Marriage – Global Shield against Trauma

Being in an automobile accident, contracting a life-threatening illness, being mugged—these and other traumatic experiences can leave scars physical and emotional. But whether in Boston or Bogota, Beijing or Beirut, Berlin or Brisbane, married men and women face significantly lower risk of acquiring such scars than do unmarried peers. Such is the conclusion of a worldwide study of traumatic-event exposure conducted by researchers from dozens of medical and academic institutions around the world. 

The authors of the new study come from an impressive range of institutions, including Harvard, Pennsylvania University, and the University of Washington in the United States, Peking University in China, Balamand University in Lebanon, Moi University in Kenya, the University of Otago in New Zealand, the Federal University of Espírito Santo in Brazil, the University of New South Wales in Australia, the University of Tokyo in Japan, the University Paris Diderot in France, and the University of Ulster in Northern Ireland. Though diverse in national identity, the authors of this new study share a common understanding that exposure to traumatic events can translate into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and “a wide range of other adverse mental and physical outcomes.” These researchers therefore believe that “understanding who is at risk for exposure to T[raumatic]E[vents] is . . . of considerable interest.”

To identify just who is most at risk for such exposure, the researchers scrutinize data collected between 2001 and 2012 for 68,894 men and women living in 24 different countries scattered across all six inhabited continents. The countries included in the study include the United States, Mexico, Columbia, Peru, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan, Lebanon, Israel, Nigeria, South Africa, Spain, France, and Germany. 

The data reveal that over 70% of the men and women surveyed had experienced a traumatic event, with almost a third (30.5%) experiencing four or more. Five types of traumas—witnessing a death or serious injury, the unexpected death of a loved one, being mugged, being in a life-threatening automobile accident, and experiencing a life-threatening illness or injury—accounted for over half of all of the traumatic experiences tabulated. 

But not all men and women face the same risk of trauma. “Being married,” report the researchers, “was the most consistent protective factor.” The researchers conclude that “married respondents had reduced odds, compared with the never married, of all T[raumatic]E[vent] factors (O[dds]R[atio]s = 0.5–0.9) except accidents/injuries (O[dds]R[atio] = 1.0).”

In explaining the protective effect of wedlock, the researchers conjecture that “married people may spend less time outside the home, at later hours, unaccompanied, and in potentially vulnerable situations (such as parties or bars) than those never married,” buttressing this conjecture with data from a study conducted in seventeen industrialized nations finding that “single individuals had double the risk of contact [with] crime, and those who went out more frequently were 20% more vulnerable to crime.” The researchers reason further that “married individuals may have more resources and consequently face fewer stressors such as living in unsafe communities than unmarried individuals.” 

The authors of the new study hope that their findings will prove “valuable in targeting preventive interventions and anticipating service needs.”

Unfortunately, in a country with plummeting marriage rates and dismayingly high divorce rates, “service needs” may run very high in the years ahead—unless Americans can develop “preventive interventions” that will set wedding bells ringing and quiet the gavel of divorce-court lawyers.

(C. Benjet et al., “The Epidemiology of Traumatic Event Exposure Worldwide: Results from the World Mental Health Survey Consortium,” Psychological Medicine 46.2 [2016]: 327-43.)