My husband and I lived together for five years before we got married on one hot, sunny August day. And now that we’ve been married for 11 years, I look back and think of that time in our lives as almost a different period. Such different memories, different experiences, different problems. Back then we were still establishing our careers for example and saving desperately for a house. We were more flush with both cash and time.
Today, one mortgage and two children later, we’re now short on both money and time and our experiences feel almost completely unrelatable to our lives at that time. And what brings us happiness today is slightly different than what brought us happiness back then. Not better. Just different.
So when I saw Dr. Kelly Musick’s research comparing couples who live together and married couples and happiness levels, I wanted to find out more—would we have been happier if we’d just stayed living together? Lead author Musick, an associate professor of policy analysis and management at Ithaca, NY-based Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology, explains further.
Q: What is the perception of happiness and marriage?
A: Conventional wisdom is that marriage makes people happier and healthier. And this notion is supported by research showing links between marriage and well-being. But many past studies compared marriage to being single, or compared marriages and living together at a single point in time. Our study compares marriage to living together [and examines] what changes when single men and women move into marriage or living together and the extent to which any effects of marriage and living together persist over time.
Q: So what did you discover regarding living together and happiness versus marriage and happiness?
A: We found pretty striking similarities in the effects of marriage and cohabitation on well-being. Where there were differences included marriage it wasn’t always advantageous. For example, married people experienced greater health gains, but cohabitators experienced greater gains in happiness and self-esteem. Both kinds of unions had benefits in psychological well-being compared to being single, and benefits diminished for both after a honeymoon period. Both also resulted in less contact with parents and friends. For some, living together may come with fewer unwanted obligations than marriage and allow for more flexibility, autonomy and personal growth.
Q: So married or living together, those positive benefits fade over time?
A: Both kinds of unions boosted psychological well-being, at least in the short term, over remaining single. Results showed a spike in well-being immediately following both marriage and cohabitation as couples experienced a honeymoon period with higher levels of happiness and fewer depressive symptoms compared to singles. The social support and intimacy of being in a romantic relationship – whether marital or cohabiting – seems to provide some benefits over being single.
But people who moved into marriage or cohabitation also spent less time with parents and friends. Singles seem to derive support from sources that married and cohabiting couples ultimately pull away from.
Q: So what can we ultimately learn from your study and apply to our own lives?
A: We aren’t saying that marriage is irrelevant, but that it is far from a blanket prescription for individual well-being. To those in highly conflicted marriages or who have gone through divorce, this sociological insight is only a firm grasp of the obvious. At the same time, for many others, marriage is a great source of happiness and well-being that it is expected to be for a lifetime, or at least for some part of the life course.
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