Many people today wonder whether marriage is really necessary. Judging by statistics on marriage rates, particularly among younger adults, it is an institution that no longer holds a lot of meaning or purpose for large numbers of people. Women especially are often considered to be better off without husbands.
Certainly, a lack of religious belief and practice plays a big role in this growing trend, but marriage has been the bedrock of many cultures for a very long time — people of differing beliefs and customs around the world have viewed it as fundamental to the health of their societies. And research over the years supports this ancient wisdom importance. The latest, a new study on women’s health and happiness, shows that marriage is significantly beneficial to women.
The study published in Global Epidemiology included 11,830 American female nurses who were all unmarried and then compared those who married over a four year period with those who remained unmarried. The researchers looked at how all of these women faired after 25 years, in terms of mental and physical health and longevity, accounting for things like age, race, and socioeconomic status. What they found was that marriage still matters — a lot. From an article in the Wall Street Journal, written by two of the study’s authors, Brendan Case and Ying Chen:
Our findings were striking. The women who got married in the initial time frame, including those who subsequently divorced, had a 35% lower risk of death for any reason over the follow-up period than those who did not marry in that period. Compared to those who didn’t marry, the married women also had lower risk of cardiovascular disease, less depression and loneliness, were happier and more optimistic, and had a greater sense of purpose and hope.
Divorce vs. staying married
The researchers also looked at the effects of divorce versus staying married.
Among those who were already married at the start of the study, divorce was associated with consistently worse subsequent health and well-being, including greater loneliness and depression, and lower levels of social integration. There was also somewhat less robust evidence that women who divorced had a 19% higher risk of death for any reason over the 25 years of follow-up than those who stayed married. Given how many factors influence health and well-being (genes, diet, exercise, environment, social network, etc.), the fact that marriage could reduce 25-year mortality by more than a third—and that divorce could possibly increase it by nearly a fifth—indicates how important it remains even for modern life.
There were limits to the study, of course. It primarily looked at mostly white, professional women who were making decisions to marry between 1989-1993. But the researchers say they are confident in their conclusions. Now, they want to see the same kind of study applied to men, since previous research has shown that marriage is even better for men’s health and wellness than women’s.
The value of such studies is not simply that they can substantiate what people of faith already know, but that they show real, human benefits. Everyone wants to be healthy and happy, and if that’s a clear advantage of marriage for everyone — across beliefs and cultures — then studies like this can serve to motivate civic leaders to promote marriage on many different levels.
Note: The results of this study and others like it do not mean that there are never reasons to separate from a spouse, which is sometimes necessary. If you are experiencing marital problems, please seek out the help of a qualified marriage therapist. Additionally, marriage is not for everyone. The Catholic Church has a long tradition of celebrating different vocations, and calls all people to holiness no matter their state in life.