Does it matter that marriage benefits men’s health slightly more than women’s?

A new study of 10,000 British adults born in 1958, reported in today’s Telegraph front page (with quote from me), finds that men do slightly better out of being married than women in terms of health. In other words, divorce and singleness don’t appear to have much of an effect on women.

Intuitively, the most likely reason that women’s health seems to vary less with marital status would seem to be that women tend to have stronger social networks than men. Social support is one of the most compelling explanations for why there might be a health gain from marriage at all. If women get a boost anyway from their friends, then being married matters less.

The study is good. It would have been very interesting indeed had it found huge differences. But it didn’t. The differences are pretty marginal and relate to things way above my grade called ‘fibinogens‘ and ‘hemostatic biofunction markers‘, whatever they are

But does any of this really matter anyway? Is an improvement in health – or lack of it – a good reason for being a fan of marriage – or not?

It’s definitely the case that some supporters of marriage bang the drum on the basis that married people tend to be happier, healthier and wealthier, and live longer. I’m not one of them. I won’t turn down a study that produces these findings! I just don’t think they are the big deal. In any case, it’s a research nightmare trying to disentangle all the other effects of daily life and the characteristics of who marries and who doesn’t. Do happy & healthy people marry or does marriage make people happy & healthy? You know the story.

For me, the important issue about marriage is about staying together. If you get married, you’re much more likely to stay together. Full stop. That’s good for the parents. Most importantly, it’s good for the children.

There’s a sea of evidence that children do better if they are brought up by two parents rather than one. Two parents means two pairs of hands, more resources of time and money, and the influence of both father and mother. Parents are much more likely to stay together as a couple if they married before the child was born.

Our recent research showed that among mothers of 15 year olds, 24% of couples who were married before their child was born had split up, 56% of couples who had married after their child was born had split up, and 69% of couples who had never married had also split. Age and education did not account for these differences.

This is the huge gap on which we should be concentrating.

It may well be the case that parents’ health or wealth or happiness or longevity is materially improved by getting married and staying married. But that’s a bonus at best and not the point anyway.

Couples tend to stay together if they get married and tend not to if they don’t. That’s what really matters.


One thought on “Does it matter that marriage benefits men’s health slightly more than women’s?

  1. Harry,

    Happiness is subjective! It would be strange to find that married women are “happier” than unmarried, as if there was a deficiency in not being in a relationship. Why would single people be “unhappy” simply because they are not married?
    Happiness has no objective mark. It’s personal opinion. In individual may consider they are “happy” in life, cohabiting their partner, but they’ve no comparison. People in poverty (relative) around the world can be happy and content, compared to us. Does not mean we approve of poverty.
    Health has too many variants and other influences, diet, lifestyle etc.

    A single person may be much “happier” than their married counterpart, they may work, have money to spend, focus on self, do what they want, whereas a husband and wife who puts their family first may not be as “happy”, they have to budget, go without, have less time for self, give their time and energy for the good of their family. It’s all subjective opinion.

    I don’t like the assumption “long term relationship”. It has little objective value and does not determine the future. You cannot presuppose a “long term relationship” means there is future commitment, because a future commitment has not been made, only a past one.

    Many people are “happy” in their current relationship or singleness. But that is influenced often by past bad experiences not captured. Betrayal and abuse, or it just not working out in a casual relationship, is then the benchmark for “happiness”. I.e, I’m “happy” not married living with xxxxx. My last partner dumped me after days,weeks,years of me giving myself, or we had a bad break up.
    A broken heart will be happier with a relationship, compared to their previous experience.
    It’s all subjective, and not a good basis to assess accurately and objectively, health and well being.
    What does it say about children?

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