With so much interest paid these days to health risks, mortality rates and governments’ role in encouraging optimal public behaviour, the following study probably should have received more attention that it has.
“Predicting mortality from 57 economic, behavioural, social and psychological factors”, by University of British Columbia health psychologist Eli Puterman and six co-authors, was published last month in the prestigious, peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences. While it has garnered very little media coverage, the results seem particularly noteworthy. Using a large data set of over 13,000 middle-aged American adults covering a period of 22 years, Puterman sorted through 57 diverse non-medical life factors – including poverty, parental education, sleep patterns, depression, religiosity, pessimism and housing – to see which are most significant in predicting lifespan.
Of the top three, most readers can likely guess the first and third most important predictors of a shortened life. They are smoking and alcohol abuse. But the second slot might not be so obvious. Or commonly considered to be a health risk. It is divorce. And in eighth spot, just below financial difficulties and unemployment, is never having been married in the first place.
While his results rely on American data, Puterman considers them equally applicable to Canadians. “I suspect we would see a similar risk of mortality in Canada – with divorce showing up as a top ten factor as well,” he says in an interview. “While it may be surprising for many to see divorce in second place, as a psychologist I know how important social relationships really are.” Puterman points to the marital union as a key source of companionship, financial security and a myriad of other underappreciated health and social benefits. If Puterman’s results are valid, and they do seem solidly founded, then married people may truly be happier, healthier and longer-lived. Divorce and permanent singlehood, considered as the absence of marriage and all its protective features, are thus serious threats to public health and personal wellbeing.
But if the advantages to being married are so clear − and the risks of not being wedded so pressing − why is this such a big surprise to anyone? And what should we be doing about it?
With These Stats I Thee Wed
Whatever benefits it may entail, marriage is no longer the dominant social force it once was. As recently as the 1980s, more than 80 percent of Canadian families were comprised of married couples. Today, it’s closer to 65 percent as the combined share of common-law and lone-parent families has more than doubled over this time. The age of first marriage continues to climb while the absolute number of weddings in Canada has been falling for decades, despite rapid population growth. Single-person households have shown unprecedented growth in recent years. Plus, a majority of Canadians apparently agree that marriage is no longer a necessary step for people who want to spend the rest of their lives together, according to recent opinion polls.
“Families are changing, and as a result marriage has been in decline for decades,” admits Peter Jon Mitchell, acting program director of Cardus Family, a Canadian social policy think tank with a conservative bent that’s trying to revive interest in, or at least attention paid to, the institution of marriage. It appears to be a losing game. Despite the implications of Puterman’s study, as well as ample evidence from other studies and research, the subject of matrimony has reached such a parlous state that Statistics Canada no longer even bothers to track marriage and divorce rates. Whatever Canadians might think about getting married, we don’t actually know how many of them are getting hitched or unhitched these days.
In 2011 StatsCan released its last report on marriage and divorce rates, using data collected in 2008 from the provinces and the federal Department of Justice. It has since eliminated this publication as a cost-saving measure. While the provinces continue to track their own figures, there is no central, consistently published source of information on how many Canadians are marrying or divorcing, their ages and a host of other biographical detail of potential significance to researchers and policy makers.
“The collection of marriage and divorce rates is critical to ensuring an accurate study and understanding of domestic social policy – from education to elder care,” says Mitchell. Any inquiry into the effects of the Covid-19 lockdown and how this might affect social unions, for example, will be hampered by a lack of evidence. Soon after the pandemic hit, predictions began that the accompanying social isolation would lead to a surge in suicides, divorces, spousal abuse and, on the happier side, births. While each of these trends is important and of keen interest to researchers, only some will be formally tracked and compiled.
Good data is also crucial to figuring out how Canada measures up against other countries still producing coherent figures. While StatsCan does estimate marriage and divorce figures using the Census, this guesswork lacks the precision of the true numbers. Many Canadian academic papers and studies now simply end their investigations at 2008, the year reliable statistics run out. Some researchers have tried to replicate the necessary figures using alternative data sources, such as tax records, with mixed results.
The disappearance of marriage and divorce statistics was part of a broader budget-balancing process at the statistical agency, rather than an overt blow against marriage itself. But the loss of this key source of information makes it more difficult to track the course of conventional family patterns. “I expect the decline in marriage has played part in the decision [to cancel the annual marriage and divorce report],” says Mitchell, noting the statistical agency first started tracking step-families (in which at least one child is the product of a previous union) in 2011, the year it stopped following marriages and divorces. Cardus Family has made repeated requests for StatsCan to resume its old reports, including a petition last year signed by numerous high-profile economists, media personalities and other researchers. “We’ve had some good conversations,” he says. But so far, no actual data.
To fill this gap, Cardus Family recently unveiled its own online data source, the Canadian Marriage Map. While it cannot replace the missing key information on actual marriage and divorce rates, Cardus’ marriage info portal attempts to create a central repository of reliable figures on the subject. (See attached charts.) And, despite the lack of official attention, marriage still has a powerful story to tell.
The Good News about Marriage
As Puterman’s work suggests, marriage delivers many surprisingly significant health benefits. A broad range of evidence reveals happily married couples enjoy longer lives, less stress, better sex and happier children. They are less likely to engage in risky behaviour and more likely to recover from health problems. Perhaps the most striking example of this phenomenon can be found in a 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology that shows married patients are less likely to suffer from cancer, more likely to get treatment if they are diagnosed and more likely to survive after treatment. For five of the ten cancers studied, the study states, “the survival benefit associated with marriage was larger than the published survival benefit of chemotherapy.”
Why is there such a big health advantage to being married? There are two competing theories: selection and protection. It is possible that stable, well-adjusted and healthy people are more likely to select a compatible mate. In other words, marriage is coincidental rather than causal. Another, not necessarily mutually exclusive, theory is that being married confers certain protective benefits on both spouses. Having someone who loves and cares for you, worries over your health and makes sure you follow doctors’ orders may offer an advantage that single folks and individuals in less permanent relationships can’t replicate. Regardless of the underlying reasons, it seems to work. As Mitchell observes wryly: “If marriage was a pill, we’d all want it.”
Beyond living longer and better, married people also gain a wide range of financial benefits. A 2014 report from Cardus (then called the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada), “The Marriage Gap between Rich and Poor Canadians”, by former Statistics Canada chief economist Philip Cross, co-authored by Mitchell, pointed out that marriage is a powerful defence against poverty and inequality.
“The differences in marital status between income groups is quite dramatic,” the report found. The share of married couples in the bottom quartile of income is a mere 12 percent. At the top of the heap, 86 percent of households in the top fifth of the income distribution are married. This outcome is not merely the result of the top quartile being filled with older, more successful couples. Rather, married couples of all ages tend to accumulate in the highest income bracket. Marriage, in other words, is a marker not of age but of success.
Living as a couple obviously offers many advantages in terms of saving on expenses, yet substantial research from a wide variety of other sources suggests there is still a significant difference between married and cohabitating spouses. Cohabitating partners are less likely to pool their money, and thus their unions tend to be weaker. Married couples are more likely to combine their earnings and plan their finances as a single, cohesive unit. And the essential factor appears to be the official nature of the married relationship. This difference appears valid even when cohabitation becomes the dominant type of family formation, as is the case in Quebec.
And then there’s probably the most important benefit of all: love. An effervescent attraction of sex, emotional intimacy and camaraderie is generally what brings couples together and why people make vows to each other in the first place, not the cold calculation of expected lifespans, cancer survival rates or household budgeting procedures. We mate because we are drawn to it as a biological imperative and an innate need – regardless of the consequences.
As the Romantic poet Lord Byron wrote, “All tragedies are finished by a death, all comedies are ended by a marriage. The future states of both are left to faith.” Somewhat more prosaically, early 20th century lecturer and advice columnist William Lyon Phelps later advised that, “The highest happiness on Earth is the happiness of marriage.”
The Marriage Secret, American-style
While the U.S. has not been immune to the secular decline in marriage rates experienced by Canada, better data and more attention paid make it possible to tease out in greater detail what is really going on inside marital unions. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia and head of the school’s National Marriage Project, is one of the best known marriage researchers in the U.S. Based on his research, Wilcox proposes the concept of a “marriage divide,” similar to Cardus’ work on the income inequality aspects of wedlock.
“The big picture is one of decline in marriage since the 1970s,” says Wilcox in an interview. “But there is also a countervailing pattern at work in which the top portion of the income distribution appears to have recognized the benefits of marriage and are acting accordingly.” His work shows that the marriage rate for college-educated couples has stabilized while it continues to fall for other demographics. “There is an incredibly strong body of research that tells us strong marriages are tied to positive outcomes for physical, emotional and economic well-being,” he says. “And this has become a kind of secret knowledge for a certain segment of the population.”
Wilcox is best known in the U.S. for his promotion of what’s known as the Success Sequence. This is the concept that young adults have the best chance of success if they progress through life in a particular order: first, graduate high school or college; second, get a job; third, marry and then have children. “We know that young people are more likely to flourish and realize the American Dream if they take these three steps in order,” says Wilcox. According to his research, only 3 percent of U.S. adults who complete these three steps in order will end up poor by their late 20s or early 30s. “Young adults who do not follow the sequence are much more likely to fall into poverty,” he says.
The inclusion of marriage in this conception of a successful life has been attacked by many critics who reject Wilcox’s focus on marriage and claim the only step necessary for a lifetime of success is to get “a decent job.” To this, Wilcox retorts that marriage remains foundational as both a pillar of stability and a source of financial security: “Single parents are far less likely to be employed full time and much more likely to struggle with work and family.” While having a job may be crucial to achieving a good life, having a good, stable home life is often a necessary precondition to getting and keeping that job. In fact, evidence strongly suggests the two are symbiotic. “Marriage is no panacea,” Wilcox admits, “But putting marriage before the baby carriage remains one of the three pillars to prosperity.”
It’s a Good Thing. Now What?
Having established the large and quite desirable advantages to being married, what should anyone be doing about the institution’s long-term decline? The most popular response is nothing. Typical of most Canadian social scientists, UBC’s Puterman is aghast at the thought of any government involvement in interpersonal affairs. “That would be beyond the pale,” he says of the suggestion that, given the findings of his own research, governments might in some way promote the benefits of marriage or the disadvantages of divorce. “The last thing we want to do is to blame someone for divorcing.” Rather, he says, government should provide emotional support for people having trouble with their relationships. Teaching mindfulness in school, he suggests, would be another good idea.
It is certainly true that no-one wants federally-licenced busybodies admonishing young adults to find mates as quickly as possible. But it’s not as if public health officials are silent on a wide variety of other deeply personal aspects of life. “Governments have no hesitation in telling people all about the dangers of smoking,” says Wilcox. The same goes for a host of other officially-disproved activities, such as drinking alcohol or soft drinks, eating fatty foods, commuting by car, not wearing a mask, and on and on. “But the moment you start talking about marriage and divorce, everyone gets very quiet,” notes Wilcox. “Why? There is a double standard at work here.”
Wilcox suggests governments should at least publicly acknowledge the obvious personal and social advantages of marriage and, in particular, the significance of the Success Sequence. And government programs could be tweaked to be either neutral or positive towards marriage. There are “marriage penalties” in some U.S. and Canadian welfare programs that unintentionally favour singles over couples. Some programs, like the American Medicaid and food stamps programs, as well as Canada’s Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) for seniors, even make it advantageous for married couples to divorce and live separately in order to maximize benefits.
Finally, given the importance of having a good, full-time job, Wilcox is also outspoken on the need for better vocational training and other improvements in the prospects of men and women to earn a comfortable living without having to go to college. “We need to do more to strengthen the returns to work, and especially middle-income employment,” he says. After all, the top fifth are doing just fine as it is; it’s the lower-income categories whose family life is more likely to be troubled.
Mitchell has far less ambitious goals for Canada; just getting up-to-date national statistics is his first goal. “Marriage is certainly more talked-about and valued in the U.S.,” he observes, somewhat enviously, given Wilcox’s prominence in public policy debates south of the border. “It is an individual decision, to be sure, but marriage also has a social function that’s equally important. And I hope that eventually we can have a conversation about that in Canada as well.” Beyond simply talking more about marriage, Mitchell would also like to see an end to the “marriage penalty” oddity in the GIS. And it would be nice if other non-government organizations besides his own took up the cause of spreading the good news about marriage, and why common-law relationships generally don’t offer the same advantages. “How can we portray marriage in a more positive way?” he asks.
Again, no one wants bureaucrats lecturing citizens on the dangers of spinsterhood. Marriage is a deeply personal commitment best left to the individuals involved. And it isn’t for everyone. Neither is a dysfunctional marriage a benefit to either party, nor children; in many cases divorce is simply the best solution. All this is widely accepted among marriage proponents and their critics alike.
But given the vast panoply of scientifically-valid evidence showing how getting and staying married is a very good thing – and getting divorced is the opposite − surely disseminating this information in a clear and factual way qualifies as the very essence of public health advocacy. Instead, Canadian politicians apparently prefer to ignore the entire topic, right down to having the statistics simply disappear.
Love and Marriage in a Time of Covid
Curiously enough, the coronavirus pandemic and economic lockdown seem to have revived interest in marriage and divorce statistics, at least in the popular press. There has been plenty of discussion about whether social distancing will make it more difficult to find a mate, as well as speculation that with spouses spending so much time together, we should expect to see a boom in divorces.
Here Mitchell allows himself a modest sense of optimism. While Canada’s divorce statistics end at 2008, just as the Great Recession was taking hold, recent academic work that seeks to replicate this data using tax returns suggests there was a slight decrease in the divorce rate in the years following the economic downturn. When times get tough, the financial security aspects of living as a couple may make divorce less attractive.
Further, these grim times might also be brightening the prospects for marriage in the future. When asked in surveys why marriage has fallen out of favour, young Canadian respondents often say they can’t afford to get married. While this belies the evidence on the economic aspects of joint budgeting and resource-pooling, such opinions are likely the product of changing cultural norms (aided and abetted by cable television) that have pushed wedding ceremonies to absurd standards of ostentation, indulgence and sheer expense.
During the pandemic, however, it has become commonplace to host remote marriages via Zoom. And smaller, more modest in-person wedding ceremonies are also becoming fashionable again. “People are still getting married, but they are simplifying the event,” observes Mitchell, a long-time critic of expensive weddings. “If the coronavirus happens to weaken the Wedding Industrial Complex by making it easier and cheaper to get married − then I think that will be a good thing.”
Consider it some happy news on the marriage front. It’s a start.
Peter Shawn Taylor is senior features editor at C2C Journal. He lives in Waterloo, Ontario.