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   Home  > University > Articles

The public benefits of marriage: not just a “selection” effect

By Harry Benson

The Benefits of Marriage

Across the world, an array of studies show comprehensively that, compared to the unmarried, married people:

  • are happier;
  • are healthier and live longer;
  • earn more, work harder, and save more.

According to Waite & Gallagher (2000), benefits and protections accruing to marriage are largely due to "commitment". The long-term nature of commitment allows couples to risk specialising or letting go of domestic roles. This is an efficient arrangement in terms of time, stress and money. Commitment motivates couples to look out for one another, providing an explanation behind gains in health and wealth. Married couples also receive more social and financial support from both extended families.

Recent long-term studies have tested the presumption that married people are simply happier, healthier and wealthier in the first place – a "selection effect". Although selection is sometimes evident, it is sometimes not. It is now clear that marriage contributes causally to both benefits and protections. Many studies, such as the ones below, start with a large group of people from whom baseline information is gathered. Years later, initial differences - such as education, race, gender, socio-economic status, health and happiness - can be discounted to show that marriage itself contributes to making people better off.

Marriage, happiness and mental health

  • In spite of the bad press marriage often receives, married people are far more likely to be happy and far less likely to be unhappy than any other group of people.
  • A 10-year US survey of 14,000 adults found that marital status was one of the most important predictors of happiness (Davis, 1984). A recent analysis of this sample found that those saying they were "happy" with life were 40% of the married, 15% of the separated, 18% of the divorced, 22% of cohabitees, 22% of widows, and 22% of the singles. Those saying they were "not too happy" were 7% of the married, 27% of the separated, 18% of the divorced, 13% of cohabitees, 20% of widows, and 13% of the singles (Waite, 2000).
  • In a longitudinal study of psychological well-being, mental health improved consistently and substantially upon getting married. Similarly, divorce or separation produced substantial deterioration in well-being, especially to women. The study design ruled out selection effects (Marks & Lambert, 1998). In a similar 7-year longitudinal study, selection effects of marriage did not account for lower rates of both alcoholism in married women and depression in married men (Horwitz et al, 1996).

Marriage, health and mortality

  • Marriage is good for your health. Married people are less likely to suffer from long-term illnesses (Murphy et al., 1997) and far less likely to die in hospital as surgical patients (Goodwin et al., 1987).
  • Across studies, mortality rates are 250% higher for unmarried men and 50% higher for unmarried women compared to those married (Ross et al., 1990).
  • A longitudinal study of 6,000 families, accounting for socio-economic variables such as race, education, location, children and income, found that a married woman at age 48 has an 8% risk of dying before age 65, vs. a divorced woman’s risk of 18%. A married man at age 48 has a 12% risk of dying before age 65, vs. a divorced man’s risk of 35%. The big health difference is between married people and non-married, not between people who live alone and those who don’t (Lillard & Waite, 1995).
  • Social support is one reason for the health gain of marriage, improving psychological well-being and immune function (Ross et al., 1990; Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 1993). But the gain is bigger for men because single men are more likely to engage in risky behaviours, such as smoking or drinking. Both men and women still benefit from reducing these risky behaviours in marriage (Bachman et al., 1997).

Marriage and wealth

  • Marriage makes men more successful. The 10-40% wage premium married men receive compared to the unmarried is "one of the most well-documented phenomena in social science" (Waite & Gallagher, 2000). It is common to almost all developed countries (Schoeni, 1995), averaging 30% in the US, a salary gain equivalent to a university degree! Wage premium begins in the year before marriage, increases during marriage, and erodes with divorce, even controlling for other factors (Daniel, 1995).
  • Married people also save more. US married couples in their 50s and 60s had net worth per person roughly double that of divorcees, widows or other unmarried people. Over a 5 year period, married people saved faster, even accounting for education and health. Higher earnings accounted for less than a third of the disparity in wealth (Smith, 1995).
  • Marriage takes people out of poverty. Of US families without "A-level" equivalents, 40% of single mothers are poor compared to 12% of married mothers. Of those with "A-level" equivalents, 12% of single mothers were poor compared to 3% of married mothers (McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994).

Marriage and cohabitation: not the same thing

In this article
- The Benefits of Marriage
- Marriage and cohabitation: not the same thing
- Divorce and separation – getting worse
- References

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Copyright © 2001, Harry Benson.

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