Does Being Married Make People Happier? COVID-19 Effects on Relationships and Other Thoughts from an Occupational Therapist

Does being married contribute to happiness? Relationships in general is hard work, and many people will say that being married is even harder. While every relationship is unique and can have its fair share of good and bad aspects, many studies show causality between marital status and health. The studies I include in this post look at heterosexual relationships, but it would definitely be interesting to see how homosexual and bisexual relationships compare in all of this.

There seems to be some connection between being married and health. Healthier people are more likely to get as well as stay married.[1]Fu, H., & Goldman, N. (1996). Incorporating health into models of marriage choice: Demographic and
sociological perspectives. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58(3), 740–758.
On the extremes, negative spousal behavior can also work the other way to contributing to poorer health, especially if the spouse is hostile or overly critical.[2]Bookwala, J. (2005). The role of marital quality in physical health during the mature years. Journal of Aging
and Health, 17(1), 85–104.
So statistically, which is it in the larger population?

In one study, 30% (the largest sample) were married and ‘very happy’ in their marriage. In contrast, 1.3% of the sample were married and ‘not happy’ in their marriage. Only 22% of these participants reported fair or poor health compared to the 78% that reported good or excellent health.[3]Lawrence, E. M., Rogers, R. G., Zajacova, A., & Wadsworth, T. (2019). Marital happiness, marital status, health, and longevity. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(5), 1539-1561. These results show that while many factors may be at play such as SES, gender, race, religion, location, educational attainment, and other factors, those who are married seem to be healthier, and consequently, happier as well.

Why is this? While this study does not address this question directly here are some possible explanations. Culturally, especially for women I would say, is that marriage is idealized and a common goal for people in the United States. It is part of the life course for many, especially if they come from families in which marriage is a strong foundation for the family and the kids. “Stay together for the kids” comes to mind. Many women may feel pressured to get married at a certain age, e.g., between their 20s and 30s. Perhaps marriage contributed to fulfilling this goal.[4]Sharp, E. A., & Ganong, L. (2011). “I’ma loser, I’m not married, let’s just all look at me”: Ever-single women’s perceptions of their social environment. Journal of Family Issues, … Reference List

As more women are entering the workforce and deviating from traditional marital roles such as domestic responsibilities, they are attaining higher education and getting married at an older age. This made me wonder, who is happier: the ‘housewife’ or the working wife? This paper found that across different countries that the working wife is not necessarily happier than the housewife.[5]Beja, E. L. (2014). Who is happier: Housewife or working wife?. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 9(2), 157-177. Perhaps one thing that may be a barrier to happiness is the conflict or expectation from the husband for the wife to fulfill dual-responsibilities: domestic responsibilities as well as working. I can see this often is the case for families with children. This can add exponentially to the responsibilities, time commitment, and energy for both spouses when they are tired from working and other responsibilities.

How about for men? Other studies show that women report even the highest levels of relationship happiness when they are married. In one study, “for men, direct marriage was not associated with a happiness advantage. Direct married men were only marginally happier than married men who premaritally cohabited and no happier than cohabiting men with plans to marry. In short, there is mixed evidence on the benefits of direct marriage for men.”[6]Brown, S. L., Manning, W. D., & Payne, K. K. (2017). Relationship quality among cohabiting versus married couples. Journal of Family Issues, 38(12), 1730-1753.

Nonetheless, both genders seem to be happier, whether on average, marginally, or whatever statistic these studies published. Of course, every relationship is unique and this does not mean you need to be married to necessarily be happy or even healthy. Gender norms and marriage dynamics are constantly changing.

In the United States, the practical value of marriage has declined, but the symbolic meaning and desire still remain the same.[7]Edin K, Kefalas M. Promises I can keep: Why poor women put motherhood before marriage. University of California Press; 2005. When considering marriage, one phenomenon that is often looked at is the reasons and statistics of divorce. One study found that when gender norms were traditional, there was an increase in marital instability and potentially leading to divorce.[8]Pessin, L. (2018). Changing gender norms and marriage dynamics in the United States. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(1), 25-41. Many things seem to challenge or contribute to marriage difficulties these days. One of my male friends who is in a relationship now and explored the topic of marriage with his girlfriend is mainly against the idea of marriage as an institution.

One reason, likely for even both genders may be to pursue advancements in their careers. Many may be putting off marriage from their 20s until later in their 30s. Dating, especially online is seen as much more acceptable. (That’s how my wife and I met actually.) Perhaps this contributes to larger potential partners initially before relationships become more serious. For those in long-term relationships, even if they are living together, why aren’t these people married? I don’t know. Maybe living together and not being married is more of the norm than traditionally. Maybe people can’t afford it. Maybe they are putting of off because it is more expensive.

Certainly one public health and societal barrier these days is even being able to book a venue for a wedding. I wonder if this pandemic will start a trend of decreased marriages. On the other hand, people should be dating less due to the risk of contracting COVID-19, but many people may also be willing to take on this risk and meet through apps like Tinder. Online dating has certainly displaced other conventional ways of meeting.[9]Rosenfeld, M. J., Thomas, R. J., & Hausen, S. (2019). Disintermediating your friends: How online dating in the United States displaces other ways of meeting. Proceedings of the National Academy … Reference List Many studies are coming out showing that mental health has been on the decline because of the pandemic for the population in general, and likely to to affect relationships as well.

  • Are couples who are staying at home and isolating content with their relationships?
  • Are couples not able to get married because of the pandemic and postponing it? (Many of my friends did end up getting married early to mid-2021 when things ‘opened up’ a little.)
  • Are they even happier or less happy now?
  • How are married couples doing now in terms of health and happiness?

Overall, marriage and divorce rates in the US have been declining pre-pandemic. One study from early in the pandemic found an overall pattern of 21,000 fewer marriages and 16,000 fewer divorces in five states.[10]Manning WD, Payne KK. Marriage and Divorce Decline during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Case Study of Five States. Socius. January 2021. doi:10.1177/23780231211006976 Is there a national decline of marriages and divorces that correlates with the trend of this small sample of these five states? There are many new questions that can be asked because of the pandemic for its effect on marriages, divorces, and relationships of those who are non-married versus married. With the omicron on the rise and things closing down and being cancelled, it will be interesting to see the relationship studies come out from this time when the pandemic is over and if the marriage and divorce curve took a 180-degree reversal when policies and infections as well as deaths increased despite vaccinations or was it not significant enough to make a noticeable change. One thing is for sure – many of us are facing pandemic fatigue with it ongoing 2+ years now.

Relationships are hard. Marriage? Even harder for me personally. I have gone from the lows to the highs back to the lows and now I am at an even higher high in terms of happiness for my marriage. I found that communication, patience, listening, and seeking help (be it therapy, books, consulting with friends, etc.) has helped my relationship be stronger now especially with a baby in the family. Empathizing with my spouse was probably helped me the most, especially since we had a complete gender role reversal in all aspects of domestic, child-rearing, work, and general family responsibilities. So hang in there.

For you men out there, seeking help from a therapist is not a sign of weakness or a waste of money. It is well worth the investment in time, money, and effort. If I was having a tough time in my marriage, I would 100% go to marriage counseling. Anecdotally, it seems that women are more willing to go then men. Perhaps it is a macho or pride thing. I don’t know. The reason for me to go hypothetically is because I don’t want to regret not having put in your 100% and making things work, especially since kids are involved and face the consequences of a divorce as well. Family estrangement aside, you can’t really ‘divorce’ your kids the same way you have a divorce with your spouse, especially if they are minors.

I have done lots of reflecting during this pandemic!

Whatever decisions you make, be it dating, health, activities, or within relationships, I hope you all stay safe and healthy physically, mentally, and spiritually!

References

References
1 Fu, H., & Goldman, N. (1996). Incorporating health into models of marriage choice: Demographic and
sociological perspectives. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58(3), 740–758.
2 Bookwala, J. (2005). The role of marital quality in physical health during the mature years. Journal of Aging
and Health, 17(1), 85–104.
3 Lawrence, E. M., Rogers, R. G., Zajacova, A., & Wadsworth, T. (2019). Marital happiness, marital status, health, and longevity. Journal of Happiness Studies, 20(5), 1539-1561.
4 Sharp, E. A., & Ganong, L. (2011). “I’ma loser, I’m not married, let’s just all look at me”: Ever-single women’s perceptions of their social environment. Journal of Family Issues, 32(7), 956-980.
5 Beja, E. L. (2014). Who is happier: Housewife or working wife?. Applied Research in Quality of Life, 9(2), 157-177.
6 Brown, S. L., Manning, W. D., & Payne, K. K. (2017). Relationship quality among cohabiting versus married couples. Journal of Family Issues, 38(12), 1730-1753.
7 Edin K, Kefalas M. Promises I can keep: Why poor women put motherhood before marriage. University of California Press; 2005.
8 Pessin, L. (2018). Changing gender norms and marriage dynamics in the United States. Journal of Marriage and Family, 80(1), 25-41.
9 Rosenfeld, M. J., Thomas, R. J., & Hausen, S. (2019). Disintermediating your friends: How online dating in the United States displaces other ways of meeting. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(36), 17753-17758.
10 Manning WD, Payne KK. Marriage and Divorce Decline during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Case Study of Five States. Socius. January 2021. doi:10.1177/23780231211006976
Jeff is a licensed occupational therapist and lead content creator for OT Dude. He covers all things occupational therapy as well as other topics including healthcare, wellness, mental health, technology, science, sociology, and philosophy. Buy me a Coffee on Venmo.