March 1, 2018

It’s hardly news that the institution of marriage has dramatically changed over the past few decades. In a 2004 article, sociologist Andrew Cherlin described society’s declining expectations about how we form, maintain, and exit marriage as its “deinstitutionalization.” In an era of deinstitutionalized marriage, then, individuals are liberated or burdened – depending on your perspective – to pursue romantic relationships on their own negotiated terms rather than as dictated by societal norms.

Scholars have speculated whether the benefits of marriage seen in past research – better health and finances, greater civic engagement, etc. –  have diminished with this deinstitutionalization. That is, are the benefits of marriage disappearing as marriage becomes less distinct from being single? A recent study published in Social Science Quarterly seems to have found evidence that, yes, the protective health benefits of marriage have shrunk in the United States.

Dimitry Tumin of The Ohio State University College of Medicine made use of nearly 30 years of nationally-representative, longitudinal data to track the protective health benefits of marriage over time. Using the most rigorous statistical techniques available, he found that health improvements from marriage (relative to remaining unmarried) have diminished and can only be seen among women who have been married for more than ten years.

If replicated, Tumin’s findings will have important implications for the institution of marriage and its impact on society. His study, however, has some important limitations. As Tumin himself acknowledges, its measure of “health” is a self-reported, single item on one’s general health. Though researchers think this measure is a good indicator of later health outcomes, studies that lack measures of specific health behaviors (e.g., substance use) may be more sensitive. Tumin also ignores mental health, where the benefits of marriage may be most significant.

Additionally, positive health effects were still evident for those who have been married for longer periods of time, at least for women. This benefit disappeared for the cohort of married women born between 1975 and 1984, but relatively few of them would have been married longer than 10 years when the data were collected in 2011. If it takes time for health benefits to accumulate, then this last cohort may yet show gains as they and their marriages mature. In fact, the most important health benefits of marriage may show up in mid- and later life, when health issues become more common. A large body of research, for instance, documents how older married individuals tend to outlive their unmarried peers.

Tumin is generally careful to acknowledge these limitations and we should always recall that a single study cannot definitively answer any research question. Still, he concludes his article stating, carefully, that “[T]hese findings give further reason for skepticism about the capacity of marriage to enhance the public health.”

Unfortunately, many media outlets reporting on Tumin’s research were less circumspect and nuanced about his findings than their author. In fact, several truncated his conclusions to proclaim that marriage no longer provides a health benefit to those who marry. Yahoo Lifestyle proclaims:

[Y]oung married people aren’t any healthier than their single counterparts. In other words, marriage’s magical life-giving powers are weakening as time passes.

While the Reader’s Digest concludes:

If you are looking for a way to stay healthy and live longer, tying the knot may not be the best or the cheapest option.

And Refinery29 reports:

[I]f you genuinely love the single life (as plenty of people do), this new research indicates that your health isn’t doomed simply because you don’t want to marry.

Not only do these oversimplify Tumin’s conclusions, they ignore his calls for additional research.

Still, we should watch to see if researchers continue to find evidence that marriage’s protective health benefits are diminishing. Tumin’s original hypothesis was that the deinstitutionalization of marriage – the erosion of social norms that blur the distinctions between being married and unmarried – should reduce the benefits of marriage. We can’t be surprised, then, at his findings. As he summarizes:

Recent evidence that marriage weakly influences health may reflect demographic and cultural trends that have undermined the protective effects of marriage.

For instance, marriage is no longer much of a transition for most young people: Almost all are sexually intimate before marriage, and most cohabit for a significant period before marrying. Additionally, many already have made major purchases together as a couple. There even appears to be a growing number of young people rejecting the quintessential marital norm of monogamy.

While popular media have used Tumin’s study as a bullhorn to hail the virtues of the single life and dismiss the importance of marriage, they have missed the most important implication of his research: The deinstitutionalization of marriage may be eroding the benefits of marriage for its members, reducing overall health and well-being in our society.

About the Author

Alan J. Hawkins is the Camilla E. Kimball Endowed Professor of Family Life at Brigham University in Provo, Utah. His scholarship and outreach focuses on educational and policy interventions to help couples form and sustain healthy relationships and enduring marriages.

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