The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Marriage as Mental Medicine—Even for Quite Young Couples

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

As the average age at which men and women tie the knot has climbed in recent decades, social scientists have wondered whether the psychological benefits associated with wedlock might not be fading for those couples who buck the trend and marry young. Because marriage at a young age (before 25) is no longer normative (as it was in the 1950s), some social theorists fear that early marriage may damage the mental health of younger couples. But a study conducted by Jeremy E. Uecker of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has quashed such fears: while the psychological benefits of marriage now appear most pronounced among couples who marry in their mid-twenties, wedlock still enhances mental health in a number of notable ways for couples who are younger when they tie the knot.

Uecker launched his study specifically to test the notion that “early marriage, which is nonnormative, could have no, or even negative mental health consequences for young adults.” To gauge the mental health consequences of wedlock, Uecker parsed data collected between 1995 and 2002 from a nationally representative sample of 11,695 young people. In these data, Uecker finds evidence that “in general, marriage in young adulthood is not detrimental.” Indeed, Uecker concludes that “marriage’s mental health benefits are apparent, at least in many ways, among young adults who have married at a relatively early age.”

Even in the least impressive of wedlock’s benefits—namely, reduction of psychological distress—Uecker sees mental-health advantages that are “limited but not absent.” For although married couples “do not have a clear advantage [in levels of psychological distress] over young adults in any other type of romantic relationship,” these couples do experience “lower psychological distress than single young adults.”

A more substantial benefit of wedlock appears in the data on drinking. Uecker reports, “Singles and unengaged daters get drunk at more than twice the rate of ever married individuals, and unengaged cohabitors get drunk at about 1.80 times the rate,” net of statistical controls for background characteristics. The distinctive sobriety of married couples, Uecker believes, reflects the way marriage fosters “a heightened sense of responsibility and obligation and a less active social calendar, which leads to less drunkenness.”

But Uecker identifies an even more noteworthy benefit: “Married young adults,” he concludes, “are much more satisfied with their lives than are other young adults (with the possible exception of engaged cohabitors).” Uecker has a statistical reason for engaged yet cohabiting couples as a possible exception to his overall judgment about the advantage married couples enjoy in life satisfaction: the statistical gap separating ever-married men and women from engaged cohabiting peers does fall below the threshold of statistical significance in statistical models that take into account socioeconomic status. But since marriage itself affects socioeconomic status, this statistical adjustment seems dubious.

In any case, Uecker stresses that the “marriage premium for life satisfaction is strong and robust to a number of potentially explanatory factors.” In particular, Uecker asserts that “selection is not the key story here.” In other words, the advantage in life satisfaction evident among married couples cannot be explained as merely the consequence of people who are already more satisfied with life being more likely to marry than are people who are less satisfied with life. The statistical models make it clear that it is the experience of marriage itself that enhances life satisfaction.

Though some feminists have asserted that marriage benefits only men, that is not what Uecker sees in the data. Indeed, he finds that while the correlation between singleness and drunkenness is “positive for men” that correlation is “even more positive for women.” Similarly, while “cohabiting men reported lower satisfaction than ever married men . . . the effect was even more negative for unengaged cohabiting women.” Clearly, wedlock carries real benefits for women.

At a time of widespread psychological distress, this study confirms that marriage still offers remarkable protections for mental health.

(Jeremy E. Uecker, “Marriage and Mental Health Among Young Adults,” Journal of Health & Social Behavior 53.1 [March 2012]: 67–83.)