Contrary to popular belief, marriage may actually be bad for women’s well-being and happiness, and several studies attempt to find out the real answer to that.
KEY POINTS- Researching marital effects on happiness is tricky because happier people are generally more likely to get married than others. Still, statistics suggest that the chance of marriage being happy is no better than 50 percent. Women, research finds, have a lower chance of finding a partner to love than men. But they're also more satisfied with living as a single person.
The book Happy Ever After The Myth of the Perfect Life by Paul Dolan made a splash when it came out in 2019. It was reviewed in several major news outlets. The chapter that attracted the most attention, perhaps, was the one on marriage. In it, Dolan suggested that marriage is bad for women’s happiness.
It later turned out that Dolan had misinterpreted a key piece of evidence on which his claim was based. Married women, Dolan said, reported being happy when their spouse was in the room at the time they were answering the question but not when the spouse had left the room. What the data in fact suggested was that married women who were separated from their spouses – and not those whose spouses were not in the room – reported feeling unhappy.
It could be, however, that marriage adversely impacts women’s happiness, even though the particular evidence Dolan cites does not support the claim. Does it?
Is marriage bad for women’s well-being?
Studies that compare subjective satisfaction among married and unmarried people tend to find that married people and those in committed relationships are happier than those who are single, and this seems true of both men and women, although the effects are not large.
However, these types of comparisons are misleading since happier people are also more likely to get married. So we can expect higher levels of happiness among married people even if the marriage does not increase anyone’s happiness.
A better approach would be to follow the same people over time and see how marriage impacts their happiness. Some studies that adopt this method find what has been dubbed the “honeymoon effect”: an increase in happiness in the leadup to marriage and the period shortly after but a gradual waning of the effect later.
A similar pattern has been observed in other circumstances. We adjust to major life events, both good and bad, and over time, tend to revert to our baseline level of happiness, an effect known as the “hedonic treadmill.”
Another study that followed the same people over time found a long-lasting positive correlation between marriage (as well as stable-long term relationships without marriage) and happiness. However, the effect was much larger for people who saw their spouse as their best friend compared to those who didn’t.
Good marriage, bad marriage
Where does this leave us? When it comes to marital happiness, much depends on how close one is, emotionally, with one’s partner. The best marriages and long-term relationships – the unions of soulmates – seem to make people, men, and women, happier. Mediocre marriages, or those full of turmoil, may do the opposite. Getting married, then, is a bit like playing the lottery.
What are the odds of winning? Statistically, they are not great: 40-50% of marriages, in the U.S. at least, end in divorce (more often initiated by women), and that’s not counting the couples who stay married but are estranged. So the chance any given marriage would last is about 1 in 2. The chance a marriage would not only last but be a happy one is smaller.
Why are happy marriages a rarity?