In April 2015, David Cameron’s government implemented legislation to promote marriage by providing tax relief for low-income married couples. While nearly four million couples could potentially claim the benefit of around £212 per year, it has been difficult to obtain and relatively few have done so. Now the government has plans to expand these tax benefits to more married couples in order to “send a strong signal that we back marriage.” (Cameron 2014) This raises the question of whether marriage, compared to cohabitation, does indeed boost well-being, and whether incentives to marry need to be expanded.
A large body of research has shown that marriage is associated with better health, wealth, life satisfaction, and life expectancy (see Waite and Gallagher 2002 for a review). However, these associations may be the result of selection effects, or the characteristics of the individuals who choose to marry or cohabit. Once selective characteristics are taken into account, the benefits to marriage may disappear.
In addition, cohabitation has increased rapidly in the UK over the past few decades, potentially providing many of the same advantages as marriage. Cohabiting unions are becoming more prevalent and lasting longer (Beaujouan and Ni Bhrolchain 2011). Cohabitation is also becoming more common as a relationship for childbearing; 30% of all births in 2012 occurred to cohabiting women (ONS 2013). Thus, while cohabiting unions are quite heterogeneous and often end in dissolution (Berrington et al 2015), some may provide the same benefits as marriage.
Marta Styrc and I have recently used the 1970 British Cohort Study to investigate whether the mental well-being of cohabiting and married people differed at age 42, after most people had completed childbearing (CPC Working Paper 75). The mental health indicator – the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Well-being Score – captured multiple dimensions of happiness and contentment. We examined whether early childhood characteristics (potential sources of selection) account for differences between married and cohabitating men and women. We paid particular attention to those in long-lasting relationships and with joint children.
Using Propensity Score Matching, we found that childhood background characteristics – family structure and socio-economic status; adolescent cognitive abilities and educational aspirations; and adolescent psychological attributes – completely eliminated any mental well-being differences between cohabiting and married men and women. On the other hand, childhood background characteristics were insufficient for removing differences between those living with and without a partner, regardless of marital status. While we were unable to control for developments in adulthood or current factors that may influence well-being, our results nonetheless suggest that living with a partner matters.
Thus, our findings imply that the UK government should not be attempting to promote marriage as much as it should be fostering healthy partnerships in general. Our study shows that the type of partnership is irrelevant. What really matters for adult well-being is early childhood conditions – whether parents struggled financially, divorced, or smoked during pregnancy – and adolescent psychological behaviors and cognitive development, such as educational aspirations and self-esteem. Thus, alleviating childhood poverty and educational disparities, and improving mental health care would go much further in reducing well-being inequalities than focusing on marriage.
These findings are based on:
Perelli-Harris, Brienna and Marta Styrc. 2016. “Re-evaluating the link between marriage and mental well-being: How do early life conditions attenuate differences between cohabitation and marriage?” CPC Working Paper 75, ESRC Centre for Population Change, UK.
Beaujouan, Eva and Maire Ni Bhrolchain. 2011. “Cohabitation and marriage in Britain since the 1970s.” Population Trends 145(1):35-59.
Berrington, Ann, Brienna Perelli-Harris, and Paulina Trevena. 2015. “Commitment and the changing sequence of cohabitation, childbearing, and marriage: insights from qualitative research in the UK.” Demographic Research. 33(12): 327-362.
Cameron, 2014. “David Cameron on families.” https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/david-cameron-on-families
ONS. 2013. “Statistical bulletin: Live births in England and wales by characteristics of mother 1, 2012.” edited by V.S.O.B. Office of National Statistics.
Waite, Linda and Maggie Gallagher. 2002. The case for marriage: Why married people are happier, healthier and better off financially: Random House LLC