So let’s say you’ve been following my relationship advice, had “The Talk” and worked through the usual ups and downs of the commitment process. You’ve even gone so far that marriage looks like the next step and he’s willing, if not eager, to go for it.
But wait, as they say, there’s more! Is marriage good for women in the 21st century? My many friends (especially women) from around the world on YouTube are constantly posting comments like “marriage is dying,” and that living together is “so much better.” And there has been a global sea change where now more people are living together than are married. Plus, some studies have shown that singles with strong social support are basically as happy as married women in good marriages.
Then there are the skeptics who answer the question, “is marriage good for women?” with a resounding NO. For example, in her recent bestseller, Elizabeth Gilbert quotes research which shows that married women are less successful, more depressed, less healthy and more likely to die a violent death than single women. Citing what she calls the “Marriage Benefit Imbalance” Gilbert points out that, while women fare poorly, men actually benefit physically and psychologically from marriage. Nonetheless, she winds up, like many other women, getting married herself by the end of her book. Hmm.
In response to this controversy I decided to write a blog series where I look at the hundreds of studies conducted around the world to answer the question, “is marriage good for women?”. We’ll look at the impact of marriage on women’s mental health, longevity, lifestyle and marital satisfaction. We’ll look at these areas one by one and see what the latest research shows. Here’s a secret I learned when I got my Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology: To find more of the whole truth, don’t rely on one study or one author’s work, especially if there are others that contradict it. So while I admire Gilbert as a writer I have to say I’m disappointed that she relied on the work of one sociologist who did her research way back in the 1970s.
The “Marriage Benefit Imbalance” was first popularized in 1982 by Jessie Bernard in her book, The Future of Marriage. This work created a lasting myth that women do not benefit from marriage. Bernard argued that there are two marriages: his and hers. She tried to prove this by showing: that women were unpaid for their parenting and domestic responsibilities and as housewives were not as valued as men are for their work outside the home; that men, by controlling the finances had power over women in marriage; and that married men lived longer than single men. Bernard also claimed that married women, on the other hand, did not live longer than single gals. In her comparison studies, she also said that married men reported they were happier than single men but also that they were happier than married women.
And the list of the supposedly toxic effects of marriage continued. Bernard claimed that more women than men are unhappy in marriage, so unhappy that they are depressed and have poorer mental health than single women. In short, Bernard answered the question, “is marriage good for women?” with a “definitely not.”
Well, a lot has changed since the 70s. And so has the answer to the question, “is marriage good for women?” Marriage is no longer the hallowed institution it once was. Greater numbers of unmarried couples are living together; the age at first marriage is higher; more women are participating in higher education; have better paying jobs and brighter career opportunities; and greater numbers of women are choosing to become single mothers, either through adoption or insemination with donor sperm. Women are more independent all the way around. So they need marriage less. And yet, despite all of these advances, many women still want to get married.
So is marriage good for women? Let’s face it: we all would agree that nothing is worse than an abusive marriage and that for many women single life works just fine, thank you. But I think it’s worth understanding if marriage really is a bad deal for women and what marriage can and can’t do for you. So in many cases, my answer to the question, “is marriage good for women?” is probably yes. But stay tuned for more observations on this topic.
Wishing you love,