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
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
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
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
Dr. Waite noted that Dr. Bernard similarly found married women
happier than single women, but relegated that fact to her book's
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
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
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
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
Perhaps, she suggested, this was what Jessie Bernard really