The media got it wrong again. A well-conducted study by Sarah Mernitz and Claire Kamp Dush of Ohio State University shows that transitions into relationships, especially direct marriage, alleviate emotional distress. But reporters cherry-picked data to claim the study shows that cohabitation is no different from marriage. This is false.
Four findings from this study, which does the best it can with rather limited measures, were not reported by mainline media:
- Not surprisingly, transitions into all romantic unions give an “emotional lift” (Note that an “emotional lift” is not the same as love—a distinction the authors fail to make).
- Marriage gives bigger emotional lifts.
- Both men and women gain significant emotional lifts; sometimes the women more than the men, sometimes the men more than the women.
- All romantic unions gain an emotional lift from having a baby – sometimes for the fathers more than the mothers.
- Marriage is best if you are looking for an emotional lift.
- Newborns give an emotional lift, especially with second partners.
- The poor need lots of help: no relationship seems to relieve their distress.
Most disturbing is the plight of the poor. We know from many other studies that many of the poor (if not most) come from a long line of alienated parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. We need geniuses or saints to show us how to help them.
There are two important methodological considerations to accurately interpret this study. First, it focuses on relationship transitions. It measures mental health at the initiation of a new relationship (cohabitation, direct marriage, or marriage after cohabiting), and does not indicate the long-term stability or well-being of relationship types. Second, Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s study evaluates emotional distress only, and does not give a holistic assessment of well-being or relationship quality.
Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s research shows that women benefit emotionally more than men when transitioning into any type of first union relationship; however, women benefit more from marriage and most from a direct marriage. This finding is not surprising. New relationships–no matter what the type–tend to be fun and exciting, thereby reducing emotional distress.
Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s study also confirms the emotional lift gained by having children. For men transitioning into their first romantic union (cohabiting or direct marriage), having a child has a stronger emotional impact than having full time employment or a college degree. Women who enter a cohabiting relationship or first marriage also experience an emotional lift from childbearing. Interestingly, the sex differences are flipped for individuals in their second union. For women entering a cohabiting relationship, having a child decreases emotional distress more than having full time employment or a college degree. Women who enter a direct marriage or marry after cohabiting also reap significant benefits from having a child. Although males in their second union also obtain emotional benefits from having a child, their emotional benefits are not as significant as women’s.
Interestingly, this study raises some important considerations for poorer communities (as indicated by those with less than a high school degree), where intact married families are rare. Poorer women experience less emotional distress when they directly enter marriage for their first romantic union, whereas poorer men experience less distress when cohabiting. For second romantic unions, both men and women experience the least emotional distress if they enter a cohabiting relationship. These sentiments are problematic for the poor community. Research shows that marriage encourages economic mobility, and decreases government dependency. The anti-marriage bias of the welfare system revokes assistance for couples who marry. Therefore, the government imposes stressors for those who marry.
It is important to note that Mernitz and Kamp Dush’s study does not measure love. Love transcends emotional highs and lows and is first really tested when emotions turn sour. Emotional status is a good indicator of temporary well-being, and has a place in examining transitions into relationships. However, for journalists and reporters to categorically declare that cohabitation is equivalent to marriage is untrue of the study and is shoddy reporting at best. Moreover it totally ignores repeated and compelling research that illustrates the superior benefits of stable marital unions.
For those interested, what follow is a more detailed summary of the study’s findings:
For First Romantic Unions:
- Women emotionally benefit more than men from transitioning into a relationship.
- Women and men both benefit the most from entering a direct marriage (compared to entering a cohabiting relationship, or entering marriage after cohabiting).
Controlling for Education
- Across all education levels, women who enter a direct marriage experience more emotional benefits than women who transition into a cohabiting relationship or enter a marriage after cohabiting. There is one exception: women with more than a college degree have the best health benefits when they enter a marriage after cohabiting.
- Men follow less of a pattern: men with less than a high school degree benefit the most from entering a cohabiting relationship; those with some college benefit most from transitioning into marriage from cohabitation; those with a college degree benefit the most from entering a cohabiting relationship; and men with more than a college degree benefit the most from marrying after cohabiting.
Controlling for Employment
- Men who are unemployed, men who are employed full time, and men who had a child all emotionally benefit the most from entering into a direct marriage.
- For women the results are more mixed: women who are unemployed emotionally benefit the most from marrying after cohabiting; women who are employed full time benefit most from entering a cohabiting relationship; and women who had a child benefit the most from entering into a cohabiting relationship.
For Second Romantic Unions:
- Men emotionally benefit more than women from entering into a cohabiting relationship.
- Women benefit more than men from directly marrying.
- Men benefit more than women from marrying after cohabiting.
- Both men and women emotionally benefit the most from marrying after cohabiting.
Controlling for Education
- Men and women with less than a high school degree experience the least emotional distress when they enter a cohabiting relationship.
- Women who have some college, a college degree, or more than a college degree experience the greatest emotional benefit from entering into a direct marriage (sometimes tied with marrying after cohabiting).
- Men who have some college, a college degree, or more than a college degree experience the greatest emotional benefit from entering into a direct marriage.
Controlling for Employment
- For women who are unemployed, entering a direct marriage produces the best emotional benefits; for women who are employed, entering a cohabiting relationship produces the best benefits.
- For men who are unemployed, entering a direct marriage produces the best emotional outcomes; for men who are employed, marrying after cohabiting produces the best outcomes.
- For women who had a child, entering a cohabiting relationship decreases emotional distress the most; for men who had a child marrying after cohabiting decreases emotional distress the most.