NY Times August 4, 1998
Debunking the Marriage Myth: It Works for Women, Too
By HARA ESTROFF MARANO

There is a brand new recipe for a healthy life. The basic ingredients are a low-fat diet, regular exercise -- and marriage.

Countering conventional wisdom that marriage is bad for women but good for men, a University of Chicago researcher says she has found that marriage brings considerable benefits to both women and men. It lengthens life, substantially boosts physical and emotional health and raises income over that of single or divorced people or those who live together, she says.

The researcher, Dr. Linda J. Waite, a professor of sociology, presented her findings in July at the second annual Smart Marriages Conference in Washington.

"This is definitely a public health issue," Dr. Waite said. "People need to know the facts so they can make good decisions. Marriage is good for everyone. But I'm battling a deeply entrenched, if dangerous and false, belief."

The notion that marriage damages women's emotional well-being derives from the 1972 publication of "The Future of Marriage" (Yale University Press) by the sociologist Jessie S. Bernard, who died in 1996 at the age of 93. In it, she reported that married men are better off than single men on four measures of psychological distress: depression, neurotic symptoms, phobic tendency and passivity. But married women, she said, score higher on these negative traits than single women.

Although the findings were never replicated and were disputed even then, they entered the lore of the field and of popular culture. "They helped de-romanticize marriage" at a time when that was needed, said Dr. William J. Doherty, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota.

"They matched the then-evolving belief that marriage is an oppressive institution for women."

Since the 1970's, researchers have come up with better measures of emotional health, and on these, married women and men generally score very well. Further, in the last two years several large studies that tracked people in and out of relationships over a long period have produced evidence that marriage actually causes psychological well-being in both sexes.

By contrast, Dr. Bernard's material consisted of one-time glimpses of people's lives. While both Dr. Bernard and Dr. Waite based their conclusions on data from many studies, reducing the likelihood that either was reporting a fluke, marriage itself has changed in the intervening years in ways that generally make women happier.

Dr. Waite told the conference that her curiosity was aroused four years ago when she stumbled across "the marriage mortality benefit" -- statistics showing that married men and women live longer.

In a large national sample of adults followed for 18 years beginning at the age of 48, slightly more than 60 percent of divorced and never-married women made it to 65, as opposed to nearly 90 percent of married women. Widowed women, for reasons not entirely clear, fared almost as well as married women. Among men, however, those unmarried for any reason -- whether widowed, divorced or never married -- had only a 60 to 70 percent chance of living to 65, versus 90 percent for married men.

Since then, Dr. Waite has found that "marriage changes people's behavior in ways that make them better off." Married partners monitor each other's health, for example. They also drink less alcohol and use less marijuana and cocaine.

>From detailed reports on 50,000 men and women followed from their senior year in high school to the age of 32 by University of Michigan researchers, Dr. Waite discerned a steep increase in "bad behaviors" among those who stayed single, but a "precipitous drop" in bad behaviors like the use of alcohol or illegal drugs among those who married.

Drawing heavily on a study of 13,000 adults assessed in 1987 and 1988 and again in 1992 and 1993, Dr. Waite demonstrated the positive impact that marriage has on mental health. The study, conducted by two psychologists at the University of Wisconsin, Nadine F. Marks and James D. Lambert, will be published in November in The Journal of Family Issues.

It is not just that people who remained married reported significantly higher levels of happiness than those who remained single. The data showed that those who separated or divorced over the five-year period became, in Dr. Waite's word, miserable.

Men and especially women who married for the first time during the course of the study experienced a sharp increase in happiness. Remarriage, however, brought only a modest increase in happiness.

Dr. Waite noted that Dr. Bernard similarly found married women happier than single women, but relegated that fact to her book's appendix.

In addition, marriage appeared to reduce the degree of depression. Men and especially women whose marriages ended over the five-year period experienced high levels of depression compared with those who stayed married. Single men as a group were depressed at the outset of the study and became more depressed if they stayed single.

Compelling as he found these data, Dr. Doherty, the University of Minnesota professor, noted that they represent population-based averages. They do not mean that everyone is better off married than single, or that people are bound to be happy and healthy if they marry the wrong person.

Dr. Shirley P. Glass, a clinical psychologist from Baltimore who is recognized for her research on infidelity, echoed those caveats.

One reason women are generally happier today, she added, is that they are working more like men. In addition, they are reaping more satisfaction from roles other than wife and mother.

Emotional health also hinges on satisfaction with sex, and in this realm marriage serves both men and women, but delivers a special bonus to women. First of all, Dr. Waite said, married people have sex twice as often as single people. Unmarried couples who live together also have an active sex lives but, like unmarried people, get less emotional satisfaction from it than married people, the studies found.

For married men, satisfaction hinges on sexual frequency, fidelity and emotional commitment to the relationship. For women, these elements are equally important, but just the fact of being married added an extra kick to their sexual satisfaction. "Men make an investment in pleasing their partner because of their ongoing relationship," Dr. Waite said. "People who are committed to a partner get more than sex out of sex."

Married people also have more money. From her own analysis of a National Institute of Aging survey of 12,000 people 51 to 61 years of age, Dr. Waite found that married people have more than twice as much money, on average, as unmarried people. Married couples not only save more while enjoying some economies of scale, but married men also earn up to 26 percent more than single men.

Similarly, married women earn more than unmarried women, but only if they have no children. When they have children, "they trade some time earning for time with their children," Dr. Waite said. If the women continue to work, she added, they have difficulty getting child care, and experience stress trying to balance two sets of demands.

Married women are not only happier and wealthier than single women, Dr. Waite found, they are also safer. Moderate domestic violence (defined as as hitting, shoving or throwing things at a partner) occurred half as often with married couples and cohabiting couples engaged to marry than it did with cohabiting couples not planning to marry.

The findings suggest that there is more to marriage than just a social bond. There appears to be something specifically protective about the long-term commitment that marriage entails.

Committed gay couples are likely to enjoy many of the same benefits, Dr. Waite said, as long as they promise to stay together and receive social support from others for staying together.

All told, marriage seems to be "an unmitigated good" for men, Dr. Waite added. For women, marriage indeed brings increased life satisfaction and happiness, but those benefits are "part of a package" that also includes family demands that are sometimes burdensome.

Perhaps, she suggested, this was what Jessie Bernard really meant.