Marriage Boosts Mental Health

Research done by the Center for Marriage and Families and the Institute for American Values shows that marriage on average boosts the mental health of both adults and children. Married adults experience higher levels of emotional well-being and lower levels of mental illness than do single and divorced adults. Children whose parents do not get and stay married have increased risk of mental illness that will continue long into adulthood, even after controlling for pre-divorce marital conflict. Cohabitation does not typically appear to provide the same mental health benefits as marriage. Overall, research strongly supports the idea that marriage is an important factor in fostering positive mental health for women, men, and children.

Many international studies show that married people on average report fewer signs of psychological distress and higher rates of emotional well-being than do unmarried or divorced individuals. In fact, a ten-year study that followed 14,000 American adults found marital status to be one of the most important predictors of happiness. Married Americans were more than twice as likely as divorced, separated, never-married, and widowed Americans to report being very happy with life in general. Reports also show that just 7 percent of married Americans say they are “not too happy” with life in general, compared to 13 percent of singles, 18 percent of the divorced, and 27 percent of those currently separated. Another study that looked at emotional health among Americans in their fifties and early sixties found that just 17 percent of older wives and 14 percent of older husbands characterized their emotional health as fair or poor, compared to 28 percent of unmarried older women and 27 percent of unmarried older men.

When it comes to protecting emotional health, cohabitation is not the functional equivalent of marriage.  Instead, international research suggests that cohabitors more closely resemble single individuals in their mental health profiles.

Married men and women report fewer symptoms of mental illness and psychological distress than do similar individuals who are not married because marriage itself appears to boost mental health. Remaining unmarried or getting divorced seems to result, on average, in a deterioration in mental well-being.

Divorce doubles the risk that children will experience serious psychological problems later in life, even after controlling for pre-divorce characteristics. An extensive study done in Sweden found that children raised in single-parent families were 56 percent more likely as an adult to show signs of mental illness than children from intact married homes. Two other studies done in Australia found that the children of divorce in their sample were significantly more likely to suffer from mental illness, addictions, and thoughts of suicide.

The results of another important British study that followed more than 11,000 children from birth through age 33 indicate that divorce itself has further negative effects, and that children and teens who experience parental divorce are more likely to have adverse mental health effects even into their twenties and thirties. A study of 534 Iowa families found that divorce increased the risk of depression in children. Part of the negative effect of divorce on children’s risk of depression stemmed from the impact of divorce on mothers’ and fathers’ parenting skills. However, even when mothers and fathers remained involved and supportive and did not engage in conflict post-divorce, boys whose parents divorced were at increased risk for depression.

On average, remarriage does not improve the psychological well-being of children, and children of cohabiting couples show poorer emotional health than children in married, two-parent families.  In fact, their emotional health closely resembles children in remarried and single-parent families. There is some evidence that the psychological effects of divorce differ depending on the level of conflict between parents prior to the divorce, and very different results are often found when the marital conflict is high and sustained. However, when marital conflict is low, studies agree that children suffer psychologically from divorce. Currently, about two-thirds of American divorces are occurring among low-conflict couples.

High rates of family fragmentation are strongly linked to an increased risk of suicide among both adults and children. One study of 80,000 suicides in the United States found that widowed and divorced people were about three times as likely to commit suicide as married people. Overall, married men are only half as likely as single men, and one-third as likely as divorced men, to take their own life. Widowers face about the same suicide risk as the divorced, except for younger widowers, who face sharply elevated rates. They are up to nine times more likely than married men to commit suicide.  Married women were also substantially less likely to commit suicide than divorced, widowed or never married women.

In the last half-century, suicide rates among adolescents and young adults have tripled. According to an important study by David Cutler, Edward Glaeser, and Karen Norberg, the most important explanatory variable is the increasing number of youth living in homes with a divorced parent, which represents as much as two-thirds of the increase in youth suicides over time.

Longitudinal research from the Monitoring the Future study confirms that when young men and women marry they typically adopt healthier lifestyles, which includes smoking less, drinking less, and using illegal drugs less.  On the other hand, individuals who simply cohabit show no reduction in their tobacco or illegal drug use and do not reduce their alcohol consumption to the same degree as newly married couples.

Single men drink almost twice as much as married men of the same age. A recent national survey reported that one out of four young single men (ages 19 to 26) say their drinking causes them problems at work or problems with aggression, compared to about one in seven married men the same age.  Divorced and widowed men also show substantially more problems with alcohol than similarly aged married men.

One way in which marriage protects children’s well-being is by protecting mothers’ well-being.  Maternal depression is both a serious mental health problem for women and a serious risk factor for children. Mothers who are not married face substantially higher risks of depression. One study of 2,300 urban parents of preschoolers, found the risk of depression to be substantially greater for unmarried than married people.

Marriage protects the mental health of adults and children in many ways.  Married people on average have better physical health and experience less economic hardship, which reduces many sources of stress that lead to psychological problems.  Married people also have a constant source of social support, and using one’s spouse to talk over problems boosts mental health and personal well-being in a variety of ways. The public, permanent commitment that married people have made to one another through sickness and health and in good times and bad also contributes to mental health and emotional well-being.  The help of a spouse is unique and can not be completely replaced by friends, parents, or the community in times of need.  Thus, marriages should be fought for and valued and marriage counseling is a great tool to assist couples in strengthening their relationship and working through issues.

W. Bradford Wilcox, Linda Waite, and Alex Roberts, “Marriage and Mental Health in Adults and Children,” Research Brief No. 4, February 2007.

Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, The Case for Marriage: Why Married People are Healthier, Happier, and Better-Off Financially (Doubleday, 2000).

Why Marriage Matters, Second Edition: Twenty-Six Conclusions from the Social Sciences (Institute for American Values, 2005).

The Consequences of Marriage for African Americans: A Comprehensive Literature Review (Institute for American Values, 2005).