In the mid-19th century, British epidemiologist William Carr published his groundbreaking research into the statistical merits of what he called the conjugal condition. To be married, he found, was to place you at a distinct mortal advantage. The unmarried were shown to have died “in undue proportion” to those who had walked down the blessed aisle. But to be widowed, the figures made clear, was the least fortunate fate of any.
When we talk of betrothal, all rationality and respect for empiricism typically goes out of the window. Our approach to marriage is not just antiquated, it’s out-and-out devolutionary. We act on impulse and transitory emotions (some call it love) when, perhaps, we should be asking for a CV with character references.
Romantic or not, these are issues that require careful consideration. When buying a car, for example, it’s customary to study the vehicle’s service history, to read the results of safety tests, reliability reports and running costs. To use similar criteria when selecting a mate will inevitably endear you to no one – and, yet, it makes perfect, logical sense. After all, unless you are completely devoid of sentimentality, it’s highly unlikely that a car will have the same kind of economic and health implications on your livelihood as that from a wife.
So, let’s have a cursory look at the current scientific evidence for and against marriage. At first glance, it seems a bit of a no-brainer: Studies from Sweden show that being married means you are less likely to suffer from dementia. Meanwhile, men with rings
on their fingers are apparently less likely to die from homicide, car accidents and cancer. If you want to put a figure on all this, researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK managed to place the material value of a happy marriage as the equivalent of an annual income of £70,000 ($140,000) – or, in health terms, a boost in well-being is on a par with the impact of giving up smoking. In other words, you can cheat death, double your salary and drastically improve your fitness in the time it takes to tie the knot.
Marriage Helps You Live Longer...
If all that sounds a little too whimsical, closer observations of work carried out in this field do little to contradict those rather fantastical headlines. In terms of longevity, the economist Andrew Oswald is happy to be specific. “Marriage keeps you alive about three
extra years,” he says, “even bearing in mind other influences.”
He points to an extensive experiment in which 20,000 male civil servants were assessed for a period of 20 years: “At the end of that time, 14 out of every 1,000 married men had died, compared to 21 for widowers, 17 for those single, and 21 for those separated.” The research revealed a high incidence of cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure in the unmarried. This, Oswald says, might be because married people tend to smoke less and eat more healthily. “In other words, if you must smoke,” he surmises, only half-flippantly, “make sure you are married.”
But Is It Really Better For Your Health?
In 2001, a husband-and-wife team, Ronald Glaser and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, from Ohio State University’s College of Medicine in the US, began looking at the effects of stress on health. First, they discovered that fretting students around exam time exhibited a palpable weakening of the immune system, due to a significant reduction in white blood cells. With this in mind, they then performed similar tests on a group comprising women who were married, separated or divorced. The results were consistent with their initial experiment: Women who were either unhappily married or still enraged by their ex-husbands were found to have inferior immune systems. Kiecolt-Glaser’s conclusions were indubitable: “If staying married means constantly fighting, from the point of view of your health, you’re better off out of it.”
The simple fact is, being married is only good for you if it’s a happy marriage. But does the reward of a long, fulfilled life outweigh the risk of you spending every day full of the stress of arguing, until death do you part?
The Modern Concept Of Marriage
One thing all politicians appear to agree is that marriage is a socially positive institution. But according to the latest figures, we increasingly think the prize is not worth the punt. Marriage rates are falling. In Singapore, a survey showed that in 2009, there were 12.5 per cent more singles among those between 25 and 29 years old than there were in 2000. And among those aged 30 to 34, there was a five per cent increase in the proportion of singles in 2009 compared to 2000.
Perhaps Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in the US made the most interesting observations of the modern conjugal condition, to borrow Carr’s phrase. Their key theory is that many of the historical reasons for marriage no longer apply. As a man in a modern world, you do not require the same old sort of support that the institution of marriage traditionally provides.
Before credit markets came along, “the family had been a key provider of insurance, (and) access to capital was often facilitated through family ties,” Wolfers and Stevenson explain. It was when these gaps started to be filled by other people around you that the
marriage dynamics began to change.
“While the political emancipation of women is surely a key factor in their movement from the home to the market, deeper economic forces are also at play. Services previously produced at home are now freely traded... With cheap clothes readily available, it makes more sense for women to earn money to buy clothes than to sit and make them at home. Other innovations have allowed technology to substitute for specialised domestic labour. Dishwashers and washing machines have made housework so easy that even a (non-specialist) husband can do it.”
The conclusion that Wolfers and Stevenson draw from all this boils down to one simple idea: You should consign the old model of marriage – where you perform your role and the wife knuckles down to hers – to the relationship scrap heap. Economics rewards unions based on shared interests. Or to use the economist’s jargon, on shared “consumption” rather than shared “production”. Of course, you probably already gathered as much. To crudely paraphrase Bob Dylan, you don’t need an economist to know that a common love of Italian food, French films and Krautrock is a half-decent start for a relationship.
"You Cannot Expect Love Alone To Carry You"
A successful recipe for a prosperous life is to find someone who likes the same things as you, get hitched, then listen to Pavarotti over a bowl of porridge when times grow tough. Alas, it’s not quite that simple. As marriage expert and Washington-based academic Stephanie Coontz has made clear, the marriage dynamics of our parents and grandparents’ generations extended far beyond the marital bed, with the “insurance” that Wolfers and Stevenson refer to being bolstered by a close network of relatives and neighbours.
Worsening work/life balances, however, have seen these networks diminish, with greater, often unsustainable pressure placed on the spouse to cover all bases. In fact, Coontz argues that in order for your marriages to succeed in the modern world, you need to invest more time in relationships and activities outside of your army of two. “It is precisely because now, culturally, we marry for love, that you can not expect love alone to carry you,” says Coontz. “In the past, we never did. When a marriage works today, it works better than at any point in history. But when it is bad, it is so much less bearable.”
To Pop Or Not To Pop?
So where does this leave you? Statistics lay bare the falling popularity of marriage in Singapore. Moreover, with general divorce rates increasing in many developed countries worldwide, it’s a fair assumption that most of us have seen enough of the detrimental effects of bad marriages to consider giving it a wide berth. But the benefits, on the other hand, bear repeating: increased wealth, a longer life, and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, car crashes and even murder.
If your balance sheet is leaning towards diamond shopping, whether that be tonight, this Valentine’s Day or many years from now, consider this: If you’re confident that your shared love of Cantopop and getting caught in the rain outweighs your reliance on each others’ earning power or cooking ability; if you have a strong, supportive network of friends and family to fall back on; and if you’re trusting enough to encourage each other’s relationships and interests outside of the marriage... well, it just might be the best thing you ever did. However, if you take that punt and miss, then you may well be setting yourself up for the rockiest ride of your life. Unfortunately, the only expert available to answer that quandary is you.