September 25, 2018

In a fascinating study appearing in the June 2018 issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, two Ohio State University scholars aim to answer whether marriage improves people’s general physical and emotional health, or whether healthier people are simply more apt to marry in the first place. Social scientists have long held that marriage is generally good for people, with obvious exceptions (such as for spouses in abusive relationships). Indeed, the claim was a component of the push for civil same-sex marriage. The authors here focus on a different aspect of this debate. What’s at stake — in their minds — is whether “marriage promotion” initiatives are worth it. Such efforts, like the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, tend to fall short of what they hope to accomplish and subsequently wind up on the budget-cut chopping block. Indeed, it’s hard to stimulate marriage in America when the institution has been in a slow-but-steady decline for over 45 years.

So, forget the political consequences for a moment (since they are modest) and be satisfied with the intellectual questions. Just how effective is matrimony for those who most need the health benefits of marriage? Does marriage improve the physical and mental health of those who enter in? Or, is it unequal in its effects? Or, is the marriage effect largely ephemeral?

This is a study aimed at better understanding the concept of “self-selectivity.” That is, big decisions like marrying are not random. Neither is delaying marriage, a quite popular pattern today. Some people are more apt to pursue marrying, or to avoid or delay it, than others. Does this fact shape the experience of being married, too? It would seem to. Failure to wrestle with this means we could overestimate the health benefits of marriage. (Marriage’s financial benefits, on the other hand, seem obvious.) The matter of “selection” is a little like thinking about the effect of getting an Ivy League degree. Ivy Leaguers are more apt to succeed than graduates of state universities, but does something special happen to them at Ivy League schools, or are students who attend such places simply more apt to succeed regardless of where they went to college? That’s the question about marriage: Is it the marriage, or is it the kind of person who marries — or who stays married — that leads to better long-term mental and physical health?

There are several competing theories being tested here, including the notion that marriage’s benefits are entirely “selective” and, therefore, not something that happens due to being married. Others hold that there are health benefits of marriage, and they’re greatest for those least likely to marry. Still others hold that the benefits accrue more to those already most likely to marry due to a “synergistic” or exponential effect; that is, marriage is a springboard to better and better health for those already apt to be healthy. The authors assess these theories using data from a large, high-quality, nationally-representative longitudinal survey project.

What do they find? A mixed bag, as is often the case in social science. There is a marriage effect on health, but it’s not a profound one. The authors conclude that, on average:

[M]arriage was associated with better self-rated health, but the magnitude of this difference was less than 0.2 points on a scale with 1 to 5 points. Similarly, marriage was associated with an average improvement of < 1 point on a 23-point scale of depressive symptoms.

Though they throw in a lot of variables in their effort to predict the “propensity to marry,” continuous marriage remains influential on health for a variety of populations. That, I hold, is noteworthy. A population-level effect is nothing to scoff at. It means we know a little bit more about how marriage’s benefits can be shared widely.

Not satisfied with simply documenting a straightforward, beneficial effect of modest size, the authors explored further, grouping survey respondents into different “propensity strata”— based on how likely they were to marry — to see if marriage benefits each of these groups similarly or differentially. The answer, predictably, is the latter. But the effects of marriage on diminished depression are most pronounced for women less likely to marry and for men who most likely to marry. How interesting. What we lack, unfortunately, is a good explanation for this. Sadly, talking openly about sex differences is not in vogue, even if it seems like an obvious, fruitful discussion.

The authors observe, again predictably, that “continuous marriage may be associated with better health than marriage disrupted by separation or divorce…” That, too, makes sense, although the effects were still modest. When they focus only on “continuous marriage” — that is, staying married to one person — the effects of marriage on health are stronger for men than for women.

That the authors found effects of marriage on health at all, when applying a complex model accounting for respondents’ likelihood to marry or not, stands out here. Other studies don’t always detect a beneficial marriage effect. But then, lots of studies aren’t as rigorous as this one.

In the end, the authors conclude that marriage promotion makes little sense, despite the benefits of marrying. Why? I suspect it’s the cost-benefit problem with modest effects that come at a steep price. They need not worry, since I’m unaware of large-scale public spending on marriage promotion coming down the pike anytime soon.

On the other hand, an end to the popular disparaging of marriage in elite, scholarly, and media circles cannot come soon enough.

About the Author

Mark Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a senior fellow at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. His research is in the areas of sexual behavior, family, marriage, and religion. Mark is the author of over 40 published articles and book chapters, and three books.

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