I cannot resist, though, to comment on Eckersley’s bold false statement in reply to his questions what makes a person happy: “Marriage, religion, friends, work, leisure, health and money all enhance wellbeing” (78). Could we have some qualifiers, please! I could get Bella DePaulo’s most excellent book, Singled Out, to debunk the marriage-happiness link. The irony is: I don’t have to. Eckersley’s claim is debunked in the same chapter; he just doesn’t realize it. The marriage-happiness link basically goes like this: Happily married people are happy. Well, duh! I have another secret: Happy people are happier than unhappy people. Yes, I know! It’s earth-shattering news!
Jokes aside, let’s look at the data Eckersley presents and then use DePaulo’s work to make sense of it all. I am calling for qualifiers because “the measures represent a ‘buffered’ view of reality and so present a false, or at least incomplete, picture of social conditions” (100). In other words, we don’t know it all and we might be implying things that aren’t really there. Eckersley also points out later in the chapter that these happiness surveys do not measure causation – being religious does not cause greater happiness, for example – they show correlations. Thus, happy people might be more religious. His statement falsely implies causation: If I get married, find religion, and earn more money, I will be happier. We can say at most that these factors “can enhance” or “might enhance” wellbeing and happiness (Eckersley looks at happiness as one factor of wellbeing).
Although Eckersley also presents evidence that contradicts the money-happiness claim, I want to focus on the marriage-happiness link because, partly, Eckersley does not see that it’s a myth (he does with money, see 79-80) but also because it’s so pervasive and such a great contributor to unhappiness (in the form of singlism, including its internalized version).
Here’s what Eckersley has to say about marriage:
For example, the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index showed that marital status produced the largest difference in life satisfaction: measured on a percentage scale, married people scored an average 13 percentage points higher than the separated (and 7 more than the never-married). (81)
Married people are happier than separated married people. Well, if you’ve ever gone through a divorce – or even a relationship break-up – that does not come as a surprise to you. Again, this shows that happy people are happier than unhappy people. Later in the chapter, Eckersley even presents an explanation for the 7-point difference between married and never-married: “The public mask may conceal most in those individuals who outwardly appear happiest and most successful, those whom modern society most celebrates and holds up for admiration” (103). Married people have made it, according to current cultural trances. They are adults. Matrimania requires that they feel happier, so even if they don’t feel it, they pretend as if, certainly when they answer survey questions.
According to Eckersley, British economists have put a monetary value on life events (82):
On average, marrying increases happiness by about the same amount as having an extra £70,000 ($170,000) a year; separating costs about £130,000 ($320,000) a year.
So, being married but separated eats up the gain of marriage and then some.
Is there a link between marriage and happiness? Bella DePaulo has not found one despite what looks like research evidence that points to a link. In fact, she found the same convoluted arguments that Eckersley presents: Implying causality and ignoring the various forms of being married, including that form, which is leading to a divorce (aka separation). Her major criticism is the point-in-time nature of these studies: if we measure happiness when a couple is happily married, of course, they’ll be happy. But what happens when their marriage goes sour, as many marriages do these days. To determine that, we need to look at people over time using longitudinal studies. Interestingly, these are rare in the marriage-happiness field, maybe because they debunk the myth. DePaulo found one (Richard E. Lucas et al.). This study, which followed people for about 15 years, shows that always-married people are happier than always-single people. Don’t run off to the altar yet: this holds true before and after marriage! DePaulo speculates that people who are successful at marriage might just simply be people who are happier. So, if there is a causal link between marriage and happiness, it is probably going in the opposite direction as most researchers claim: Happiness creates good marriages (again, though, we can only see correlation, not causation, so this is speculation, although I would claim, speculation that is more based in reality). If we look at all the people who got married, including those who eventually divorced or were widowed, we notice a little blip in happiness right around the wedding. Soon thereafter, though, things go back to normal. And people who divorced ended up less happy than always-singles. It is also important to note that we are not talking about huge differences. The lines for all three groups hover around a 7 on a 10-point scale, with always-marrieds a little above 7 and always-single and divorced a little below (see The Marriage Graph in Singled Out, 36).
Perpetuating the happiness-marriage myth is especially disturbing in the context of Eckersley’s book. He talks about the increased isolation we are facing in modern, Western society. If we look at the history of marriage, our modern idea of marriage has at least contributed to this isolation. The nuclear family has largely replaced connections with family and community. The idea of seperate spheres, which still influences the modern nuclear family, established the home as the sanctuary from the outside world, the place where we would get all of our needs met. With increasing income, public conversations moved to the home, in front of the TV, further increasing our isolation (see Jennifer Hecht’s Happiness Myth). All this suggests that our matrimania – our idea that marriage will solve all of our problems – might be a contributing factor to our current cultural malaise. By focusing our need for belonging onto one person – our partner – we miss out on building a larger network of friends and ultimately communities. Perpetuating the myth that marriage brings happiness, researchers prevent us from taking a critical look at the damage our idea of marriage (and intimate relationships) is doing to our communities. Instead, we should look at pillars that help everybody live more satisfying lives, whether married or single, such as those found through the work of Kay Trimberger. Her work suggests that intimate relationships are important to our lives but they do not need to take the form of a marriage. Building new ways of connecting that do not rely on the glorification of marriage can help us create more meaningful lives with a stronger sense of belonging.