Dr. Keith Ablow-ing in the Wind on Marriage?

Dr. Keith Ablow-ing in the Wind on Marriage?

By Maggie Gallagher - May 12, 2011

Is marriage bad for your mental health? Fox News expert Dr. Keith Ablow says so.

He lauds Cameron Diaz's claim that marriage is a "dying institution," and goes on to say that in his clinical judgment "marriage is (as it has been for decades now) a source of real suffering for the vast majority of married people."

The vast majority?

Dr. Ablow further asserts, "without a doubt" (and also without evidence), that marriage is "one of the leading causes of major depression in the nation," and points to marriage's status as a legal union as a key cause. Because the law makes it harder to leave a marriage, marriage deprives men and women of what he calls "the joy of being 'chosen' on a daily basis." If marriage had no legal status, he states, marriages would feel "less confining."

Dr. Ablow has impressive credentials. His website calls him "one of America's leading psychiatrists," and an assistant professor at Tufts Medical School.

But when it comes to marriage, mental health and relationship quality, Dr. Ablow is blowing hot air.

You would never know from Dr. Ablow's column that an enormous quantity of social science has gone into investigating the relationships between marriage and mental health, especially depression, and also into comparing relationship quality between cohabiting couples and married couples.

To sum up a large body of research, there is considerable evidence that marriage protects against depression, especially for mothers, and also that married people have higher relationship quality, on average, compared to cohabitors.

What kind of data are we talking about? Let me just offer a few examples from this vast literature.

A particularly persuasive study of "union formation and depression" by Kathleen Lamb and Gary Lee appeared in the Journal of Marriage and Family in November 2003. According to the authors, "Many studies have established that married people fare better than their never-married counterparts in terms of psychological well-being." The study then used two waves of the National Survey of Families and Households to test whether marriage reduces depression or whether depressed people are less likely to marry. The study concludes there is "no evidence of selection of less depressed persons into either marriage or cohabitation, but a negative effect of entry into marriage on depression, particularly when marriage was not preceded by cohabitation" -- i.e., marriage reduced depression.

A study in the April 2010 Journal of Social Science Research of 3,005 older couples (ages 57 to 85) found overall that older cohabitors are relatively similar to married couples, but that "cohabitors are less likely than marrieds to report that their relationship is very happy."

The beneficial effects of marriage on the mental health of mothers is particularly strong. The February 2009 Journal of Family Psychology, for example, contains a study comparing stable two-biological-parent married families to stable two-biological-parent cohabiting families over the first two years of their child's life. After controlling for parental education, race and income, the authors report "stably cohabiting mothers reported more depressive symptoms ... Cohabiting couple relationships were characterized by more ambivalence and conflict."

In 2005, in the report "Why Marriage Matters: 26 Conclusions From the Social Science," sociologist W. Bradford Wilcox and colleagues summed up the literature this way: "Married mothers have lower rates of depression than do single or cohabiting mothers. The absence of marriage is a serious risk factor for maternal depression. Married mothers have lower rates of depression than do cohabiting or single mothers."

There remains a lively social science debate about the size of the advantage and the causal relationships involved. Long-term stable cohabitors (while rare in this country) may look similar to married couples, in terms of rates of depression and relationship quality.

But let me tell you flat out: There is zero support in the scientific literature for Dr. Ablow's most controversial claim that being "free" from legal constraint typically improves relationship quality or mental health.

Probably this has something to do with the mental health, relationship and happiness effect of worrying whether or not your partner is going to "unchoose" you on a daily basis.

Dr. Ablow is entitled to his opinions, but not to his own facts.

Marriage is not a major cause of depression in this country. Getting the government out of the marriage business may make libertarians happier, but it won't make married couples happier, or healthier, either.

Copyright 2011, Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher

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