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"Why Marriage Matters": Marriage leads to better overall health, scholar Linda Waite says

Linda Waite
Linda Waite
Brigham Young University

PROVO — There's a lot to be said for saying "I do."

And it goes beyond the romantic notions of happily ever after.

How about healthily, wealthily ever after?

Married people have higher levels of physical, emotional and cognitive health, along with greater earning potential, a sociologist told a group at BYU last week.

Linda Waite, a professor of sociology from the University of Chicago, provided hard data for the often emotionally fueled arguments in favor of traditional marriage at the sixth annual Marjorie Pay Hinckley Lecture.

"What I argue, and in my view, the research evidence supports, is that marriage itself changes people's choices," Waite said.

When their choices change, their behavior changes, which results in greater health.

"(Using the) most basic fundamental health indicator, it's very clear that married people are advantaged," she said, showing a graph with life-expectancy lines for men and women that were higher for married individuals than their single, widowed or divorced counterparts.

And this refers to traditional marriages, she said, not cohabitation, marriage-like arrangements or alternatives to marriage.

But being married doesn't just help you live longer. Other graphs showed higher levels of mental health and cognitive function for married couples than for single people living alone, with other adults or with their own children.

"It's clear that for both men and women, marriage improves mental health," Waite said. "And it declines when they lose a marriage."

In fact, divorce or widowhood is so stressful that "being divorced or widowed leaves a mark on physical health even years later," she said.

Although remarrying improves mental health, it can't make up for the damaging periods of poor sleep, nutrition and exercise during a stressful time, Waite said.

Marriage also benefits the parties financially, as women have someone to provide for them and their children, and men earn more money than they did when they were single, because of an improved work ethic.

Those findings are nothing new to BYU professors, who study social trends of marriage and family through the LDS lens.

"Obviously at BYU, there's a religious motivation behind the importance of marriage," said Renata Forste, a sociology professor who studied in Chicago, where she met Waite. "But there's also empirical evidence that shows that married people do better."

Lectures like Waite's build on the legacy of Sister Hinckley and her focus on the family through research and education, said Stephen Bahr, a professor of sociology at BYU who is on the Marjorie Pay Hinckley Advisory Committee responsible for arranging the lectures.

"Rather than simply advocating a position is to focus on the research," Bahr said. "As students learn to do good research, the research will speak for itself, as hers did."

And the more people who understand the scientifically proven benefits of marriage, not only for them, but for society in general, the more attitudes will hopefully shift to being protective and supportive of traditional marriage, Waite said.

"The most important thing is to speak up, in love, for the truth about marriage," said Maggie Gallagher, president of the National Organization for Marriage and co-author with Waite on the book, "The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially."

"Right now, it's less about which arguments are more or less effective than it is about the attempt to intimidate or embarrass marriage supporters into silence," Gallagher told the Deseret News, "especially those of us who believe marriage is and should remain in America the union of one man with one woman."

Gallagher said it's important to talk to children, siblings, friends and family members about why marriage matters so much.

"We tend to raise kids to be good workers and students," she said. "We need to raise them as well to be and to value being good husbands and wives, because children need moms and dads they can count on."

"Why Marriage Matters"

In 2002, a group of family scholars, including Linda Waite, produced a report, "Why Marriage Matters," sponsored by the Institute for American Values.

In the report, they summarized three fundamental conclusions about marriage:

Marriage is an important social good.

Marriage is an important public good.

The benefits of marriage extend to poor and minority communities.

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