The Myth that Married People Are Superior: Challenge It at Your Peril

angry-man-274175_960_720The belief that marriage makes people happier and healthier and better off in all sorts of other ways, too, is entrenched in our thinking. It is not just any old belief, it is an ideology in which Americans (and others) have become deeply invested.

A whole structure of think tanks and organizations has been created to promote traditional marriage and family. The groups seem to be well-funded. Perpetuating claims about the superiority of married people seems to be an important part of their mission. I don’t think they expected those claims to be used in legal arguments supporting same-sex marriage, but they have been.

The purported personal and interpersonal benefits of getting married are supposedly based on science. Tens of thousands of scholarly books and articles about marriage have been published. Generations of scholars have developed careers based on researching marriage; often that means doing studies that presumably show that getting married makes people happier, healthier, less depressed, more connected to other people, and so forth. There are advanced degree programs in marriage and family, undergraduate courses, textbooks, funding for research, and numerous journals dedicated to publishing the research findings. Central to the whole enterprise is the assumption that marriage is good for us.

There’s a lot at stake, and not just for all the groups and individuals dedicated to the belief that getting married improves people’s health and well-being and connection to society. Those of us who are not married are demeaned by those beliefs. Our lives are cast as second rate. We are stereotyped and stigmatized. The purported superiority of married people probably also makes it easier for others to justify the wide array of benefits, protections and privileges accorded only to people who are legally married – if it even occurs to them that such policies need justification.

There was a time, more than two decades ago, when my area of scholarly expertise had nothing at all to do with single life. All I knew about the implications of getting married was what I heard in the media. I had no reason to disbelieve the headlines proclaiming that marriage makes most people happier and healthier (even though marriage was never something I wanted for myself).

Once I decided to change my area of interest to single life, I started reading the original research reports on marital status and outcomes such as physical health, mental health, happiness, self-esteem, interpersonal ties, and more. I was stunned by what I found. The studies that were done, and the comparisons that were made, simply could not support the strong claims and generalizations I had been hearing all my adult life.

I say that as someone who has taught graduate courses in research methods and has more than 100 scholarly publications. But really, the problems with the claims that have been made are so fundamental that no training at all should be necessary to understand them.

Recently, a study was published that is probably the most definitive challenge to date to the claim that getting married makes people healthier. I wrote about it, and about a growing stack of studies that challenge the related belief that getting married makes people happier. I submitted my article to the op-ed section of the New York Times, and much to my surprise and delight, they published it. The title they gave it was, “Get married, get healthy? Maybe not.

In the op-ed, I explained one of the key problems with the kinds of studies and comparisons that are used to support the claim that marriage makes people happier. Basically, when researchers tell us that married people are doing better than people who are not married, and that single people would do better, too, if only they would get married, they are including in the marriage group only the people who are currently married. They are setting aside the people who marry and then divorce – probably more than 40 percent – and often end up less happy or healthy than when they were single. Obviously, if you decide to get married, you could end up divorced. (Read the original op-ed to see the argument in more detail.)

That’s just one problem. Another, that I did not mention in the op-ed, is that even if the people who choose to marry really do end up happier and healthier, that would not necessarily mean that if single people got married, they would benefit, too. The people who marry and the people who live single are different people, with different preferences and values and desires. Some single people are single because they want to be. They embrace what single life has to offer. If they were badgered into marrying, it is doubtful they would benefit from the experience.

What is going to happen now? What will be the response of the people and institutions who have been perpetuating the claims about the superiority of married people and who have a lot invested in those claims?

By the very next morning, there was a critique in The Deseret News, a Salt Lake City paper. Interestingly, the author did not dispute my claim that marrying does not result in lasting improvements to health or happiness. He just said I was being superficial to focus on health and happiness. Marrying and having children, he said, was “about answering the higher moral call to expand one’s ability to love and serve while extending that opportunity to others.” It is about sacrifice, rather than purposefully choosing “to kill their prospects of marriage in exchange for greater personal comfort or health.” In other words, we unmarried people are selfish. (What he doesn’t know is that there are quite a few studies suggesting just the opposite.)

Others will challenge my conclusions. The director of the National Marriage Project, one of the most powerful of the pro-marriage organizations, let me know that a critique is being prepared.

A distinguished scholar of marriage advised me to be careful about generalizing or letting the pendulum swing too far in the other direction (toward the side of single people). Of course, the pendulum has never been on the side of single people, and writings on marriage are chock-full of generalizations about the supposed superiority of married people.

I have to admit that I’m apprehensive about what’s to come. What I am challenging is no small thing. The reactions are likely to be intense, maybe even personal. But it is time for us to have this conversation.

 

[Here’s something else I just published a few days ago: “Single workers aren’t there to pick up the slack for their married bosses and coworkers.” Also take a look at my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single,” if you are interested. And, this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life is always available. Check out my website, too, if you’d like.]

[Notes: (1) The opinions expressed here do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (2) The comment option on the UE website has been invaded by spammers, so I have disabled comments for now. I’ll post all these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there. (3) For links to previous columns, click here.]

bella-ocean-backgr-347-dpi-smallerAbout the Author: Bella DePaulo (PhD, Harvard), a long-time member of Unmarried Equality, is the author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After and How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century, among other books. She writes the “Living Single” blog for Psychology Today and the “Single at Heart” blog for Psych Central. Visit her website at www.BellaDePaulo.com and take a look at her TEDx talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.”

About Bella DePaulo