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—Good Mental Medicine, Even for Couples Marrying Young

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

The research indicating that wedlock fosters good mental health is so strong that no one can dispute it. But in an academic world increasingly hostile to marriage as a normative tradition, some social theorists still argue that early marriage is psychologically harmful. Such arguments come in for close scrutiny in a study recently completed by sociologist Jeremy E. Uecker of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who concludes that even when couples marry quite young, wedlock confers substantial mental-health benefits.

Uecker began his recent study fully conscious that his colleagues do see in marriage a social institution that can “confer mental-health benefits.” But he launched his inquiry to address the academic perception that “early marriage—which is non-normative—could have no, or even negative, mental health consequences for young adults” (emphasis added).

To assess the psychological effects of marriage on young adults, Uecker pored over data collected from 11,743 unmarried American youth enrolled in grades 7-12 at a nationally representative range of schools in 1994-1995 and from the same individuals in 2001-2002. After weighing these data, Uecker reports, “In general, marriage in young adulthood is not detrimental to mental health.” Indeed, he finds that “marriage’s mental health benefits are apparent, at least in many ways, among young adults who have married at a relatively early age.”

To be sure, Uecker detects some complications in the overall linkage between youthful marriage and mental health. On the one hand, “married young adults have lower psychological distress than single young adults,” in large measure because “single young adults are more likely than ever-marrieds to have two or more sex partners in the last year, which is in turn related to higher psychological distress.” However, the data indicate that married couples “do not have a clear advantage over young adults in any other type of romantic relationship. In fact, young adults who are engaged and not cohabiting have lower levels of distress than do married young adults.” Uecker conjectures that the relatively low levels of psychological distress among non-cohabiting engaged couples may result from “their more normative and socially approved transition to adulthood, and may also reflect the excitement of an impending wedding and new marriage.” Uecker does point out that psychological distress does not run low among engaged cohabitors, as it does among other engaged couples, though he confesses that the reason for this disparity in distress is “not clear.” Still, the overall pattern remains apparent: “In terms of psychological distress, marriage’s benefits are limited but not absent.”

What is more, the psychological benefits of marriage emerge quite unequivocally on two other fronts: drunkenness and life satisfaction.

On the question of drunkenness, Uecker reports that, compared to single, unengaged peers, “married young adults get drunk less frequently, ” though he acknowledges that “engaged young adults—both cohabiting and not—look similar to married young adults in this regard.” Uecker plausibly reasons that married and engaged couples are more sober than single, unengaged peers because “marriage and engagement likely carry with them a heightened sense of responsibility and obligation and a less active social calendar.”

When assessing relative life satisfaction, Uecker limns a clear psychological benefit in wedlock. “Married young adults are much more satisfied with their lives than are other young adults,” he reports (while allowing for “the possible exception of engaged cohabitors”). Indeed, careful analysis establishes that “the marriage premium for life satisfaction is [so] strong and robust” that it persists in sophisticated statistical models that take into account “a number of potentially explanatory factors, including selection, socioeconomic status, parenthood, relationship stability, religious participation, and psychological gains.” Uecker plausibly suggests, “Married young adults are likely benefiting from the emotional and social support that accompanies marriage (with its heightened social attachment). . . . Marriage may also provide a degree of certainty, finality, and sense of satisfaction deriving from ‘accomplishing’ one of the tasks involved in the transition to adulthood, the task some consider the capstone to adulthood.”

As he surveys his findings in toto, Uecker marvels: “Somewhat surprisingly, there appears to be little gain to waiting until one’s mid-20s to marry for two of the three mental health outcomes under examination.” To be sure, those who marry in their teens report less life satisfaction than do those who marry between the ages of 22 and 26, at least in part, Uecker believes, because of lower “social approval” for teen marriages than for later marriages. What is more, “teenage marriers have more psychological distress than those who married at ages 22–26,” but the data clearly indicate that “this difference is the result of selection and not causation.” That is, those who marry in their teens are already experiencing markedly high levels of psychological distress before they marry. Not only does teenage marriage not appear to exacerbate such distress, but it actually appears to reduce such distress in some instances. The data thus allow Uecker to reach only one conclusion: “Waiting until later to marry may do little good in terms of avoiding mental health problems but much good in terms of improving overall well-being.”

No doubt because he anticipates resistance to a study reporting favorable psychological outcomes for marriage at a young age, Uecker vigorously defends his findings as compelling evidence of “marriage’s mental health benefits in young adulthood,” not as mere artifacts of differences in socioeconomic resources or of selection effects. “Economic resources,” he insists, “ . . . do little to explain marriage’s mental health effects during this stage of the life course.” Uecker even more vigorously attacks the notion that youthful marriage correlates with good mental health only because of “selection effects”—that is, only because of differences in pre-marital psychological profiles. In fact, Uecker argues, the data indicate “that—if anything—marriage’s mental health benefits in young adulthood are masked by differences in pre-existing psychological distress” (emphasis in original).

Given their ideological predilections, progressive academics will continue to warn against the supposed perils of early marriage. But empirical social science would seem to indicate that such perils are largely imaginary.

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