If You Like It Then You Should Have Put a Key Ring on It
Although Beyonce thinks you should put a ring on it, new research in the Journal of Marriage and Family suggests that a key ring might just be enough.
Besides love and preferential tax treatment, some of the strongest arguments for marriage suggest that married people are happier, healthier and less depressed. But an analysis by Kelly Musick and Larry Bumpass finds that marriage might not be the mechanism at all.
In their new article, Musick and Bumpass argue that most studies of the subjective benefits of marriage compare married individuals to single ones. Doing so, however, conflates the effects of marriage with the effects of forming a partnership. Instead, the authors analyze data from more than 2,000 individuals to compare the benefits of cohabitation with the benefits of marriage.
The research looks at self-reported measures of happiness, depression, health, self-esteem and social ties (both with family and friends) between three groups: single individuals who remain single, single individuals who transition to cohabitation, and single individuals who transition to marriage. By comparing single individuals who transition into marriage with single individuals who transition into cohabitation, we can better disentangle the benefits of marriage from those of simply forming a partnership. There are several reasons to think that the transition to marriage or cohabitation could lead to a change in these subjective measures, ranging from the social support of partnerships (both for cohabitation and marriage) to the institutionalization of the relationship (available only through marriage).
The study suggests that many of the benefits we often ascribe to marriage (e.g., increased happiness, better health and stronger social networks) likely result from partnership formation, rather than marriage. On the whole, individuals who transitioned to marriage fared no better than individuals who transitioned to cohabitation. Where the authors do uncover differences between marriage and cohabitation, they write, “marriage was not always more advantageous than cohabitation: The married fared better in health than cohabitators, but the opposite was true of happiness and self-esteem.” They also find that changes in health, happiness and wellbeing are most pronounced for those who formed unions recently – in the last three years – than for those who formed unions more than four years ago.
Although they equivocate on the implications of the research, as all good social scientists do, their results seem to channel a modified version of Beyonce: If you like it then you should’ve put a key ring on it.
(Get it? Because both married and cohabitating people share the same keys to their apartment … Does that even make sense? Is that funny?)