A more perfect union
Author: Suzanne Pardington
Posted: September 4, 2012

Tying the knot can be good for your health, happiness and financial well-being.

BILL AND BERNADINE met on a blind date and have been married for 64 years and counting.

Gina and Heidi, a lesbian couple, sued for the right to marry in Massachusetts—and won.

Rati and Subas have an arranged marriage and never went on a single date before their wedding day.

These three couples have three different types of marriages and one thing in common: They are, on average, more likely to be healthier, happier, and better off financially than single people.

That’s the conclusion of Portland State professor Karen Seccombe in her new textbook, Exploring Marriages & Families, an introduction for undergraduates on the study of marriage and family as a social science.

Seccombe, a professor in the School of Community Health, is the author of five other books on poverty, welfare, health care, and social inequality.

In her review of the latest marriage research, Seccombe found that the benefits of marriage are deep, far-reaching, and true for men and women, straight and gay, young and old, no matter how they met or their type of marriage. 

“Certainly not all marriages are good ones, but many are,” she says. “And those marriages can increase your happiness, because you’ve got a partner to share the psychological load.”

Seccombe links the research to real life with stories and online videos about couples like Bill and Bernadine, Gina and Heidi, and Rati and Subas. In the book, she also challenges students to think about relationship research and their personal beliefs in the context of social and political issues. An example is same-sex marriage, which is on the ballot this fall in several states, including Washington.

“Same-sex couples are fighting for the right to marry because they, too, know that marriage matters,” Seccombe says.

Studies show a clear correlation between marriage and lower rates of depression, greater economic security, and better health—not only because people with those qualities are more likely to get married in the first place but also because marriage itself promotes them, Seccombe says.

To make her case, she cites several studies, including a 2010 study by the U.S. Census Bureau on income, poverty, and health insurance coverage; 2009 research by Jay Fagan at Temple University on depression and marriage; and a 2007 meta-analysis on marital status and mortality.

The catch? This “marriage premium” is more likely to accrue with legal marriage than with cohabitation.

GINA AND HEIDI had lived together for 14 years and raised children together, but they fought for the right to legally marry because they saw it as a way to protect their family and have the community recognize their relationship.

“The most important reason we wanted to get married is we love each other, and we wanted to be responsible for and to each other,” Gina says in Seccombe’s book. “It’s a public statement of our love and commitment.”

Some couples who live together in committed relationships may benefit in the same way as married couples, but in general, marriage makes a difference, says Seccombe.

That may be because many cohabiting couples still maintain somewhat separate lives, finances, and health care, she says. For instance, they may not pool their money like married couples, who tend to have greater savings, assets, and retirement benefits.

Married couples also are more likely to have health insurance, go to the doctor more often, and have better health habits, such as drinking and smoking less, resulting in longer lives. Men’s health, in particular, benefits from marriage, possibly because women tend to encourage their husbands to seek regular health care, says Seccombe.

For all these reasons, it is easy to see why historically marriage was primarily an economic and social partnership and still is in many cultures and countries.

THE STORY of Rati and Subas is one of Seccombe’s favorites, because it challenges students’ notions of arranged marriages. The couple’s marriage was arranged in Nepal, but they are young, modern and live in the United States.

Four years after marrying, they had no regrets.

“I’m so happy, even though my parents chose a husband for me,” Rati recounts in an online video that accompanies the book. “It just worked out as if we have known each other for so long. It’s like a love marriage for me. He has all the characteristics that a nice husband should have.”

Seccombe speculates, “Students in the United States think, ‘Wow, I would never have my parents involved in choosing my mate.’ But you begin to see a whole different side of it. It actually makes some sense, maybe not for you and me in our culture, but it does for them.”

Couples in arranged marriages can benefit from the strength and support of their families, says Seccombe.

“The idea that we have of romantic love, that’s a relatively new concept, and it’s one that isn’t practiced in a lot of the world,” she says.

Seccombe’s research shows that marriage is changing across the country, but it’s not dying, as some people assume.

The divorce rate, although still high compared to other countries, has been falling steadily since 1980, after a spike to historical highs in the 1970s. More young people are delaying marriage until their late 20s, but they still value it. Most high school seniors say having a good marriage is important to a happy and fulfilled life.

Still, our grandparents’ expectations for marriage were different, Seccombe says.

Bill and Bernadine met in their teens. They got married in 1948 after a short courtship and had four children by the time many young people today are still just thinking about marriage.

“Sure, we’ve had our disagreements. Who hasn’t?” Bernadine says in the book. “Marriage isn’t healthy unless you have a few scrapes. But we get along and like the same things.”

At ages 83 and 82, Bill and Bernadine are living proof that a good marriage promotes good health.

Suzanne Pardington, a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications, wrote “Saving a Black Family’s Story” in the Spring 2012 Portland State Magazine.