“Happiness, Health, and Marriage,” Ensign, Aug. 2001, 29
“Marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God,” declared the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”1 They went on to say that marriage is “essential to [God’s] eternal plan,” with husbands and wives under “solemn responsibility to love and care for each other.”
Then in 1999 President Gordon B. Hinckley reemphasized the crucial role of marriage with his admonition that “God-sanctioned marriage between a man and a woman has been the basis of civilization for thousands of years. There is no justification to redefine what marriage is.”2 Yet people keep trying to redefine it to legitimize worldly philosophies or to serve their own agendas. Increasingly, believers in God-ordained marriage are called on to defend the institution from those who say it is irrelevant or passé. Parents often find themselves looking for ways to demonstrate the importance of marriage to their children who are bombarded by pressures from the world and, all too often, from their friends and associates.
A few decades ago, a proclamation on marriage and its validity would hardly have seemed necessary. Alternative definitions of marriage didn’t exist, and there were no movies, television shows, books, or other media products promoting alternative lifestyles. But any examination of marriage today requires consideration of a divorce rate over 50 percent and a high acceptance in some areas of cohabitation, which enables couples to forgo commitment for a living-together arrangement that lasts, on the average, two years.3 Some now call marriage just another lifestyle choice and even question whether it needs to exist between a man and a woman. One respected reviewer has commented that family studies textbooks often “downplay the value of marriage,” employing warm platitudes to describe nontraditional unions and reserving heavy criticism for conventional marriages.4
Not surprisingly, a recent study conducted by prominent social scientists David Popenoe and Barbara Defoe Whitehead found that young people in the United States today are increasingly apprehensive and pessimistic about marriage. They display a remarkable increase in acceptance of out-of-wedlock childbearing, single parenting, and living together before marriage. No wonder the number of people getting married in the United States has dropped so markedly.5
Is the traditional definition of marriage urged by “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” a lost cause? Is it true that the proclamation’s high ideals are merely anachronisms befitting earlier times? When the question arises, should defenders of the family concede that marriage is simply their personal preference?
A growing body of academic research and a burgeoning group of scholars in family studies are saying a firm “no” to all of those questions. Informed by an abundance of objective, highly respected studies of various countries, races, and economic classes, many social scientists now affirm that marriage is of great advantage to the well-being of men and women in a myriad of ways. In assuring happiness, a lasting marriage proves more beneficial physically, mentally, and economically than exercise programs, medical treatments, therapy sessions, or financial investments.6 Of course, statistics merely reflect general tendencies, and there are many exceptions. Conversely, unhappy marriages run a complex gamut—from the dissatisfied couples for whom the present marriage, though flawed, is better than the alternative, to partners who inflict harm on each other. Thus the following recital of benefits applies to happy marriages, the ideal that so many people still seek.
Findings reaffirm that marriage relationships need to be built on righteous principles—“a solemn responsibility to love and care for each other,” in the words of the proclamation. It is clear that marriages based on righteous principles are the kind of marriages that lead to lasting happiness.
Of course, academic studies deal in objective statistics and trends, not exceptions. While happily married people may enjoy an advantage in the statistics, this does not mean a devoted husband or wife will automatically escape problems common to all human beings—illness, financial strain, anxiety, and so forth. Neither do the statistics indicate that single individuals—widowed, divorced, or never-married—cannot be happy or achieve meaningful lives with physical, emotional, and economic stability. As many never-married, divorced, or widowed Latter-day Saints have discovered, reliance on the Lord brings spiritual and other compensations that research cannot quantify.
What the current research does offer to a secular world is objective evidence to support the teachings of God through the ages by the mouths of His prophets. These studies enable beleaguered defenders of traditional marriage to add proof to moral and religious convictions when they are called on to defend marriage in a modern society that often rejects it as an institution, discounting or denying its moral basis. Moreover, the findings reported here can help couples appreciate the subtle but powerful blessings that can be theirs as they build their marriages on righteous principles.
Overall, married people live longer, a statistical reality that is true across many different cultures, societies, and demographic groups.7 Typically, married people suffer less from illness and disease and are better off when they do fall ill.8 In fact, even illness recovery rates for married individuals are much higher than in the unmarried population.9 Married men and women also exhibit fewer risk-taking behaviors such as drunk driving, smoking, or drug abuse and have lower rates of suicide and alcoholism.10
Some researchers argue that all of these benefits result merely from selectivity: the likelihood that already healthy individuals are selected into marriage. However, since research shows that positive health changes often take place after marriage, many individuals lean toward a causal, rather than a selection, theory: marriage itself causes good things to happen with one’s health.11
Why? One psychology professor theorizes that the constant companionship between a husband and wife creates a “tranquilizing effect” which lessens the chances of disease, assists in recovery, and offers motivation to stay alive and well.12 Other analysts see a “safety net” that encourages healthy behavior: spouses remind each other to eat well, establish regular sleep patterns, and see the doctor periodically.13
Men, in particular, benefit from such a safety net. While a woman’s statistical chance of dying decreases gradually over time once she marries, a man almost immediately upon marrying experiences a sharp statistical decrease in the hazard of dying. Researchers point to the improved lifestyle many men encounter in marriage, one which counteracts such tendencies as irregular meal and sleep habits and a lack of social integration.14
For those concerned only with eating right and exercising to stay healthy, marriage researcher John Gottman offers a suggestion that aptly summarizes the research: “Remember,” he says, “working briefly on your marriage every day will do more for your health and longevity than working out at a health club.”15
In general, married people exhibit lower rates of depression and suffer significantly less from psychiatric disorders.16 Married people also enjoy higher general well-being than any unmarried segment of the population. One researcher says, “No part of the unmarried population—separated, divorced, widowed, or never married—describes itself as being so happy and contented with life as the married.”17 These findings extend across racial, national, and socioeconomic class boundaries.
How to explain the correlation between marriage and happiness? Researchers point to several reasons, prime among them being the spiritual connection marriage offers to a couple’s deepest values. In many cultures, a wedding usually means not just a legal tie but also a sacred vow before God and a religious community. The union between man and wife, according to John Gottman, often brings “a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together.”18 The deeper this shared spiritual meaning, the better the marriage, and the happier the people involved.
Some observers see a lasting marriage as offering a solid anchor in today’s rapidly changing, complex society. Men and women participate simultaneously as parents, in careers, in the community, and in hobbies. In marriage, social scientists suggest, people can successfully bring all of their different roles together: husbands and wives can discuss children’s problems, discuss work, and plan strategies for the future of family and career within a stable union which offers a secure base in a complicated world.19
Marriage also can promote mental well-being by offering an extended social network. Spouses may be able to lean on the spiritual and emotional resources of two families, in effect doubling their support system in both bad and good times.20 Marriage can contribute to happiness by satisfying the deep human need for emotional closeness, providing a constant companion with whom to raise a family, go to church, and pray. It can also provide someone to take on the tasks one spouse is not good at—perhaps financial planning or cooking, for example—allowing each to focus on his or her strengths. This may sound simple, but experts say the “labor specialization” that comes in marriage works, and it does have an impact on peace of mind.21
Research findings show that marriage and financial security are interconnected. Getting and staying married offer strong economic advantages. Generally, married couples are better off financially and save more than divorced, never-married, and widowed households. Per capita, they tend to invest greater amounts for education or retirement.22
Typically, married women are better off economically than single women. Much of that financial advantage comes because a husband, in general, has greater earning power in today’s society. When a marriage dissolves and there are children involved, the results can be devastating because single mothers are at a greater economic disadvantage.23 But men also lose financially with divorce; a man’s financial well-being is greatly diminished, and later remarriage usually does not bring recovery.24
Obviously, not all single or divorced individuals face economic difficulties, just as not all married couples are well-off or frugal. But the economic security that a stable marriage generally offers doesn’t mean being able to remodel the house every few years. It means greater access to food, clothing, health care, and education. It can also mean a secure life away from unsafe areas.
Studies unequivocally show that current levels of poverty result more from family structure than from economic factors. Where there is only one parent—usually a single mother—there is often poverty. Conversely, a stable, two-parent family, as the Progressive Policy Institute declares, “is [a] child’s best protection against poverty.”25
Evidence defies the deceptive notion, prevalent in society, that marriage is sexually repressive and that affairs outside of it are fulfilling. This lie persists from years past and is perpetuated by a constant stream of movies, television, and books depicting the staple tale of the philandering husband or wife looking for excitement outside an affectionless marriage. However, this media image of sex, according to a researcher involved in a landmark study on the subject, “bears virtually no relationship to the truth.”26
The truth lies much closer to the proclamation’s strong affirmation that “the sacred powers of procreation are to be employed only between man and woman, lawfully wedded as husband and wife.” Those who abide by this moral code are much better off than those who don’t, according to consistent findings of research published in sources such as The Journal of the American Medical Association and The National Health and Social Life Survey.
Faithfully married people report being extremely satisfied with the physical intimacy in their relationships, more so than all other sexually active people. Married men and women are least likely to associate sex with feelings of fear, anxiety, or guilt.27 Also, unmarried couples who abstain from premarital sex are less likely to separate or divorce after marriage. Further, studies show that brides and grooms who have practiced chastity are less likely to have attitudes about marriage that contribute to adultery, divorce, and lower satisfaction with a married partner.28
Conversely, says the research, those who abuse the sacred powers of procreation through premarital sex or living together ultimately find that the benefits of marriage do not extend to them.
While the late 20th century saw an enormous proliferation in the number of men and women living together without a marriage license, research data clearly show that cohabiting couples experience greater conflict, lower-quality relationships, less stability, and less equality for the women involved. Women who live with a man outside of marriage also experience much higher levels of depression and economic insecurity and are more likely to be forced into sexual relationships against their will. Both men and women involved in a cohabiting relationship report lower levels of sexual satisfaction, with infidelity a prime problem.29
Further, when cohabiting couples do marry, they display very high divorce rates throughout the world, with one study finding that individuals who cohabit tend to marry, divorce, and then live with someone again. The marriage phase can often be marked by drunkenness, adultery, and drug abuse, and the cohabiting phase by a distinct separateness in handling finances, spending free time, and envisioning the future.30
What of remarriage after divorce? Judging from the statistics, it does not generate all the benefits of a first marriage. Remarriages may be marked by higher instability and higher divorce rates than first marriages. However, remarriage after the death of a spouse tends to avoid these statistical hazards, and the stepfamily challenge for those whose spouses died is not as daunting as that faced by post-divorce stepparents.31
Yet to say that remarriages are statistically more difficult than first marriages does not mean that they are not preferable to remaining single or to other alternatives to marriage. Perhaps those who think it might be easier just to start over rather than deal with the challenges of a difficult first marriage should consider the statistics before getting divorced.
While research studies clearly demonstrate that the satisfaction level of people in good marriages is high, the data hardly guarantee perfect physical health, constant happiness, complete financial security, or blissful intimate relationships. What the research reveals is general trends, and the findings also show that those positive trends are much more likely to flourish in a healthy marital atmosphere.
And just what is a “healthy marital atmosphere”? Studies of successful marriages indicate that it includes the following vital elements:
Religious commitment is a high predictor of marital happiness and promotes other qualities central to the success of a marriage.32
Happily married couples realize that marriage and family life can be difficult. When problems arise, they tend to stay committed and sacrifice their own desires for the good of the family.33
Successful couples have a good understanding of one another, defend each other, and respect each other’s opinions and choices.
Successful couples realize that family life may be difficult and burdensome, but despite the challenges of marriage, divorce is not viewed as a helpful option. A realistic couple refrains from imagining, when problems arise, “Oh, no! I haven’t married the right person after all!” or “If only we can manage to just stay in love!” Couples in love have problems, and the list of crucial characteristics of successful marriages does not include having found the perfect spouse or sustaining the emotional intensity of the honeymoon.
Even successful marriages deal with their share of “unsolvable” problems: fundamental differences in personalities, desires, and goals that are not going to be changed or solved. But lasting marriages succeed even in the face of “unsolvable” problems through forgiveness, compromise, tolerance, patience, and acceptance.
Lasting marriages successfully solve “solvable” problems—arising over everything from work schedules to trip locations—through discussions marked by “soft” beginnings void of harsh accusations. To calm escalating feelings, they also rely on “repair attempts”: tactful humor, conciliatory comments, or soothing gestures.34
Successful marriages require maturity. Thus teenage marriages are much more likely to end in divorce than marriages formed when partners are more mature.35
Happy marriages avoid tendencies that religious leaders have preached against through the ages: narcissism, adultery, worldliness, and contempt for God-given values.36
Finally, studies show that lasting marriages rely on a deep friendship marked by positive feelings rather than negative ones. Feelings are important. As one writer states, “Because our actions reflect the whole climate of our minds, everything that contributes to that climate—which means all of our thoughts and actions, however ‘inconsequential’—is potentially of great importance.”37 Positive thoughts, according to a lead researcher on marriage, contribute to a positive overflow in marriage that helps couples deal successfully with stressful tragedies as well as daily annoyances.38
It is indeed a solemn responsibility to show the love and care needed to build this kind of successful relationship, for ultimately many of the blessings of marriage spring from our ability to share love.
Affection, security, and a long life with health and happiness—obviously, this is the marital ideal. Not all marriages will reach it, and not all marriages can or should be preserved. But couples who completely abandon the ideal pay high costs, including increased physical, mental, and emotional problems for themselves and tragic consequences of divorce for their children.39 Society suffers, too, from the loss of the ideal, because marriage not only strengthens communities and benefits economies, but also ensures responsible sexual union by keeping parents attached to their children.40
In many ways, marriage is the glue holding society together. Even more important, it is an eternal principle that all of us—whether single or married—need to uphold and defend. It benefits not only husbands and wives but the entire world.
This should come as no surprise, since it was ordained and blessed by God Himself.
“Happiness at home is most likely to be achieved when practices there are founded upon the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Our Sacred Duty to Honor Women,” Ensign, May 1999, 39–40.
“The deeper our own mental, emotional, and spiritual reserves are, the greater will be our capacity to nurture and love others, especially our companion.”
Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy, “A Union of Love and Understanding,” Ensign, Oct. 1994, 48.
A more extensive treatment of these findings is in David C. Dollahite, ed., Strengthening Our Families: An In-depth Look at the Proclamation on the Family (2000).