When it comes to the well-being of married vs. cohabitating couples, the wedded ones experience few advantages in psychological well-being, health or social ties, according to a new study in the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family (74:1).
The research, co-authored by Kelly Musick, associate professor of policy analysis and management at Cornell's College of Human Ecology, and sociologist Larry Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reports a spike in well-being immediately following both marriage and cohabitation as couples experienced a honeymoon period with higher levels of happiness and fewer depressive symptoms compared with singles. However, these advantages are short-lived.
Marriage and cohabitation both resulted in less contact with parents and friends compared with remaining single -- and these effects appeared to persist over time.
"We found that differences between marriage and cohabitation tend to be small and dissipate after a honeymoon period. Also while married couples experienced health gains -- likely linked to the formal benefits of marriage such as shared health care plans -- cohabiting couples experienced greater gains in happiness and self-esteem. For some, cohabitation may come with fewer unwanted obligations than marriage and allow for more flexibility, autonomy and personal growth," said Musick.
"Marriage has long been an important social institution, but in recent decades western societies have experienced increases in cohabitation, before or instead of marriage, and increases in children born outside of marriage," said Musick. "These changes have blurred the boundaries of marriage, leading to questions about what difference marriage makes in comparison to alternatives."
Previous research has sought to prove a link between marriage and well-being, but many studies compared marriage to being single, or compared marriages and cohabitations at a single point in time.
This study compares marriage to cohabitation while using a fixed-effects approach that focuses on what changes occur when single men and women move into marriage or cohabitation and the extent to which any effects of marriage and cohabitation persist over time.
The researchers used a sample from the National Survey of Families and Households of 2,737 single men and women, 896 of whom married or moved in with a partner over the course of six years. The study focused on key areas of well-being, considering questions on happiness, levels of depression, health and social ties.
"Compared to most industrial countries, America continues to value marriage above other family forms," concluded Musick. "However our research shows that marriage is by no means unique in promoting well-being and that other forms of romantic relationships can provide many of the same benefits."
The study was funded in part by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences.