Getting married young? It's good for your mental health

Nicole M. King
31 January 2014
Reproduced with Permission
Family Edge

The News Story: More religiously conservative protestants? More divorce, study finds

In an effort to discover why red states have higher divorce rates than many blue states, researchers from the University of Texas and the University of Iowa compared select county divorce statistics against information on Protestant congregations in those counties. They discovered, according to the LA Times, that "Divorce is higher among religiously conservative Protestants - and even drives up divorce rates for other people living around them." The researchers blame this in part on young marriage, which they say occurs more often in conservative Protestant counties where "[p]harmacies might not give out emergency contraception" and "[s]chools might only teach abstinence education." W. Bradford Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project and editorial advisor for The Family in America, commented that the findings were "surprising."

Wilcox also pointed out, however, something that the media barely touches upon in their reports: that the study "also showed that more 'secularism' - people not adhering to any religious tradition - was also linked to higher rates of divorce."

So what are we to make of this new study, which seems to demonstrate that both higher rates of conservative Protestantism and higher rates of secularism seem to be a factor in divorce rates? One suspects that there is much the researchers left out, such as, for example, how often do those who identify themselves as religiously conservative actually attend church?

The results are indeed "surprising," because much other research points out that young marriage - which the researchers blame for Protestants' ills - is in fact in many cases a protector of mental health.

The New Research: Marriage - good mental medicine, even for couples marrying young

The research indicating that wedlock fosters good mental health is so strong that no one can dispute it. But in an academic world increasingly hostile to marriage as a normative tradition, some social theorists still argue that early marriage is psychologically harmful. Such arguments come in for close scrutiny in a study recently completed by sociologist Jeremy E. Uecker of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who concludes that even when couples marry quite young, wedlock confers substantial mental-health benefits.

To assess the psychological effects of marriage on young adults, Uecker pored over data collected from 11,743 unmarried American youth enrolled in grades 7-12 at a nationally representative range of schools in 1994-1995 and from the same individuals in 2001-2002. After weighing these data, Uecker reports, "In general, marriage in young adulthood is not detrimental to mental health." Indeed, he finds that "marriage's mental health benefits are apparent, at least in many ways, among young adults who have married at a relatively early age."

What is more, the psychological benefits of marriage emerge quite unequivocally on two other fronts: drunkenness and life satisfaction.

On the question of drunkenness, Uecker reports that, compared to single, unengaged peers, "married young adults get drunk less frequently." Uecker plausibly reasons that married and engaged couples are more sober than single, unengaged peers because "marriage and engagement likely carry with them a heightened sense of responsibility and obligation and a less active social calendar."

When assessing relative life satisfaction, Uecker limns a clear psychological benefit in wedlock. "Married young adults are much more satisfied with their lives than are other young adults," he reports (while allowing for "the possible exception of engaged cohabitors"). Indeed, careful analysis establishes that "the marriage premium for life satisfaction is [so] strong and robust" that it persists in sophisticated statistical models that take into account "a number of potentially explanatory factors, including selection, socioeconomic status, parenthood, relationship stability, religious participation, and psychological gains."

As he surveys his findings in toto, Uecker marvels: "Somewhat surprisingly, there appears to be little gain to waiting until one's mid-20s to marry for two of the three mental health outcomes under examination." To be sure, those who marry in their teens report less life satisfaction than do those who marry between the ages of 22 and 26, at least in part, Uecker believes, because of lower "social approval" for teen marriages than for later marriages. What is more, "teenage marriers have more psychological distress than those who married at ages 22-26," but the data clearly indicate that "this difference is the result of selection and not causation."

Given their ideological predilections, progressive academics will continue to warn against the supposed perils of early marriage. But empirical social science would seem to indicate that such perils are largely imaginary.