When European travelers first encountered the Warlpiri of Australia’s Outback or the Kalapalo of the Amazon Basin in the 19th century, at least one institution would have been familiar amid the welter of cultural differences. As in the West, life among the Warlpiri and Kalapalo is profoundly shaped by marriage. In their own ways, the members of both of these societies strive to attract desirable spouses and then to raise children and forge a life together. As anthropologist Joseph Henrich observes, despite important variation in its form across cultures, “marriage represents the keystone institution for most (not all) societies, and may be the most primeval of human institutions.”
Marriage might be nearly ubiquitous, but does it still matter today? As reliable contraception has lowered the stakes of sex, and women have achieved political and, in some cases, economic equality with men, perhaps marriage has now become merely optional, a capstone rather than a cornerstone of a successful life. Still, there are good reasons to doubt the benefits of a post-nuptial society, as comparisons of married people either with the never-married or the divorced have generally found that the former are healthier and happier than the latter, even today.
These prior studies have been subject to some reasonable critiques. After all, how do we know that happy and healthy people aren’t just more likely to marry in the first place? And can we be sure that marriage’s benefits outweigh its costs? A clearsighted assessment of the choice to marry would need to factor in all of marriage’s risks (including divorce) and its preconditions (perhaps health and happiness), alongside the goods it confers.
There are good reasons to doubt the benefits of a post-nuptial society.
In a new study in the journal Global Epidemiology, we and our co-authors have sought to address those critiques. We examined 11,830 American nurses, all women, who were initially never married, and compared those who got married between 1989 and 1993 with those who remained unmarried. We assessed how their lives turned out on a wide range of important outcomes—including psychological well-being, health and longevity—after about 25 years.
In most cases, we were able to control for the nurses’ well-being and health in 1989, before any of them had gotten married, as well as for a host of other relevant factors, such as age, race and socioeconomic status. This helped us to rule out the possibility that, for example, happiness predicted marriage rather than being predicted by it, or that both happiness and marriage might be predicted by some hidden third factor.
Our findings were striking. The women who got married in the initial time frame, including those who subsequently divorced, had a 35% lower risk of death for any reason over the follow-up period than those who did not marry in that period. Compared to those who didn’t marry, the married women also had lower risk of cardiovascular disease, less depression and loneliness, were happier and more optimistic, and had a greater sense of purpose and hope.
We also examined the effects of staying married versus becoming divorced. Among those who were already married at the start of the study, divorce was associated with consistently worse subsequent health and well-being, including greater loneliness and depression, and lower levels of social integration. There was also somewhat less robust evidence that women who divorced had a 19% higher risk of death for any reason over the 25 years of follow-up than those who stayed married. Given how many factors influence health and well-being (genes, diet, exercise, environment, social network, etc.), the fact that marriage could reduce 25-year mortality by more than a third—and that divorce could possibly increase it by nearly a fifth—indicates how important it remains even for modern life.
Our study’s sample population—mostly white and relatively well-off professional women deciding about marriage in the early 1990s—does limit the conclusions we can draw from it with confidence. For instance, our all-female sample cannot tell us anything about the effects of marriage on men. More rigorous work in this area is needed, since prior research indicates that marriage promotes men’s longevity and health even more strongly than women’s.
Nonetheless, our study’s focus on women offers important insights in view of the continuing hold of feminist critiques of marriage as an instrument of patriarchal domination. Other things being equal (and of course in particular cases they often aren’t), marriage—with the support, companionship and affection it offers—is still a crucial constituent of a flourishing life for many women. (Whether this wide range of long-term benefits also holds for the young institution of same-sex marriage awaits further research.)
We also have to be cautious in generalizing across generations. The Gen-Xers in our sample were deciding for or against marriage in a different cultural setting than young adults today. In the past 30 years, for instance, norms against extramarital cohabitation have relaxed considerably. As recently as 2001, Gallup found that only 53% of Americans thought sex outside of marriage was morally acceptable, but by 2021 that figure was 76%. Our data can’t tell us how that change has shaped the significance of marriage today, though recent research has typically found that unmarried cohabiting couples report less happiness and relationship stability than do married couples.
In view of marriage’s profound effects on our sample’s health and well-being, it is unsettling to consider its rapid displacement from American life. In 2021, for instance, the annual marriage rate reached an all-time low of 28 marriages per 1000 unmarried people, down from 76.5 in 1965, a trend driven both by rapid increases in cohabitation and by even steeper rises in individuals living alone. So too, the U.S. leads the world in the percentage of its children growing up in single-parent homes (23% in 2019, compared to, for example, 12% in Germany). All of these trends are concentrated among poor Americans and people of color, who arguably have the most to gain from the safety net offered by marriage.
The causes of marriage’s marginalization are complex, including not only cultural shifts but also economic constraints, particularly the declining earning-power of less-educated men, which even today substantially reduces their marriage prospects. It is clear, however, that many of us now view marriage not as an essential setting for socializing sex and raising children but rather as a dispensable luxury good.
Married women had lower risk of cardiovascular disease and were happier and more optimistic.
Our findings, added to an already extensive literature showing the value of marriage, ought to serve as a wake-up call for a society in significant denial about this crucial element of flourishing. What to do about the problem? One route would be for politicians to implement and fund policies and interventions that promote healthy marriages. Another, perhaps more important change would be for our cultural and economic elite, who are disproportionately likely to be stably married, to preach what they practice—to not only enjoy the benefits of marriage in their private lives but also to advocate for them in public.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal on March 20, 2023, and written by Brendan Case and Ying Chen.
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