February 2009 – The common expression is “wedded bliss,” and despite some discouraging trends over the last few decades, marriage can be exactly that – blissful.
In fact, the statistics show that a healthy marriage is a boon to the married couple in almost every respect – providing advantages not obtained by singlehood (whether by choice or circumstance, such as divorce or being widowed) or cohabitation.
The benefits of a happy marriage
For decades the work of social scientists has revealed a plethora of advantages connected to the happily married.
In March 2008, for example, a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that couples with a happy marriage have safer blood pressure levels than single adults. The researchers from Brigham Young University said the married couples they studied had better blood pressure than even those singles who had “a network of supportive friends,” according to a BYU News press release.
Other studies have consistently showed that being married increases happiness, increases the chances of escaping poverty – even in America’s inner cities – and, as a corollary, is linked to greater wealth creation. There is even a decline in the abuse of drugs that appears to be uniquely attached to the married state.
Church attendance is also positively associated with married life. “It exaggerates only a little to say that Americans in their 20s and early 30s divide into two groups of about equal size: those who are married, the majority of whom participate in religion; and those who are not married, the majority of whom do not participate,” said sociology professor Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University.
Wuthnow made the comments at the Heritage Foundation in conjunction with the release of a new study that examined the link between marriage and church attendance. According to Citizenlink, he said men are 57% less likely to regularly attend church if they are single, while single women are 41% less likely than married women to attend.
Married people can also generally expect to live longer lives than people who are single, cohabiting, divorced or widowed.
A study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2006, conducted by Robert M. Kaplan of University of California-Los Angeles and Richard G. Kronick of UC-San Diego, concluded: “Controlling for demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, the death rate for people who were unmarried was significantly higher than it was for those who were married and living with their spouses. Although the effect was significant for all categories of unmarried, it was the strongest for those who had never married. … [Being currently married] is associated with longer survival.”
According to a Focus on the Family summary of the Kaplan study, “The researchers determined that those who had been widowed were 40% more likely to die than married people living with their spouses. Divorce and separation increased the likelihood of death by 27%. People who had never been married were 58% more likely to die.”
Of course, it must be remembered that these are generalities. Just because a man and a woman are married doesn’t guarantee lower blood pressure or longevity of life that rivals Methuselah.
Likewise there is the question of cause-and-effect in the study of human behavior. Social scientists can’t always say for certain whether married life causes benefits like, say, greater happiness, or whether people who are generally happier individuals are simply more likely to get married in the first place.
And we must always remember that being single is not a curse. Instead, the Apostle Paul said it is a state of being that in some ways actually allows a Christian to serve the Lord in a more focused fashion (1 Corinthians 7:32, 33).
Nevertheless, according to Kristin Anderson Moore, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, a happy marriage does provide a wealth of benefits for a husband and wife. “People who are married are healthier, are likely to live longer, are more satisfied with their jobs, have more social support, have more wealth and income, are less prone to mental disorders, and are involved in fewer unhealthy or risky behaviors than people who are not married or who are divorced,” she said.
Building a ‘healthy marriage’
While wedded bliss may be a reality backed by sociological science, it does not automatically result from saying, “I do,” at the altar. Hard work and following the basic rules of human relationships are necessary factors in the creation of a healthy marriage – which is the taproot of the happy marriage.
There’s also another truism: A healthy marriage is not a static reality. “Couples don’t either have a healthy marriage or not have it,” said Moore, who is also president of Child Trends, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research center that studies the factors affecting children and their families. “Rather, couples have healthy marriages to varying degrees, in varying respects, and the quality of the same marriage may differ over time.”
In a report titled, “What Is ‘Healthy Marriage?’ Defining the Concept,’” Moore and other Child Trends researchers stated: “If the partners are interested and motivated, a healthy marriage is capable of being built, changed, or modified.”
Moore listed some of the characteristics of a healthy marriage that have been substantiated by social science research. Among them are things Christians have been hearing about for years in marriage seminars and sermons about marriage.
Communication, for example, is a key element. But Moore insisted that “it is not the sheer amount of communication that is important” but the content of it – the “quality and nature of the communication.”
For example, she said, “researchers have identified negative patterns such as ‘rejecting a wife’s influence,’ ‘negative start-up’ (starting conversations with blame or criticism), and ‘flooding’ (overwhelming your partner with negative expressions).”
On the other hand, communication that is more helpful is always respectful, Moore noted, being characterized by a willingness to compromise and, frequently, by a sense of humor.
Since every marriage experiences conflict sooner or later, the ability to handle disagreements or difficulties is also an important factor in a healthy marriage.
“The resolution of conflict may involve successful problem solving, of course; it may involve a respectful decision to ‘live and let live’; or it may involve mutual recognition that the sources of a couple’s conflict are external (e.g., high unemployment in their community),” Moore said.
Other important elements for a healthy marriage: plenty of interaction and time together, intimacy and emotional support.
A sense of ‘we-ness’
The factor most emphasized by Moore, however, is the commitment of the couple to the marriage. While that might seem like a no-brainer to most Christians, the tendency has been for social scientists to overlook commitment as a foundation stone for a healthy marriage.
Instead, the very approach to determining the benefits of marriage that produced some of the studies mentioned in this article comes from the dominant ethic in American culture: Individualism.
Blaine Fowers, chairman of the department of educational and psychological studies at the University of Miami, and Alan J. Hawkins, professor of family life at Brigham Young University, said in a report: “An individualistic perspective of marriage focuses on the benefits that partners derive from the relationship, and views the contributions that partners make to a relationship as investments that will provide a return of satisfaction, intimacy, support and reward.”
But commitment transcends the individual’s desire for self-satisfaction and moves a person to seek the benefit of the couple. It is a focus on what Fowers, Hawkins and others have called a sense of “we-ness.”
They said researchers needed to begin asking whether or not “what one gives in marriage is more important than what one receives in terms of understanding the stability and quality of the relationship.” (Emphasis in original.)
Commitment, Moore said, is “taking a long-term perspective toward one’s relationship, having an intention to persevere when difficulties arise, and being committed to caring for the other person.”
Indeed, some social science/psychological research is beginning to examine these “corporate aspects” of healthy marriages and discovering that “personal strengths or virtues such as generosity, loyalty and justice” are critical, Hawkins said. “These personal strengths may foster a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of the relationship,” as the individual participants in the marriage understand it in ways “that transcend individual experience.”
All this would be no surprise to John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and author of the soon-to-be-published book This Momentary Marriage. Piper believes the commitment of a husband and a wife to one another exceeds even romance as the cornerstone of the relationship.
“[S]taying married is not mainly about staying in love. It’s about covenant-keeping,” Piper said. “If a spouse falls in love with another person, one profoundly legitimate response from the grieved spouse and from the church is, ‘So what! Your being in love with someone else is not decisive. Keeping your covenant is decisive.’”
This is one reason that marriage is used as a metaphor for Christ’s relationship with the church. Piper said that ultimately “marriage is the display of God. It displays the covenant-keeping love between Christ and His people to the world in a way that no other event or institution does.”
This is a reality that is counter-intuitive to the world, “where the main idol is self, and its main doctrine is autonomy,” Piper said.
Unfortunately, it appears that way to many Christians, too, since studies show believers to be no less prone to divorce than nonbelievers. The church should be the one place where true commitment in marriage is most clearly expressed.
It would be sad if social scientists figured out the importance of commitment before Christians do.