. Keep them coming.]

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