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The case for marriage: Science says it’s the key to happiness

A variety of studies show a good marriage is something worth working for

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Eliza Anderson, Deseret News

Brad Wilcox has an urgent message, just in time for Valentine’s Day: “Get Married.”

It’s the title of his new book and one of the subjects of his life’s work as a sociologist at the University of Virginia, home to the National Marriage Project, which he directs.

It’s also a heartfelt belief that he backs with reams of science.

Asked five reasons why people should marry, Wilcox emails this list: More sex. Less loneliness. More meaning. Better-adjusted kids. And a lot more happiness. “Nothing matters more than a good marriage for happiness today,” he told Deseret News. “Not money, education, job satisfaction, sexual frequency or even religious attendance.”

He said that a healthy marriage and good family environment “are more reliable pathways to a meaningful and happy life than even a good job.”

Wilcox is not alone in the belief that a good marriage brings meaning, companionship, more resources and greater life satisfaction to life. A long look at Gallup poll results shows it. Published studies in well-known journals show it. Reports like one just released by BYU’s Wheatley Institute called “The Soulmate Trap” show the benefits of a happy union.

So during National Marriage Week, on a Hallmark-card kind of holiday meant to celebrate romantic love — the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics estimate consumers planned to spend $25.8 billion or about $185.81 per person for Valentine’s Day 2024 — let’s look at what’s new in marriage news.

Marriage brings happiness

When Wilcox looked at the 2022 General Social Survey while researching his latest book, he said it showed a very small share of couples are not happy in their marriage. And if they’re not happy in their marriage, they’re not happy generally. They are certainly less happy than their single peers, he said.

Other experts, too, have noted the importance of the word “good” or “healthy” in singing marriage’s praises. Kids do better when their parents have a good partnership. And as Melissa Kearney, author of “The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind,” noted a few months ago, simple math plays a role in that. Two parents in the home have more resources — whether time or tangible things — to offer kids. And commitment to the kids and each other means everything.

Having two parents who are working together with the goal of kids who flourish is more likely in married-parent households, experts across the political aisle have told Deseret News.

It’s not just kids who thrive, though.

“It’s still the case that there’s no group of Americans that are happier than married parents, on average,” Wilcox noted. “The reality is that for all of its difficulties, marriage is a major source of meaning and happiness for ordinary people, both men and women.”

Wilcox is not alone in the belief that a healthy marriage brings meaning, companionship, more resources and greater life satisfaction to humans.

Different data, same result

Jonathan Rothwell, principal economist at Gallup, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a visiting scholar at George Washington University, used a different data set and came to largely the same conclusion about marriage’s benefits.

In a blog titled “Married People Are Living Their Best Lives,” written for the Institute for Family Studies last week, he wrote: “This does not mean that marriage — as an institution or relationship — is necessarily the cause of happiness, though that certainly may be true. People who are persistently happier — or have attributes that tend to generate and sustain happiness, such as character traits like agreeableness, emotional stability and conscientiousness — may be more likely to seek out marriage and may be more likely to receive marriage proposals. Marital status is not randomly assigned.”

Rothwell reported that Gallup data from 2020 to 2023 shows that marital status is a stronger predictor of well-being for American adults than education, race, age and gender.

Of 795,904 adults, more than 6 in 10 say they’re thriving, while for those in a domestic partnership, the number is close to 48%. About 45% of those who are divorced and the never-married say they’re thriving, per Rothwell.

Rothwell also found marriage negatively associated with deaths of despair: Those who are married are less likely to die by suicide, drug overdose or drug or alcohol poisoning.

Part of Rothwell’s analysis was looking at marriage and happiness in different communities. He reported that Provo, Utah, has the highest rate of subjective well-being (64.4%) and marriage rate (70%). Ogden, Utah, came in second on marriage rate (62.9%) and has a high rate of well-being, as did the San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, California, metropolitan area and Grand Rapids, Michigan, he wrote.

Per Rothwell, “Among the top 10 areas for marriage per household, the average share thriving in well-being is 56.4%, compared to a group average of 52.6% for the 10 areas with the lowest marriage rates per household. On this list, Cleveland and Las Vegas have well-being rates below 53%. Youngstown and Toledo have thriving rates at or under 50 percent.”

He concludes, “In America, at least, it looks like happiness ebbs and flows with marriage.”

Can you craft a good marriage?

A new report by the Wheatley Institute at BYU makes the case for being proactive in caring for and nurturing marriage. “The Soulmate Trap: Why Embracing Agency-Based Love Is the Surest Path to Creating a Flourishing Marriage” found 60% of Americans believe in true love and in a “one-and-only” soulmate relationship. Research, however, suggests that romantic relationships flourish through “the personal virtues and intentional efforts of the partners.”

Soulmate beliefs, on the other hand, “are often deeply paradoxical in nature and tend to place relationship success outside of one’s agency.”

The researchers studied 615 couples across the U.S. and Canada and found those that flourished had certain active traits, like being compassionate with each other and spending meaningful time together, regularly doing acts of kindness for each other and routinely maintaining the relationship.

The report uses data from the “Satisfaction or Connectivity?” study in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. The report compared personal virtues like commitment, compassion and focusing on others rather than self, actions like kindness and spending time together, as well as relationship outcomes like satisfaction and feeling life has meaning.

The report said marriage needs a makeover to embrace single adults’ desire for a special love relationship without buying into the hard-to-attain, unrealistic “soulmate” version of love. Instead, the authors suggest striving for marriages based on “agency, commitment and intentional actions.”

The soulmate myth

Jason Carroll, director of the Family Initiative at the Wheatley Institute, told the Deseret News, “The soulmate mindset fosters destiny beliefs about relationships, which can create unrealistic expectations. Not only do these beliefs make it harder to commit to a promising potential partner, but it also means that many relationships that do get started will meet an untimely end once they hit the first signs of struggle.”

Among key findings highlighted in the report:

  • Couples in “high-connection” marriages score nearly three times higher on commitment to their relationship than do those in low-connection unions (72% vs. 26%).
  • High-connection marriages are much more likely to feature personal virtues and proactive behaviors, compared to those in low-connection marriages, leading to higher levels of life satisfaction.

“At their core, soulmate beliefs provide a backwards depiction of the proper sequence of healthy relationships development,” said Adam Galovan, a professor at the University of Alberta and one of the report’s co-authors, in a written statement. “Such beliefs suggest that someone exists as your one-and-only before you have even met. However, the findings of our study illustrate that oneness in marriage is primarily made, not found.”

The report changes the one-and-only in an “only-one” direction, Carroll told Deseret News, encouraging individuals and couples to look to the “true roots of enduring marriage,” including shared values, equal partnership, devotion to each other, healthy communication and personal virtues that make the fruits of a special-love marriage much more likely to achieve.”

Added David Schramm, associate professor at Utah State University and another co-author, “Our research shows that lasting marriages tend to be true partnerships in which spouses are devoted to creating a shared life together that is deeper than the emotional payoff of the marriage.”

The report recommends avoiding a consumer approach to relationships, keeping expectations about relationships realistic, developing a mature understanding of love, dating on a healthy trajectory and staying optimistic when breakups happen.

“Our commitment to our marriages needs to be more than thoughts or feelings. Marriages thrive when both spouses embrace a proactive form of commitment that is expressed daily in their choices, words and actions. Oneness in marriage is made, not found,” Carroll said.

Wilcox sums it up like this: “We are social animals. We are hardwired to connect. And when we can do that, in the context of a good marriage, we’re just much more likely to realize that classic American pursuit — the Jeffersonian pursuit, you know, in the Declaration, which is the pursuit of happiness.”