This month’s focus on women’s health provides an opportunity to share some valuable information regarding family dynamics. Recent research has taken a serious look at the effects of marriage and family life on women’s well-being. Much of the research in the social sciences suggests that marriage is beneficial to women’s health. For the women who are reading this article: Before you start laughing at that last statement please understand that these studies are based on huge amounts of data from surveys of thousands of people. The findings are based on averages, and comparisons of married women to those who are divorced, cohabiting, or single. Marriage and family life has its trials for sure, but compared to women who are divorced, cohabiting, or single, married life appears to be beneficial for most women.
For instance, research consistently shows that divorce and unmarried childbearing increase the risk of poverty for mothers and children. Changes in family structure, such as divorce, often create economic changes. These economic changes are typically worse for women. Almost one-third of divorcing women end up in poverty. On the flip side, research shows that married women accrue more wealth than single or cohabiting women. Given the link between poverty and poor health, women appear healthier in marriage due to better economics.
Contrary to popular belief, marriage also shows some benefits for women’s mental and emotional well-being. Studies of well-being in mothers have found that married mothers are much less likely to suffer from depression than single or cohabiting mothers. The absence of marriage appears to be a serious risk factor for maternal mental health. Married women are also less likely to abuse alcohol or drugs. Studies have also shown that, on average, women who are married live longer than their unmarried counterparts. Marriage is associated with better health and lowered risk of injury for both men and women. It seems that married couples monitor each other’s health and rely on each other for support more than cohabiting couples.
Marriage also decreases the risk that women will experience domestic violence. Single, cohabiting and divorced women are three to five times more likely to be victims of violent crime than married women. That being said, women must realize that marriage will not magically transform violent men into gentle husbands. Neither does marriage automatically make intimate partnerships easier. The role of wife and mother can oftentimes create an overwhelming amount of stress. While research does suggest that marriage is beneficial, there are certain dynamics in marriage that are very detrimental to women’s health. The most obvious threat to health in marriage is domestic violence. While married women are less likely to experience domestic violence than cohabiting women, domestic abuse is a big problem for both groups. If a pattern of violence exists, and the male partner is unwilling to seek help, it is best for the woman to leave that relationship. If the cycle of violence isn’t broken, it will become more extreme and more dangerous over time. There are several scenarios where the stress in a relationship can override any positive effects of staying married.
What about single mothers, or mothers that have never married? Research on single mothers show they are at greater risk for health problems due to higher amounts of stress and more limited resources. It is therefore very important that single mothers “share the load” as much as possible. No single mother should be expected to raise kids on her own. Such an expectation only sets the mother up for greater health risks. It really does take a village to raise a child. For the health of all mothers, it is important to create a support network. Extended family, other moms, church communities, and organizations such as MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) are great sources of support. Research shows that social support is one of the best defenses against stress and the health problems that come with stress.
For more findings from social science on marriage and motherhood, visit http://www.marriagemovement.org/pdfs/WhyMarriageMatters.pdf.