Print Post
  • Getting married was associated with moderate increases in happiness, purpose in life, hopefulness, and with moderate declines in depression and loneliness, per new study. Tweet This
  • We found substantial effects of marriage on a reduction in smoking, heart disease, stroke, and on all-cause mortality (on the order of 30%). Tweet This
  • Marriage is perhaps so ubiquitous among our species, and so vital across so many societies, because it promotes human flourishing in many ways at once. Tweet This

As Cole Porter taught us, when it comes to romantic love, “In Spain, the best upper sets do it / Lithuanians and Letts do it,” while across the pond, “some Argentines without means do it / People say in Boston even beans do it.” Legumes aside, Porter’s lyrics apply as well to marriage as to romance: in Lithuania, Argentina, and even puritanical Boston, men and women are still getting hitched. As the anthropologist Joseph Henrich notes, marriage is one of our species’ few near-universal cultural inheritances, perhaps standing as “the most primeval of human institutions.”1 If we peer over the horizon of human history, even our distant hominid ancestors seem to have engaged in long-term sexual pair-bonding. 

But perhaps we liberated moderns can leave all that behind. Perhaps, as Marx and Engels famously proclaimed,2 and as Lily Sánchez argued last Fall in Current Affairs, “the family,” as a “conservative project that limits human flourishing,” must be “abolished.” Sánchez and her fellow travelers are arguably pushing on an open door, however, as contemporary America seems to be well on its way to a post-conjugal future. In 2021, America recorded only 28 marriages per 1000 unmarried people, an all-time low, and down from 76.5 per 1000 in 1965. Moreover, the United States leads the world in having 23% percent of our children growing up in single-parent homes (in 2019), compared to 12% in Germany and just 3% in China. 

Contemporary detractors notwithstanding, these recent trends are alarming, since much empirical evidence in fact indicates that marriage promotes human flourishing, including increased longevity, lower depression, greater happiness, and better outcomes across the board for children.3 Meta-analyses of more rigorous longitudinal studies have indicated fairly consistent evidence for effects on physical health and longevity as well as mental health

This literature has, however, been subject to some important methodological critiques. For instance, isn’t it misleading—even a “cheater technique,” as one critic recently put it—to compare outcomes for the married to those for the divorced, given that only the married can get divorced? By bracketing failed marriages in this way, don’t we artificially inflate the value of existing marriages? 

In a recent study of marriage and divorce, we and our co-authors have taken on this question squarely, examining the effects on well-being, not of staying married, but rather of deciding to get married in the first place. We used data on 11,830 female nurses who were unmarried in 1989 and then compared those who married over the next four years to those who did not, and followed these groups for 25 years to examine their health and well-being outcomes—including divorce for those who married—later in life. 

Our analyses looked at a number of different well-being outcomes after 25 years, including physical health and longevity, health behaviors, psychological well-being, and depression, among others. Whenever possible, we also controlled for these same outcomes in 1989 prior to their marriage, along with many other social, demographic, economic and health-related variables. This helped to rule out the possibility either of confounding (that, e.g., economic advantage was promoting both happiness and marriage), or reverse causation (i.e., that the happy are simply more likely to get married). 

In spite of this more rigorous design, we found that marriage has strong positive effects on these women’s flourishing. Getting married was associated with moderate increases in happiness, purpose in life, and hopefulness, and with moderate declines in depression and loneliness. However, we also found substantial effects of marriage on the reduction in smoking, heart disease, stroke, and on all-cause mortality during the 25-year follow-up (on the order of 30% reductions). These remarkably strong benefits obtain even after we factored in the real risks marriage poses: the stress of raising young (or not-so-young) children, the partial loss of self-determination (and of closet space), and indeed, the possibility of the pain and disruption posed by divorce.

Why did marriage affect the women in our sample so profoundly? For many today, the positive association between marriage and women’s flourishing in particular will seem incongruous on its face: isn’t marriage “the problem that ha[d] no name” (at least until Betty Friedan gave it one), a prison which chained women to domestic drudgery and intellectual stultification? 

On the contrary, marriage seems to satisfy a number of social and psychological needs that are particularly pressing for women. For instance, unmarried adults are more likely to be lonely than the married. Of course, companionship and affection are goods desired by virtually everyone; nonetheless, women, on average, place a higher premium on socialization and on personal intimacy than do men,4 who have other things (often one thing in particular) on their mind.5 It stands to reason, then, that women would particularly benefit from marriage’s role in ensuring that most of us don’t have to walk through life alone.   

Marriage is also among our most stable sources of social support. Since the burdens of caring for young children fall more heavily on women than on men, and since women are more likely to want to focus primarily on caring for children than are men, it stands to reason that women would particularly benefit from an institution—not just marriage in general, but specifically lifelong monogamy—that encourages men to invest heavily in supporting just one woman and the children they bear together.6 Given that around 80% of single-parent households are headed by women, who often have to battle exhaustion and financial hardship in ensuring their children’s flourishing, it is hardly surprising that women strongly benefit in this respect as well from the support offered by marriage. 

The distinctive goods that women generally derive from marriage do not necessarily mean that they benefit more from this institution than do men. Indeed, some prior research has found that marriage promotes longevity and health even more for men than for women, perhaps in part because, as Henrich notes, “getting married and becoming a father lowers a man’s testosterone,” at least in monogamous societies.7 Besides inflicting men with the indignity of the “Dad Bod,” this “testosterone suppression system” helps “to reduce crime, violence, and zero-sum thinking,”8 discouraging the kinds of reckless behavior—bar fights, fast cars, running with the bulls, etc.— that account for much of men’s reduced life expectancy compared to women. 

Marriage is perhaps so ubiquitous among our species, and so vital across so many societies, because it promotes human flourishing in many ways at once, both meeting and harmonizing the distinctive needs and desires of men, women, and children. Today, we are effectively running a large-scale social experiment to see whether a human culture can long endure while marginalizing this “necessary society,” as Pope Leo X called it, from its traditional role in socializing sex and in nurturing children. We are sowing the wind, and should not be surprised if we reap the whirlwind.   

Brendan W. Case, Th.D. is the Associate Director for Research of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University and the author The Accountable Animal (T&T Clark, 2021). Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D., is John L. Loeb and Frances Lehman Loeb Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Director of the Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University. 

1. Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World (New York: Farrar, Giroux, & Strauss, 2020), pg. 72

2. Communist Manifesto, ch. 2, p. 24. 

3. This and the following four paragraphs are adapted in part from our recent Psychology Today blog post on this paper

4. Charles Murray, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class (Boston: Twelve, 2020), pgs. 52-64.

5. On sex-differences in libido, see: Carole Hooven, T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2021), pgs. 193-96. 

6. Op. cit., Hooven, pgs. 189-93. 

7. Op. Cit., Henrich, pg. 269. 

8. Ibid., 287.