Marriage … only a piece of paper?

By Glenn Stanton*

June 1996 – Social science research conducted since the turn of the twentieth century reveals that marriage matters – and matters greatly – in the lives of children, adults and societies. It is consistently found that marriage improves the physical and mental health and longevity of men and women. On the whole, married people do better in every measure of specific and general well-being than their unmarried counterparts.

Given this data, traditional, life-long marriage – as a norm for family life – has no peer. Cohabitation and stepfamilies fail to produce the same positive benefits. In fact, both produce a significant level of harmful consequences. The research on this point is clear.

Benefits of marriage
A meta-analysis of 93 separate published studies conducted by a team of researchers at Texas A&M University found:

Perhaps the most consistent finding concerning the state of marriage is its association with enhanced positive well-being and attenuated negative outcomes for both men and women. Married individuals report lower rates of psychological symptoms than do the unmarried, and they seek psychological services less frequently.

These scientists conclude their finding was consistent with both males and females but “the favorable outcomes proved stronger for women than men.” This team of women researchers explain that their findings contradict the “picture of the ‘grim mental health’ of wives [that] was popularized by Betty Friedan and Jesse Bernard and further promoted by social scientists adopting a feminist perspective.”

A UCLA review of more than 130 published empirical studies measuring how marital status affects personal well-being concluded that scientific investigations, conducted from the 1930s to the present, found “[v]irtually every study of mortality and marital status shows the unmarried of both sexes have higher death rates, whether by accident, disease, or self-inflicted wounds, and this is found in every country that maintains accurate health statistics.”

Regarding mental health, research done in England and published in the Journal of Medical Psychology reports, “for women, greater psychological distress is associated with...not living as married.”

A recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and the Family explains that a fairly sizable proportion of presently cohabiting – not married – women reported that their “economic security and emotional security would be better if they were married.”

Contrary to the popular notion, cohabitation does not serve as an effective testing ground for marriage. Sociologists at the Universities of Chicago and Michigan explain that the “expectation of a positive relationship between cohabitation and marital stability… has been shattered in recent years by studies conducted in several Western countries.”  They continue, “Those who cohabit before marriage have substantially higher divorce rates than those who do not; the recorded differentials range from 50% to 100%.  Cohabitants who do marry experience more trouble in their marriages than those who do not cohabit before marriage. Specifically, research done at UCLA revealed that marriage preceded by cohabitation is more prone to problems often associated with other deviant lifestyles    e.g., use of drugs and alcohol, more permissive sexual relationships, and an abhorrence of dependence – than is marriage not preceded by cohabitation.

Men and women are much less likely to be assaulted if they are married. The Family Violence Research Program at the University of New Hampshire reports that violence among couples was twice as high among cohabitants compared to marrieds, and that severe violence was nearly five times higher for cohabitants than for marrieds.

Remarriage, stepfamilies
In addition, stepfamilies do not mirror intact families. These families experience significantly higher rates of conflict and lower rates of well-being.  Dr. Nicholas Zill, a noted authority on the long-term effects of divorce on children, found that there is “no clear evidence that remarriage has a protective or ameliorative effect against the negative consequences of family discord and disruption, and that remarriage, which usually brings a reliable second income to the family, did not appear to have an overall protective effect.”

Dr. Sara McLanahan, a sociologist at Princeton University, explains, “Living in a stepfamily appears to be just as risky as living with a single mother, and in some cases, the risk is even greater.”

Dr. Frank Furstenberg at the University of Pennsylvania states that “most studies show that children in stepfamilies do not do better than children in single-parent families; indeed, many indicate that on average, children in remarriages do worse.”

Given the findings of social science researchers, it is critical that we rediscover a cultural norm for family life in America and hold it up as an ideal. That ideal should be the traditional two-parent family where mother and father strive for a healthy marriage and both participate in the daily care and nurturing of their biological or adopted children. There is an impressive and encouraging body of data to show that this model is the best means to improve the health and well-being of the world’s citizenry, both male and female.    

* This brief is taken from a research report entitled “Only A Piece of Paper?” The Unquestionable Benefits of Lifelong Marriage by Glenn T. Stanton of Focus on the Family. Copies of the complete report can be obtained for a donation of $8 by calling Focus on the Family, 1-800-A-FAMILY, and requesting “Only A Piece of Paper?” (FC053).