Thinking about tying the knot? You’re probably wondering if — and how — such a big commitment will impact your relationship.
A friend who knows I’m in a long-term relationship recently sent me a New York Times’ opinion piece titled “13 Questions To Ask Before Getting Married.” What she probably doesn’t know is that she sent me on an entirely different research mission: to see what we know about the effect marriage actually has on peoples’ happiness.
Sure, you may have heard that married people report being happier overall over their lifetimes than single folks, or that people tend to say they’re more “satisfied” with life just after their weddings.
But is it actually the act of marriage that’s causing those benefits?
In fact, there’s loads of evidence to the contrary: A 2012 study found that couples who lived together but were not married had higher self-esteem and were happier overall than their counterparts who were married. A 2011 review of the impact of happiness on major life events found that couples who got married generally felt less happy and less satisfied over time than couples who had not.
More importantly to me than all these negative studies, however, was a recent bright spot in the research which suggests that it isn’t marriage that’s the key to happiness, but the quality of the relationship itself.
A 2014 working paper from the National Bureau of Economics Research found that if the person you call your partner (or significant other, or whatever) is also the person you see as your best friend, you don’t actually need to be married to reap the benefits of a long-term relationship. And it’s this factor, rather than getting married (or not) that appears to matter the most for happiness.
‘Maybe what is really important is friendship’
For their 2014 paper, the researchers’ initial findings appeared to support the “if marriage, then happiness” idea: They found that couples who were married tended to have higher happiness levels than couples who were not.
But the second part of that finding threw it out the window: It turned out that the couples who were best friends and lived together were just as happy as couples who were best friends and married. In other words, marriage didn’t appear to matter much at all.
To arrive at their conclusions, the researchers studied three separate data sets that included information about thousands of couples: The United Kingdom’s Annual Population Survey, the British Household Panel Survey, and the Gallup World Poll. Then, they controlled for couples’ age, gender, income, and health conditions (all of which could potentially affect their results).
Here’s a chart from the study comparing the “life satisfaction” of couples who were married (blue bars) with couples who lived together but were unmarried (red bars). Couples who said their partner was their best friend are on the left.
People in a relationship who saw their significant other as their best friend and either lived with that person or married them were happier than couples who saw their best friend as someone outside of the relationship.
“What immediately intrigued me about the results was to rethink marriage as a whole,” University of British Columbia economics professor and study coauthor John Helliwell recently told the New York Times. “Maybe what is really important is friendship, and to never forget that in the push and pull of daily life.”
This study isn’t the first to arrive at this finding.
Other research backs the idea that marriage isn’t the key to happiness
In 2012, four authors published a statistical analysis and summary of 18 studies of people who wed and eight of couples who divorced. Social psychologist Bella DePaulo recently took another look at that meta-analysis in a blog post for Psychology Today.
Here’s what the authors found, DePaulo writes:
“Except for that initial short-lived honeymoon effect for life satisfaction, getting married did not result in getting happier or more satisfied. In fact, for life satisfaction and relationship satisfaction, the trajectories over time headed in the less satisfied direction.”
But that’s not all.
“What is really remarkable about the combined findings of the 18 studies,” writes DePaulo, “is that the designs were biased in favour of making marriage look good. At least 11 of the studies included only those people who got married and stayed married.”
In other words, the results of this larger paper can’t tell us a whole lot about the results of marriage. Rather, they really only give us insight into what happens to people who get married and stay married. We don’t know much about what happens to those who get married and then get divorced or separate.
“Too many social scientists simply are not going to give up on the claim that getting married makes you happier,” DePaulo writes.
For another 2012 study (this one a survey of American couples), researchers found that couples who lived together but were not married had higher self-esteem and were happier overall than their married counterparts. Both types of relationships, however, were still linked with increases in overall well-being. Other studies suggest that marriage might even be more closely linked with negative outcomes than positive ones: A 2011 review of the impact on happiness of major life events found that couples who got married generally felt less happy and less satisfied with their lives over time.
The key takeaway here? Find a partner you consider your best friend. And don’t worry so much about the other stuff.