Better Than Therapy?

Researchers have understood for years that marriage improves mental health. A new study, however, finds that matrimony delivers substantive psychological benefits even to those who enter marriage under the cloud of depression.

Conductedby sociologists at the Ohio State University, this study clarifies the favorable psychological effects of marriage. To be sure, the authors began their work fully aware of earlier research demonstrating that, “on average, the currently married report higher levels of psychological well-being (measured by lower rates of depression, substance abuse, and alcoholism) than never-married, divorced, widowed, or separated individuals.” The scholars were also cognizant of previous longitudinal studies establishing that “transitions into marriage are associated with declines in depression among women and declines in alcohol use and abuse among men.” Nonetheless, the researchers were not prepared for what they found.

To be sure, the overall pattern in the data—collected from a nationally representative sample between 1987 and 1994—confirmed the researchers’ expectations. For the sample as a whole, the researchers find that—just as they expected—“those who experience the transition into marriage report better psychological well-being than their continually unmarried counterparts.”

But the data dramatically contradicted the researchers’ initial hypothesis that “depressed individuals who transition[ed] to marriage w[ould] not report better psychological well-being after marrying than the depressed who remain[ed] continually unmarried.” This initial hypothesis reflected quite plausible reasoning: if the psychological benefits of a marriage depend upon the quality of that marriage, then a spouse who enters wedlock shrouded in depression will not realize those benefits because “the depression of that spouse can compromise the psychological benefits of marriage through a decrease in communication, [and] excessive emotional neediness.” When the researchers examine the data, they discover that—to their astonishment—“the previously depressed benefit more from marriage than the nondepressed even though their marital quality is slightly worse.”

How can it be that marriage offers even greater psychological advantages to depressed men and women than it does to their mentally healthy peers? The researchers try to explain their “surprising” finding by conjecturing that “marriage may give a depressed person the sense that he or she matters to a spouse and to new social ties, whereas someone who was not depressed prior to marrying may have always felt that he or she matters to others.”

The Ohio State researchers are careful to note that their data do not support “the assumption that marriage is always a good choice for all individuals.” However, this finding makes it all the more tragic that marriage rates have plummeted in recent decades. For the retreat from wedlock has left tens of thousands mired in psychological gloom from which they might have escaped in the wedding chapel.

(Adrianne Frech and Kristi Williams, “Depression and the Psychological Benefits of Entering Marriage,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior48 [2007]: 149–62, emphasis added.)