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Are Married People Happier?

Differences in subjective wellbeing among cohabitating and married couples
Source: jacoblund

Numerous studies have been published that have examined subjective wellbeing (SWB) and marriage status, finding that married people tend to have a higher SWB. But in today’s society, more couples are opting for cohabitation, which includes many benefits associated with marriage. This then leaves the question of whether individuals who cohabit have similar levels of SWB as married people. Brienna Perelli-Harris, Stefanie Hoherz, Trude Lappegård and Ann Evans look more closely at this question by exploring the situation in Australia, Germany, Norway and the United Kingdom. They specifically looked at selection processes – events and characteristics correlated with entrance into marriage – and one’s current conditions; they examined whether marriage may be more advantageous for those with a lower or higher tendency to marry; and, finally, to see if there is variation by country and gender between partnership type and SWB.

The authors used harmonized data sets from the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS), the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey, the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), and the Norwegian Generations and Gender Survey (GGS) to analyse partnership status in midlife. They found that differences between marriage and cohabitation disappear in all countries once selection and relationship satisfaction are considered, which means marriage does not lead to higher SWB.

The authors did find differences based on country, gender and propensity to marry. Looking at the UK, marriage does not appear to be associated with higher SWB for men, but it does seem more beneficial for women and partnered individuals with a low propensity to marry. However, once relationship satisfaction is considered, statistical differences disappear, which implies that the quality of the relationship matters more than legal recognition. Or, it could also mean that only women in high-quality relationships with suitable marriage partners are getting married. For Australia, marriage is related to higher SWB for men when considering partnership status and age, but once more controls are added, the results imply that selection processes matter. In Germany, before weighting the results, German married men showed higher levels of SWB and after weighting, those in a partnership with a low propensity to marry have higher levels of SWB. Lastly, for Norwegian men, marriage is not significantly different than cohabitation, but married women have higher levels of SWB than women who are cohabiting. The importance of marriage in Norway was assumed to be low, but it appears to be more important than previously thought. 

What the authors concluded was that marriage does not automatically mean higher SWB, which suggests that for some countries, cohabitation may provide similar benefits to marriage. The relationship between partnership and SWB is complicated and context-specific, which needs to be recognized in future research. Selection processes are heterogeneous and differ based on one’s tendency to marry. If policymakers want to increase SWB, then instead of incentivising marriage, policy needs to focus on reducing disadvantages in both childhood and adulthood.

Author(s) of the original publication: 
Daniela Vono de Vilhena