Re-Examining the Case for Marriage: Variation and Change in Well-Being and Relationships


  • Kelly Musick
  • Larry Bumpass


The association between marriage and well-being has been well documented in recent years.  Nonetheless, there remain a number of open questions about the nature and meaning of this association, namely, the extent to which it is causal, shared with cohabitation, and stable over time. This paper addresses these issues and provides a perspective for thinking about the relative benefits of marriage. It relies on data from the 1987-1992 National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH) and is the first U.S. study to use fixed-effects models to account for unmeasured characteristics related to marriage, cohabitation, and well-being.  It is also unique in examining the persistence of changes in well-being as marriages and cohabitations progress over time. Our analysis reveals many similarities in the effects of marriage and cohabitation across a range of measures tapping psychological well-being, health, social ties, and couple relationship quality. Main results show no difference in the effects of moving into marriage and cohabitation on depression, relationship with parents, or time spent with family or friends; they show some difference in happiness, health, self-esteem, and couple relationships. Where there are statistically significant differences, marriage is not always more advantageous than cohabitation. Moreover, in the case of significant differences, they tend to be small and appear to dissipate over time, even when the greater instability of cohabitation is taken into account. The authors conclude that similarities between marriage and cohabitation are more striking than differences.



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