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 

Dysfunction, Not Discrimination

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Progressive commentators have developed an ingenious strategy for dealing with unwelcome evidence that married men and women enjoy decidedly better well-being than do single, divorced, or cohabiting peers. The real problem, these clever commentators assert, is social intolerance and prejudice. If society were simply more accepting of singleness, divorce, and cohabitation, none of these social circumstances would entail deficits in well-being. That imaginative line of reasoning, however, just took a hard hit from a large international study establishing beyond any reasonable doubt that regardless of how tolerant and accepting society may be, marriage confers decided advantages over singleness, divorce, and cohabitation.

Conducted by sociologist Ellen Verbake of Tilburg University in the Netherlands, this new study first systematically assesses the well-being of married, divorced, single, and cohabiting men and women in 45 European countries and then gauges the effect of the country’s normative culture in determining that well-being. The data for these assessments comes from 60,518 men and women surveyed in 45 countries as part of European Values Study 2008.

The pattern emerging in the data could hardly be clearer: “Subjective well-being varies by partnership status, with married individuals reporting the highest level of well-being, followed (in order) by cohabiting, dating, single, and finally divorced or widowed individuals.” The differences evident in the well-being of the groups turn out to be sizeable. “Overall,” Verbake reports, “the variation in well-being is quite substantial.”

Adding a bit more detail, Verbake notes that “men and women in their first marriage seem slightly happier than remarried men and women,” although this difference does not reach the threshold of statistical significance. And though widowed and divorced adults of both sexes report the “lowest levels of subjective well-being,” it is divorce that translates into the very lowest subjective well-being for women, but widowhood that brings the very lowest subjective well-being for men.

Verbake recognizes one relationship difference as one of the most strikingly consistent findings of her study: “the slope of cohabitation, representing the difference in well-being between married and cohabiting persons, does not vary over countries.” In country after country after country, married men and women enjoy better subjective well-being than do their cohabiting peers.

Given the consistency of this finding, it is hardly surprising that Verbake’s statistical analyses compellingly indicate that the deficits in well-being found among cohabiting, divorced, and single individuals are not the consequence of social disapproval.

Verbake pointedly frames and then directly answers the key question: “Is it true that people in a non-married relationship suffer more in terms of well-being in societies that generally disapprove of nontraditional partner statuses? The answer is negative.” Whether the focus is those who are single, those who are cohabiting, or those who are divorced, Verbake found “no significant interaction effects” in her statistical analyses. And in this absence of effects, Verbake sees proof that “societal rejection of one’s partnership status does not make people unhappier.”

Verbake carves out “one exception to this general conclusion. Divorced women are more disadvantaged in terms of their subjective well-being than married women in familialistic societies that underline the value of a strong, close-knit family.” Verbake interprets this one exception to her overall conclusion as an indication that in a familialistic society, divorced women perceive their “partnership status more as a failure to meet [the prevailing] family norm than [do] divorced women in societies that place less emphasis on the family.” Divorced men in familialistic societies are not similarly disadvantaged, Verbake finds.

In summing up her findings, Verbake reiterates the clear implication of the data: “The general conclusion that can be formulated is that societies’ normative climates have little impact on how people in various kinds of relationships evaluate their lives.”

But since the data clearly establish that cohabiting, single, and divorced individuals suffer from serious deficits in well-being, this study should silence the fanciful progressive theorists arguing that such deficits would disappear if only society were more tolerant and accepting towards non-marital lifestyles.

(Ellen Verbake, “Subjective Well-Being by Partnership Status and Its Dependence on the Normative Climate,” European Journal of Population 28.2 [May 2012]: 205–232.)