New Benefits of Marriage Study Actually Hints at the Horrors of Middle Age

Marriage isn’t the happiness elixir America wants it to be. If anything, it simply distracts us from persisting economic and social injustices that undermine all types of relationships.
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Marriage isn’t the happiness elixir America wants it to be. If anything, it simply distracts us from persisting economic and social injustices that undermine all types of relationships.
Doomed? (Photo: nathancongleton/Flickr)

Doomed? (Photo: nathancongleton/Flickr)

Marriage has long been linked to greater happiness, health, and well-being, at least in wealthy, Western cultures. Previous studies, though, could only hazard a correlation, and researchers warned of a likely significant selection bias at play. But a new paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research and based primarily on data from the United Kingdom, suggests that there’s a real causal effect of getting married.

Even after controlling for pre-marital well-being levels, as well as other potentially confounding factors, marriage appears to increase life satisfaction, beyond the honeymoon period, and particularly during the slump in happiness that often accompanies middle age. The effect seems to have less to do with the legal institution than with the relationship; the benefit of co-habitating is almost as large. Noting that those who describe their partner as their best friend see double the boost in well-being, the researchers conclude that it is the friendship offered by a spouse or long-term partner that’s most important. "Marriage, in a sense, is a super friendship,” the study’s co-author Shawn Grover explained to the Huffington Post.

The fact that marrying your best friend seems to make middle age "slightly less terrible" seems less a ringing endorsement of marriage than an indictment of the way many of us spend our middle age.

Unsurprisingly, much media coverage of this research has taken a reductive and prescriptive tone, best epitomized by the New York Times’ misleading headline: “Study Finds More Reasons to Get and Stay Married.” In reality, nobody is suggesting there’s any benefit to staying in an unhappy marriage, which has consistently been shown to be at least as bad—and usually worse—for your physical and mental health as being unmarried. And analyses of survey data, particularly on subjective, self-reported well-being measures, should always be taken with a grain of salt. “Averages always obscure important variations,” says Stephanie Coontz, the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families. “And that's especially true today, when there is no such thing as a typical marriage or a typical single person, and there are greater differences within each family type than there are between them.”

Plus, considering the privileged space marriage still occupies in our popular imagination and socio-economic structures, this new study starts to look about as surprising as one showing that the world’s a little bit easier to navigate if you’re right-handed.

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After all, it's impossible to control for the enormous pressure people feel to get married in many cultures. Despite the fact that in the United States nearly half of adults are unmarried and more than a quarter of all households consist of only one person, there’s a veritable romantic industrial complex—aimed especially at women—reminding us to couple up and settle down before we die alone. As a 2009 study exploring the stigma felt by never-married women in their late 20s to mid-30s put it: “The idealization of marriage and child rearing remains strong, pervasive, and largely unquestioned.” And while single people often invest in other close relationships—indeed, they typically have more active social lives than their married counterparts—we have yet to support alternative family structures. As my friend Samhita Mukhopadhyay, author of Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life, says, “These alternatives are still very much at the margins of the dominant organizing principle of our society, which is the nuclear family—or heteronormative romantic structures.”

Conservatives wring their hands over the marriage gap between the rich and poor and claim that single mothers, who are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, need husbands rather than a living wage and a more robust social safety net.

It’s not surprising, then, that the benefits of being married are most evident during middle age, when the marriage rate peaks—and with it, the peer pressure to join the club. Furthermore, as Natalia Sarkisian and Naomi Gerstel argue in their book Nuclear Family Values, Extended Family Lives: The Importance of Gender, Race, and Class, marriage is a fairly “greedy” institution—married people tend to invest less time in their relationships with friends, extended family, and the broader community. Though it’s not something Sarkisian and Gerstel have looked at specifically in their research, it seems likely that this domestic nesting would be especially acute in middle age, when career and child-rearing duties pile up.

And while its effects may be felt by those who remain single and find their support networks weakened as their married friends become less available, it hardly serves the married that well either, as recent articles on the difficulty of making and maintaining friendshipsin (married) middle age attest. No wonder people whose spouses also happen to be their best friends get such a greater benefit from marriage than others. For some, this particular “super-friend” may well be one of the only close friends they see with any regularity—it helps to really, really like them.

Looked at from that angle, the fact that marrying your best friend seems to make middle age “slightly less terrible” (as the headline of the Washington Post’s coverage of the study sardonically boasts) seems less a ringing endorsement of marriage than an indictment of the way many of us spend our middle age—in socially isolated domestic units, each consumed with the nearly impossible task of balancing work and family, made bearable only by having a close friend in the trenches with us.

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Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the U.S., where, despite the growing diversity of our families, our economic structures and work policies stubbornly cater to two-parent partnerships—and don’t even properly support those. Granted, some of the “stresses of middle age” that can be eased by marital friendship are probably inevitable—raising a child, caring for a dying parent, or facing the first evidence of your own impending mortality, for example, will never be easy. But, in the U.S., we seem to have all but given up on the possibility that at least one key challenge of this life stage—the fact that career and family obligations often peak at the exact same time—could, conceivably, be collectively solved. Instead, we accept ever-longer work hours, stagnating wages, astronomical child care costs, and laughable family leave policies, and then find, unsurprisingly, that more than half of working parents say it is difficult for them to balance their job and home responsibilities.

In such a context, the support offered by a spouse is not just emotional but also, often, material—a second income, another adult to pick up the kids from school, double the sick days, a much-needed benefits package. It is, in fact, even possible to estimate the exact financial price of remaining single in the U.S.

We remain remarkably, well, married to the idea that the institution can be a utilitarian silver bullet that solves the underlying structural problems of our economy—or, more accurately, a Band-Aid that masks the need to tackle them.

Of course, not so long ago, before the feminist movement ushered more women into the workforce and led to a convergence of gender roles, the benefits of marriage were imagined in even more crassly utilitarian terms. Economist Gary Becker argued that through marriage, women gained a breadwinner, and men were provided a housewife. And despite how thoroughly we’ve embraced the more romantic notion that marriage should be a partnership of soul-mates in our popular culture, we remain remarkably, well, married to the idea that the institution can be a utilitarian silver bullet that solves the underlying structural problems of our economy—or, more accurately, a Band-Aid that masks the need to tackle them.

This is particularly true of the rhetoric that surrounds marriages among the least privileged. Conservatives wring their hands over the marriage gap between the rich and poor and claim that single mothers, who are disproportionately likely to live in poverty, need husbands rather than a living wage and a more robust social safety net. Last summer, a Heritage Foundation panel concluded that if women would just get married, income inequality could be eliminated. And this is an idea we’ve tested by wasting nearly a billion dollars over the past decade on federal marriage promotion programs that have utterly failed.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the income spectrum, the debate about “having it all” (largely sparked by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic piece a couple of years ago)—which, in a sane world, might have led to a widespread movement to reduce work hours and join everyone else in enacting mandatory paid family leave—seems to have quietly wound down with the tepid conclusion that nobody can have it all. Apparently, the best we can hope for is a good marriage to make things a tiny bit easier. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in a recent interview with Katie Couric: “You can’t have it all all at once. Over my lifespan, I think I have had it all, but in given periods in time, things were rough. And if you have a caring life partner, you help the other person when that person needs it.”

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Even when we're not making such an explicitly economic case for coupledom, we prescribe marriage as though finding a life partner were as easy as flipping a switch. See, for example, the New York Times’ take-away from this latest study: “Overall, the research comes to a largely optimistic conclusion. People have the capacity to increase their happiness levels and avoid falling deep into midlife crisis by finding support in long-term relationships.” As always, in our up-by-your-bootstraps, self-help culture, the only thing standing in the way of your happiness is you.

Never mind that, as this study shows, who you marry is pretty damn important. And never mind that it takes time to cultivate good relationships, romantic or otherwise, temporary or life-long—and time is something that’s in short supply. Indeed, the cruelest irony here might be that the low-income Americans most targeted by our marriage promotion efforts have the least control over their time. When you’re napping in your car in between multiple part-time, low-wage jobs, I’m not sure when exactly you’re supposed to kiss enough frogs to find your very own “super-friend.”

If we truly took to heart the importance of close social ties to our well-being—which the research certainly supports—instead of pushing marriage as a means of weathering the stresses caused by our current economy, we might build a better one that allows for all types of relationships to flourish in the first place.

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