Want to know whether a claim about the benefits of getting married might be bogus? The most important giveaway is just this one thing: Does the study compare people who are currently married to people who are not married? If the answer is yes, your b.s. detector should start screeching.
A claim from Time magazine is fairly typical: "Studies suggest that married people have better health, wealth, and even better sex than singles, and will probably die happier." The moral of Time’s story? If you want to be happier and healthier, you should get married and stay married. Marriage, the way that Time and just about every other publication tells it, causes people to be happier and healthier. People get happier and healthier because they got married.
A study comparing people who are currently married to people who are not married, at one point in time, and finding that the currently married people look better, cannot definitively show that they did better because they got married. Here's why.
4 Reasons to Doubt Claims About the Benefits of Marriage
Okay, so you’ve heard about a study which found that people who are currently married are doing better than people who are not married. You are being led to believe that they are doing better because they got married, and that if you get married, you will do better, too. Here are four reasons why you should be skeptical. I think reason number three is the most important, and it is also the one least likely to be acknowledged, but it takes more explaining so I’m starting with the simpler ones.
1. It's possible that people who get married are already happier or healthier than single people even before they marry.
If so, then marriage may have had nothing to do with their well-being. They were already doing better to begin with.
That’s one of the reasons why it is so important to do the kinds of studies that follow people over time (that’s called longitudinal research). Then you can see whether people who get married become lastingly happier or healthier than they were when they were single. The answer is straightforward: They don’t. (You can read about the happiness studies here and the health studies here.)
2. People who are currently married may differ from people who are not currently married in all sorts of ways.
Those differences—and not what’s going on inside a marriage (such as intimacy, companionship, help, and support)—may be the real reasons why the currently married people look better.
For example, married people are valued, respected, and celebrated in over-the-top ways just for being married (I call that matrimania), and single people are stereotyped, stigmatized, marginalized, and targeted with discrimination, just for being single (that’s singlism).
What if we reversed our cultural norms and fawned over single people and scorned married people? Let’s include the 1,000 federal laws in the U.S. that currently benefit and protect only people who are officially married. Those laws are good for married people’s health as well as their financial well-being. Reverse all of them, so that only people who are not officially married get the perks. Now, who is happier and healthier?
3. Studies comparing only the people who are currently married to people who are not married are often based on a cheater method.
They are taking out of the group of married people all the people who did get married, but then got divorced or became widowed. Divorced and widowed people typically are less happy and less healthy than lifelong single people. And similarly, in the better studies that follow the same people over the course of their adult lives, people who marry and then become divorced or widowed typically end up worse off than they were when they were single.
If the point you are trying to make is “get married, and you will be happier and healthier”—which is the explicit or implicit point of many articles about the supposed superiority of married people—then everyone who ever got married, regardless of whether they stayed married, needs to be included with the married people. Hardly anyone ever does that, but when they do, marriage doesn’t look so great anymore.
4. Studies that follow the same people over time are about the best we can do when we are trying to figure out whether marriage makes people happier or healthier.
It is really striking that those studies typically show that people who marry do not become happier or healthier than they were when they were single, considering that people who marry get all the perks of matrimania and the advantages of laws designed to benefit them, and they escape all that singlism that plagued them when they were single.
Imagine, though, that some future study shows that the people who marry end up lastingly happier or healthier or better off in some other way than they were when they were single. Would that mean that if the lifelong single people got married, they would become happier and healthier?
Not necessarily. Lifelong single people are different people than the people who married. (That makes points 1 and 2, above, relevant all over again.) Some single people are single because they want to be. They have chosen the single life. For people who are “single at heart,” living single is the way they live their best, most authentic, most fulfilling, and most meaningful life. If they were badgered into marrying, they would probably end up less happy and less healthy than if they just stayed single.
More generally, results of studies from the social sciences are based on averages. The typical result does not apply to everyone. There are always exceptions.
Maybe you will not remember all four of these points. That’s okay. Just remember one thing: When you hear a claim that currently married people are doing better than people who are not currently married, it's okay to be suspicious. Know that, in many cases, the study was unable to prove that getting married made people happier or healthier. It cannot be used to assure you that if you get married, you will be happier and healthier. Many well-designed studies suggest that’s just not true.
Why the Weaponization of Research on Marriage Is So Easy, and Debunking Is So Hard
An important new report, “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All,” has shown that more than a dozen well-organized and generously-funded groups have been promoting marriage for decades. One of their strategies is to weaponize social science research. They use research in misleading ways to make the case that married people are superior to single people, and their children are better off, too.
If you do the kinds of studies I’ve been critiquing, it is easy to get results that look like marriage makes people happier and healthier. Think of it this way: Imagine if a pharmaceutical company, in tests of a new drug, found that more than 40 percent of the people who took the drug hated it so much that they refused to keep taking it. Then imagine that the drug company just sets those people aside and boasts about how well the rest of the drug-takers were doing. The company wants to publish the study and run ads claiming that the new drug makes people better—their research proves it! That would be blatant cheating. No medical journal would publish that claim.
But that’s exactly what’s going on in studies comparing currently married people to unmarried people. More than 40 percent of people who marry end up divorced. The researchers are setting those people aside and urging you to look only at the people who are currently married. Now you know better.
People who want to make the claim that marriage makes people happier and healthier have it much easier than people who want to know what the research really does show. That’s because marriage enthusiasts can point to studies showing that currently married people are doing better than unmarried people, and say—see, getting married makes you happier and healthier! Everyone should get married.
It seems so logical and straightforward. There are married people, and they look like they are doing better than the people who are not married, so of course, marriage made them happier and healthier.
It takes a lot more explaining, and a lot more thinking, to understand why that’s not so.
Of course, there is not much of a challenge when other research shows that lifelong single people are doing better than currently married people, despite all matrimania and singlism and the cheater techniques. But those studies get a whole lot less attention.