Marriage and Health: Eh Tu, New York Times?

If marriage is so great, why are the ever-single doing so well?

Posted Aug 04, 2009

The New York Times has just published a piece on that same marriage and health study that Newsweek discussed so misleadingly. Sadly, this piece isn't what it should be either. I am especially disappointed with this one because I've read some of the reporter's previous work and liked it. But if she had read my post on this study (including the terrific comments that were posted by readers) - or Chapter 2 of Singled Out - I think she would have written a better piece. In fact, from the comments that Living Single readers posted to my take-down of the Newsweek story (and their other comments as well) I think many readers could critique this New York Times story without any help from me.

Nonetheless, here goes.

The first sentence of the story is, "Married people tend to be healthier than single people." I'll get to that in a moment.

A few paragraphs later, the reporter takes up the question that Living Single readers raised in their comments to my post about the study: If this is so, why does it happen? Here's the reporter's answer:

"The health benefits of marriage, documented by a wealth of research, appear to stem from several factors. Married people tend to be better off financially and can share in a spouse's employer health benefits. And wives, in particular, act as gatekeepers for a husband's health, scheduling appointments and noticing changes that may signal a health problem. Spouses can offer logistical support, like taking care of children while a partner exercises or shuttling a partner to and from the doctor's office."

So what's the most important reason why married people tend to look healthier than unmarried people (if they do)? The study in question, like most others on the topic, looks at people of different marital statuses at one point in time. In one category are the people who are currently married, and in the others are the divorced, widowed, and always-single, and various permutations. The currently married people look healthier largely because all those people (probably at least 43%) who got married, hated it, and got divorced are taken out of the marriage group. In my favorite analogy, it is like a drug company claiming that taking their drug Shamster makes people healthier as long as you take out of the Shamster group all of the people who took it, hated it, and stopped taking it.

A few more points.

• If marriage is so good for health because wives nag their husbands to stay healthy, then why are married people fatter than everyone else?

• It is true that the currently married are better off financially than the currently unmarried and that they can get access to health care benefits by way of their spouse's plan at work. (The financial advantage is itself important - marital status discrimination is built right into our laws and policies.) The story focuses on the divorced and widowed, but those who have always been single are also disadvantaged with regard to money and access to health benefits. So isn't it interesting (as I pointed out in my last post) that in the very study that the reporter is describing, people who have always been single have no more chronic health conditions than people who are currently married, and women who have always been single report heath that is just as good as women who got married and stayed married. People who have always been single have had a lifetime of economic disadvantages, and a lifetime of lesser access to health benefits, and a lifetime of figuring out for themselves how to stay healthy (no spousal nagging included), and yet they do just as well on some measures as people who are currently married. And remember, they are doing just as well according to the cheater-method that already gives a huge advantage to people who got married (by taking out of the group the huge chunk of people who got married, hated it, and got divorced).

• There's also this result, not reported by the Times, from the same study: 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.) [UPDATE: The Times did mention this result for one of the 4 measures, chronic conditions.] Some of the previously married had access to their spouse's health plan from work while they were married. So why are the always-single people, who never had any such access, healthier than the previously married are?

About that "Wealth of Research"

I think there is an important reason why so many reporters fall so readily for the "get married, get healthy" myth. The Marriage Mafia (including many scholars who have staked their careers on claims about the supposed benefits of marriage) insists that there are scads of studies showing that it is good to get married. There are libraries full of studies in which health (or happiness or sex or just about anything else you can think of) was measured at one point in time, and the currently married were compared to the currently unmarried. Many of those do show an advantage of the currently married. But the currently married are NOT healthier BECAUSE they got married. You'd need to look at longitudinal studies (studies of the same people over time) to get a good sense of that. When you do, the results are not exactly what the Marriage Mafia would like to claim. Again, one of the main reasons the currently married look better is because of those who got married, more than 40% couldn't stand their marriages and got divorced. When you remove more than 40% of the got-married group and count only those who are left, it is remarkable that their advantage is sometimes slender or nonexistent.

Again with the drug study analogy: Suppose the drug companies did not just one Shamster study but hundreds or even thousands. In each study, they remove from the Drug condition anyone who took Shamster, hated it, and stopped taking it. They want to claim that since the people currently taking Shamster are doing better than those not taking it, everyone should take Shamster. Yeah! Shamster is great!

It is obvious what a crock this is. It would not increase your faith in Shamster one bit to learn that there were thousands of studies just like this flawed one showing the "benefits" of taking Shamster. Now imagine that there were such a collection of studies of a Shamster drug, and a New York Times story opened with the sentence, "People taking Shamster tend to be healthier than people not taking Shamster." It wouldn't happen. (For one thing, Shamster would not be approved by the FDA based on studies such as the one-point-in-time studies of the mythical benefits of marriage.)

What the New York Times Got Right

Fortunately, the Times reporter did not make all of the same mistakes that Newsweek did. Towards the end of her story, she includes this important qualifier:

"None of this suggests that spouses should stay in a bad marriage for the sake of health. Marital troubles can lead to physical ones, too."

The reporter also talks to someone who may not be so matrimaniacal, and even gives her the last word:

"I would argue that if you can't fix a marriage you're better off out of it," said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, an Ohio State scientist who is an author of much of the research. "With a divorce you're disrupting your life, but a long-term acrimonious marriage also is very bad."

[To read other posts to the Living Single blog, click here.]

[To those interested in divorce rates and how they are calculated, here's a useful reference: Schoen, R., & Canudas-Romo, V. (2006). Timing effects on divorce: 20th century experience in the United States. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68, 749-758.]

Thanks to Jessica, the Living Single reader who sent me a link to the NYT story. I immediately dropped everything (including my own daily perusal of the Times) to write this post.