not miserable for women Study counters belief that marriage harms bride’s well-being
Oct. 4 —
Emotional problems are equally common among husbands and wives, new
research shows — a finding that challenges the long-standing feminist
belief that marriage makes men much happier but women more miserable.
The results of the largest study to
investigate the question were published in the current issue of the
Australian journal Family Matters.
Feminist scholar Jessie Bernard was among the first to postulate
that men benefited emotionally from marriage while women suffered. Her
research, published in a 1972 best seller “The Future of Marriage,” fed
into the evolving feminist belief that the institution of marriage
The theory has persisted, despite scientists’ subsequent findings
that her studies were flawed, and more recent research that has
contradicted the 30-year-old results. But the latest research — involving
10,641 people — is the largest, and particularly rigorous.
“This view of the effect of marriage on men and women has been
enormously influential and has become part of the ’common knowledge’ about
marriage,” said David De Vaus, a professor of sociology at La Trobe
University in Melbourne, who conducted the latest study.
“But the patterns that were suggested by people like Jessie Bernard
.... (are) just not true. The evidence is unequivocal,” he said.
“What the early studies did was center largely on typical female
disorders — anxiety, depression, phobias,” De Vaus said. “What they
ignored are the types of mental illness more common in men, such as drug
and alcohol abuse.”
Bernard, who died in 1996, found that married women were more depressed
than married men or single women. Married men, by contrast, were less
depressed than bachelors.
De Vaus’ study involved 10,641 Australian adults who were
interviewed personally to establish the state of their mental health.
The survey classified people as having a mental disorder based on
the World Health Organization definition after asking whether certain
symptoms and incidents had occurred in the 12 months leading up to the
“What’s very clear ... is that if you look at male typical and
female typical disorders and combine them, then men and women in marriage
have the same rates of mental disorders. They just have different
disorders,” De Vaus said.
David Popenoe, co-director of the
Family Research Project at Rutgers University, said U.S. researchers have
reached similar conclusions but the scale of the Australian study was
particularly impressive. Popenoe was not involved in the Australian study.
The study found mental illness in 16 percent of the women and 16
percent of the men. Depression and anxiety was more common among women,
while drug and alcohol abuse tended to afflict men.
Divorced people fared the worst, with 25 percent of both the women
and the men suffering emotional problems.
Singletons fared slightly better, with 22 percent of women and 26
percent of men afflicted with mental disorders.
Married people were best off, with only 13 percent of women and 13
percent of men suffering emotional disorders.
Experts say that while it is now clear that married people are
emotionally better off than divorced or single people, it remains to be
proven that marriage itself reduces the risk of an emotional disorder.
It could be that people with better mental health are more likely to get
married, while those with problems shy away from marriage, are not able to
attract partners or end up divorced.
“Certainly that’s a factor, but it’s not just that,” said Popenoe, a
professor of sociology.
The most likely meaning of the latest findings is that Bernard’s
findings and her conclusion that marriage emotionally oppresses women were
wrong all along, he said.
“When something like that gets stuck in the cultural mind, it doesn’t
go away easily. There is the small element that marriage has changed since
the ’50s and ’60s, but we also know there were methodological flaws in that
study,” Popenoe said.
Marriage rates in many developed countries are declining.
“There are going to be many things that, rightly, are going to enter
into the decision whether or not to marry,” De Vaus said. “It would be a
pity if women decided not to get married based on information that it
damages their mental health, when in fact the evidence shows the opposite.”
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