Is There a Hitch? Does marriage make you happy? Or do happy people tend to be the marrying kind? The facts about wedded bliss
January 17, 2005
By Joel Stein
Time Magazine Online

Eternal love, the creation of a new family, the approval of society—whatever. What I really wanted to know three years ago before I proposed to Cassandra was, Will marriage make me happier? I was highly dubious about this, since the main rule of marriage seems to be that you can't have sex with other women. Unless marriage came with immeasurably better food—the kind that's the next best thing to sex—I couldn't see how this was going to work out for me.

Little did I know that teams of scientists around the globe were asking themselves the same question, which made me wonder just how easy it is to score a grant. What they have found is that marriage guarantees you almost nothing extra—not health, not happiness. All it really gets you is higher-count bedsheets. And I would sleep on 80-grit sandpaper for a night of bachelorhood.

People have long believed that being unmarried makes people unhappy. Entire Victorian novels, children's card games and phone calls with Jewish moms are built on this assumption. But a long-term study released in 2003 shows that marriage doesn't necessarily make people one bit happier.

That's the conclusion of Richard Lucas, a psychology professor at Michigan State University who dedicated himself to crunching the data from 15 years of interviews of more than 24,000 Germans. Using a complex gauge of happiness that many people know as "Rate yourself from 0 to 10," he discovered that couples upped their scores in the first blush of matrimony. But the ratings quickly subsided to where they were before the wedding. This isn't entirely surprising because a study in 1978 showed that people who win the lottery quickly adapt to their new situation—their happiness levels tend to stay on par with those of your average blue collar Joe.

Before marriage, the study subjects on average rated themselves 7.28. Their happiness then ratcheted up to 7.56 around wedding day. But two years into the marriage, they retreated to 7.28. My wife and I consider ourselves 8.5s but concede that if we were stuck in Germany with some psychologist calling us with annoying questions for 15 years, we would be 7.28.

The canard that marriage makes people happier and healthier probably stems from the fact that married people are indeed happier and healthier than single people. Studies from nearly every country have shown that married people are happier than single folks. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention titled "Marital Status and Health: United States, 1999-2002" showed that married people are less likely to be in poor-to-fair health, smoke or drink heavily, or suffer from such health problems as headaches and serious psychological distress. Couples who just live together are as sick as single people. I was feeling better about my choice.

But it turns out this is probably because married people, as a group, start out happy and healthy. People who are content are just more likely to get married and stay married. This makes sense. You won't see Fox creating a reality show called Who Wants to Marry a Sick, Old, Grumpy Dude?

"If you ask a superhappy married person, 'Are you happier now than you were [before marriage]?' they'll say yes. But their happiness score hasn't gone up," says happiness guru Edward Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose wife has stayed with him for 39 years even though he keeps a happy-face flag outside their home. "Because they're very positive, they think things are getting better all the time, but they really aren't." Marriage, however, does make total losers—the lonely and friendless among us—a little happier, since greater social interaction is one of the few proven ways to increase your life satisfaction. "It's kind of like if you're poor—you can get a lot more out of a million dollars,'' Diener explains. "But marriage isn't going to add as much if you're not lonely." In other words, marriage does the most for socially maladjusted freaks, who wouldn't have any friends or get any action otherwise.

Not only is wedlock unlikely to make me happier, but my health could falter if my relationship does. Psychologists, having previously shown that stressed-out people are more vulnerable to illness, couldn't tell if their hardships were causing the sickness or if the sickness was worsening their stress. So an Ohio State University study rounded up 90 young, happy, healthy, stress-free newlywed couples and decided to ruin their good time. Researchers put couples in a room and had them discuss the core issues they most disagreed about: babies, money, campaign-finance reform. The researchers videotaped them, hooked them to IVs and drew blood at scheduled intervals, both to get firm scientific measurements and, undoubtedly, to stress them out even more.

What the psychologists learned is that couples' contentedness depends not on how often they argue or on how much they disagree but on the way they fight. Couples who used insults, blame, sarcasm, eye rolling and interrupting had greater increases in levels of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, the same hormones that increase during a heart attack, the researchers found. These couples had bigger spikes in blood pressure and showed greater decreases in immune-system response. They were also much more entertaining to watch. And a follow-up study showed they were more likely to get divorced.

Another finding: marital combat takes a higher toll on the female warrior. "Women, in our study and others, tend to hear negativity much more acutely and remember it much more," says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychology professor at Ohio State and co-author of the study. "So it's not surprising that women would respond to it more, physiologically." This has led me to a rope-a-dope strategy in my arguments with Cassandra, since every fight weakens her a little more than it hurts me.

The only sure benefit of marriage that scientists have been able to prove is that it will lower my odds of committing a violent crime, which really is less a benefit for me than for my potential victims. A 2002 University of Florida study finds that hardened ex-cons straightened out with the routines of a solid marriage, while those who just lived with a woman were actually more likely to commit crimes. All this really proves to me is that marriage numbs your desire to do anything.

Yet now that I'm married, I need to know how to get the most happiness out of my marriage. And it turns out that I'm well on my way, thanks to my considered indifference. After I proposed, people would constantly ask me whether I was excited about getting married, and I would have to say no. Content, sure. Unconflicted, yes. Even relieved. Unfortunately, these were words that made me seem like less of a romantic than a complete jerk.

But it turns out that we complete jerks may end up with the best marriages, since we're not expecting all that much. In a study published last May, psychology professors James McNulty of Ohio State and Benjamin Karney of the University of Florida found that people with the highest expectations for wedded bliss often set themselves up for the steepest declines in happiness. Which only seems fair, because those people are the most annoying.

I figured this out a few years ago while sharing the backseat of a limo with Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton, who were ignoring me and making out like 10th-graders on ecstasy. And instead of enjoying the live sex show, all I could think about was whether my marriage, in which I get embarrassed holding hands, was real and true or theirs was. One Jolie divorce and a scientific study later, I know I'm in one beautiful marriage.

McNulty says people could have longer and happier marriages if they stopped thinking of their partners as perfect. I also deftly avoided this trap. I can get away with saying this because my wife never reads past the second page of anything I write. It's one of her imperfections.

Although past studies have stressed positive thinking as the key to a happy marriage, it turns out to be effective only in the short term. McNulty's four-year study showed that high goals for happiness—when they're not backed up by equally robust communication and relationship skills—eventually lead to disappointment during the inevitable dark points of a relationship that is designed to dribble on until you die. These couples are like the deluded dumb kids in school who think they can get A's even though they don't have the brainpower to make the grade: they're perpetually disappointed. "But if the student realizes he or she doesn't have quite the skills to get an A and maybe expects to get B's and C's instead, there isn't as much disappointment," says McNulty. "In the same way, it really seems that couples' expectations should match their skills and abilities and the reality of their marriage."

Negative as these marriage studies are—no increased happiness, possible weakened immunity—they actually haven't made me any less happy to be married. Marriage, for me, wasn't really a choice. I knew that I was never going to leave Cassandra, that I couldn't be any happier. Marriage was just a way to make sure we always remembered that. It was even worth giving up ever having sex with other women again.

And it turns out, it's going to work out fine for me. In a paper released last spring, David Blanchflower of Dartmouth College and Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick found that married people have more sex than single people. Why they don't tell you that beforehand, instead of focusing on that honoring and obeying stuff, is beyond me.