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Psycasm is the exploration of the world psychological. Every day phenomenon explained and manipulated to one's own advantage. Written by a slightly overambitious undergrad, Psycasm aims at exploring a whole range of social and cognitive processes in order to best understand how our minds, and those mechanisms that drive them, work.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Sunday, November 14, 2010

[Wherein our Hero pops a question - What's so great about Marriage?]

I’m surrounded by marriage at the moment. In just the last three weeks I’ve had two cousins marry off (people my own age, I should add), and – most notably for LabSpaceCadets - Brian ‘Dear Overlord’ Kreuger has become happily married in the last day and a half.

One thing I’ve noticed about Weddings is that it becomes acceptable, if not customary, to harass established couples into getting married as well. For instance, my girlfriend and I have been together for 4 years, and no-on, not ever, suggests we ought to get married in anything more than jest. Yet at a wedding even my own brother is allowed to take a jab and suggest we ought to get married… My Brother, Father, Mother, Cousins 1 and 2, Auntie and probably a few more brought it up. They ask “Do I hear wedding bells?”, to which I respond “I hear nothing, perhaps you have a tumour.”.

Obviously marriage is an important social construct, but in my own little microcosm of white, middle-class first-world society I know no-one that feels actual pressure to get marriage. They do it for themselves, and out of love and commitment for the parties involved. And so I wondered what benefits people get out of being married. Sure, there’s legal benefits – but I’m going to ignore those. Second, I do not ask ‘why people get married’ – that’s not a question I’m fit to answer. I intend to focus the benefits and outcomes of being married.

Soons & Kalmijn (2009) obtained data (via survey and interview) from a total of 31, 465 individuals across 30 European countries, and looked at the difference between Married Couples and Unmarried Cohabitating Couples. The literature hint at a gap in well-being between the two groups, with some studies supporting greater well-being for Married Couples and some reporting no effect at all. It’s a pretty striking proposition, really. What is it that my cousin and her husband will do that differs from what my girlfriend and myself will do? Is the marriage ceremony itself legitimately divine? Does a wedding band have special powers? Or more seriously, might family members support young married couples more than de facto couples?

Soons & Kalmijn (2009) found that in most countries married folk had higher levels of well-being than cohabitants, but found that, in a few select countries (such as Iceland) there was a reverse gap favouring cohabitants. In a striking confound (acknowledged in the paper) when all data was pooled cohabitants were actually happier than married folk – but this was only because countries with high mean happiness had a greater frequency of cohabitants. An interesting thought alone, but a main effect of Marriage on well-being still stands. A few factors that seem to play a role were proposed – Religiosity was more prevalent among married couples and may contribute to well-being, as was the national degree of institutionalisation of the marriage paradigm. Unfortunately, ‘well-being’ was a defined in a vague and subjective way, which may account for some of the differences. For instance, if you live in a country that’s highly religious and you’re living out-of-wedlock then being married itself is a good thing (unto itself) and will contribute to one’s well-being as a direct result, rather than marriage bestowing some kind of implicit, general well-ness.

Having said that Koball et al (2010) do cite evidence that married folk have better physical and mental health, and generally live longer (as do the children of married couples). Yet there might be some weird self-selection going on here. After all, we can’t randomly assign people to get married, right. I did find one article that assessed cardiovascular responses to pleasant, neutral and stressful couple-interaction – but it was terrible. There was no control group (no unmarried couples), it was done in Utah (highly religious and conservative) and ‘found’ that, yes, arguments and stress do bad things to the heart, which increase the risk of cardiovascular problems (Nealey-Moore et al, 2007).

And so marriage is all about love, right? But there are many kinds of love. Some will argue that point, but Psychologists tend to break down love into component parts (oh, the heartless bastards!), and among the most interesting and difficult to study is romantic love. The kind of love that characterizes early relationships – highly intense, obsessive, anxiety fuelled, close-proximity (and often highly sexual) love. More widely it’s referred to as ‘the honey moon period’, to the best of my understanding. Such emotions are correlated positively for the health of the relationship. Sadly, most people get over it, but Acevedo and Aron (2009) cite evidence that those who maintain it well into an established relationship have it correlated well with satisfaction within the relationship. Companionate love, the kind of enduring, sustainable love that long-term couples enjoy, is also correlated with satisfaction in the relationship, but not as highly as the romantic type. The good news is that satisfaction (from wherever it stems) in a relationship has a positive influence global well-being, including happiness, health and satisfaction (Acevedo and Aron, 2009).

In conclusion I am afraid I cannot offer advice to maximise happiness in marriage. There’s probably advice out there, if you were to trawl through the couples-therapy literature, but I think I would find that depressing. But in a way it’s a good to know that when someone wishes you a happy and long life together they're probably correct, and actually mean to say best wishes for a happier, healthier and longer life than those unmarried heathen.

If I ever get to be a best man and make a speech, it’s definitely going to be scientifically accurate.

Acevedo, B., & Aron, A. (2009). Does a long-term relationship kill romantic love? Review of General Psychology, 13 (1), 59-65 DOI: 10.1037/a0014226

Soons, J., & Kalmijn, M. (2009). Is Marriage More Than Cohabitation? Well-Being Differences in 30 European Countries Journal of Marriage and Family, 71 (5), 1141-1157 DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2009.00660.x

Koball, H., Moiduddin, E., Henderson, J., Goesling, B., & Besculides, M. (2010). What Do We Know About the Link Between Marriage and Health? Journal of Family Issues, 31 (8), 1019-1040 DOI: 10.1177/0192513X10365834

Nealey-Moore, J., Smith, T., Uchino, B., Hawkins, M., & Olson-Cerny, C. (2007). Cardiovascular Reactivity During Positive and Negative Marital Interactions Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 30 (6), 505-519 DOI: 10.1007/s10865-007-9124-5



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Blog Comments

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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I never imagined that there is research going on marriage. I vote for Marriage rather than live in.

Prabodh Kandala
Texas Tech University Health Science Center
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Dear Brian,

"Happy Marriage" Smile

Pascal Wallisch
New York University
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No Gottman?

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