It would be easy to bemoan the prevalence, at the present time, the decline of marriage and the negative attitudes that many people hold towards it. But, it seems, marriage is surprisingly good for you.
The decline of marriage
Here in the UK, Marriage rates are often quoted as being ‘at the lowest rate ever’. The 2011 census showed that married couple households were in the minority for the first time.
Between 2001 and 2011, the number of single people rose by 25%. 51% of the over-sixteens in the population are single (ie unmarried and not in a civil partnership). The number of divorced people has risen by 20%, and the number of people who are separated but not divorced has risen by a similar proportion.
All of this has a profound effect on family stability. It is striking that only 3% of couples who are still together by the time a child is 15 are unmarried.
Not content with either of these two alternatives, many have opted for the ‘middle ground’ – cohabitation. More that 75% of couples cohabit before getting married, and 1 in 4 children is born to cohabiting parents.
Loss of confidence in marriage
All of this represents a profound loss of confidence in marriage, even though many people don’t want to be single. As comedian Chris Rock asked, “Do you want to be single and lonely or married and bored?”
There is a widespread belief that most marriages are unhappy. One 24-year-old man decided never to marry. He said that he had announced his decision to his married friends and that they all acted jealous. He reckoned that at least 70% of married people must be unhappy in their relationships. A young woman responded by claiming that ‘Out of 10 married couples…7 are are miserable as hell…I’m getting married next year because I love my fiancée. However, if things change, I won’t hesitate to divorce him.”
After all, if up to 50% of marriages end in divorce, sure many of the remaining 50% must be pretty miserable as well? Isn’t cohabitation the way to go? Probably, many couples slip into cohabitation without thinking of the long-term consequences. But some will have thought more deliberately about it, and seen it as a ‘trial marriage’, improving the chances that if and when they do get married the chances of success will be higher.
However, while it is true that 42% of marriages end in divorce, by far the greatest number of divorces occur when the couple married when they were very young (under the age of 18) and had a baby together before marrying.
Yes, marriage is surprisingly good for you
Many young people favour cohabitation as a prelude to marriage because they want to achieve financial security and have their own home before ‘tying the knot’. But studies show that marriage has ‘surprising economic benefits’. Studies show that individuals who have been continuously married have 75% more wealth at retirement compared with those who have never married or who divorced and did not remarry. Strikingly, married men earn up to 40% more than their single counterparts from similar educational backgrounds.
How do we account for the ‘economic benefits’ of marriage? One reason is that married people enjoy greater physical and mental health. Another is that marriage provides a ‘shock absorber’ against various difficulties encountered during one’s life. Yet another is that the commitment of marriage encourages responsibility and accountability towards one’s spouse: married people help one another to earn, save, and spend wisely.
It is clear that many people underestimate the prospects for a good marriage. Surveys report that a high proportion – over 60% – of couples say they are ‘very happy’ in their marriages. Even more strikingly, studies show that two-thirds of unhappy marriages will become happy within five years if the couples stay married and do not get divorced.
The following statement, from a US source, almost certainly holds true in the UK: ‘If you are a reasonably well-education person with a decent income, come from an intact family and are religious, and marry after twenty-five without having a baby first, your chances of divorce are low indeed.’
The great preponderance of research evidence shows that people who are married consistently show much higher degrees of satisfaction with their lives than those who are single, divorced, or living with a partner. It also reveals that most people are happy in their marriages, and most of those who are not and who don’t get divorced eventually become happy. Also, children who grow up in married, two-parent families have two to three times more positive life outcomes than those who do not. The overwhelming verdict, then, is that being married and growing up with parents who are married are enormous boosts to our well-being.
Based on Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, 2011, pp22-26.
Where possible, statistics have been replaced by UK equivalents. See:-