“Men in relationships fare better on a whole range of measures, including mental and physical health. Women actually fare in a similar way—or even better—at certain points in their lifespan when they’re single.”—Elisabeth Shaw, CEO, Relationships Australia NSW.
- Australian Unity Wellbeing Index research found that marriage really does make us happier, with couples (include de facto couples) recording higher personal wellbeing scores.
- If you're a man, being married can have a more significant impact on your wellbeing. Women, on the other hand, display similar levels of wellbeing whether they're married or not.
- The happiness of couples increases with age and longevity in a relationship. The highest levels of wellbeing occur after 30 years of togetherness.
Marriage is an age-old part of the happiness narrative. From childhood fairytales to Hollywood rom-coms, the ultimate feel-good ending still involves a love-struck couple skipping down the aisle to embrace a lifetime of happily ever after.
Considering the dominance of this plotline, it’s no wonder we’re almost brainwashed to believe that tying the knot is still the romantic ideal for adult life. But given that one in three marriages now ends in divorce, are we getting blinded by the confetti? Do our social norms and traditions overstate the importance of marriage when it comes to our personal wellbeing?
Not according to the data. Australian Unity Wellbeing Index research, conducted over the past 20 years in collaboration with Deakin University, shows that being in a meaningful relationship is, in fact, one of the three key elements of “the golden triangle of happiness”, along with enjoying financial control and security, and achieving in life.
The marriage effect
More specifically, however, Australian Unity Wellbeing Index data has consistently found that people who are married display the highest levels of wellbeing, followed by those in de facto relationships.
At the same time, people who are separated, divorced or who have never married tend to sit below the average range for wellbeing. Admittedly, age does skew these results—older widows and younger singles, for example, were found to have greater wellbeing levels than other unattached age brackets.
But the prevailing message is clear and it’s a stark endorsement of the value of marriage when it comes to your personal wellbeing.
Reflecting on this data, Elisabeth Shaw, CEO of Relationships Australia NSW, is at pains to point out that there are many types of committed relationships that are deeply fulfilling, even if they don’t conform to the conventional marriage template. But she admits that marriage still lingers in our collective psyche as the most common benchmark for adult happiness.
“Finding a life partner is still held as the social norm, isn't it?” says Elisabeth. “It is seen to be the Holy Grail and the measure of success, and so people judge themselves as to whether they've been able to achieve that. People who are single, voluntarily or not, often feel very negative not having achieved that standard, whether that is fair or not.”
The wellbeing benefits
These social pressures may be unreasonable, but the benefits of marriage are reflected in Australian Unity Wellbeing Index data. Over the course of a marriage, people’s wellbeing tends to remain at the top of, or above, the average range.
There’s no evidence for the notorious “seven-year itch” either—although wellbeing levels do tend to dip slightly at the 11- to 15-year mark of a marriage. And while you might expect smug newlyweds to be the most unbearably chipper, wellbeing rates actually grow stronger in a marriage from 30 years onwards.
There are multiple reasons for this growing sense of marital satisfaction, suggests Deakin University’s Associate Professor Delyse Hutchinson, a Clinical Psychologist and Researcher on the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index. “From a relationship perspective, many couples who have been together for an extended period of time have worked through the inevitable ups and downs in life as a couple. This, in turn, may help them to forge a stronger bond over time,” she says.
“Likewise, the wellbeing ‘high’ may also be related to the fact that wellbeing incrementally increases as we enter the latter decades of life. This is a time when life demands start to reduce, people are more financially stable, children may be more independent, and there may be more time to reconnect and enjoy one’s relationship.”
The gender issue
Intriguingly, age isn’t the only factor that influences our marital contentment—gender also plays a part in a way that defies the stereotypical connotations. Rightly or wrongly, the word “bachelor” has become widely associated with carefree fun and a hedonistic lifestyle. Being a spinster, on the other hand, is unfairly and incorrectly aligned with loneliness.
Yet the data turns these gender-based assumptions squarely on their head. In fact, marriage is proven to make a significantly more positive difference to the lives of men.
“The research demonstrates more benefits to being in a committed relationship for men than women,” says Elisabeth. “Men in relationships fare better on a whole range of measures, including mental and physical health. Women actually fare in a similar way—or even better—at certain points in their lifespan when they’re single.”
Untangling the reason behind this largely comes down to the fact that men tend to depend more heavily on the domestic realm for their social and community ties. Women, on the other hand, are better at maintaining these relationships independently.
“Overall, women are better at hanging on to lifelong friendships,” says Elisabeth. “They tend to work harder at having a social life outside the relationship so that, if they separate, they've got a safety net of people to fall back on. Men can be more likely to rely on their partner and the trappings of marriage as their social life so that, if they separate, a man might be left with more of a social vacuum.”
It’s an important reminder that, while the research may show that marriage can make you happier, it’s not wise to count on it as your only source of social nourishment.
Life is made up of multiple relationships, from your family and friends to your neighbours and work colleagues. The smart move is to strengthen that network. No man (or woman) is an island—establishing your personal archipelago is the way to go.
Disclaimer: Information provided in this article is of a general nature. Australian Unity accepts no responsibility for the accuracy of any of the opinions, advice, representations or information contained in this publication. Readers should rely on their own advice and enquiries in making decisions affecting their own health, wellbeing or interest. Interviewee titles and employer are cited as at the time of interview and may have changed since publication.