In 2016, after 28 years of marriage, I got divorced. As my marriage was unraveling, I had it in my mind that I would never get married again. I viewed myself as a rugged individualist, the kind of guy who could happily go through life on his own, without need of a romantic relationship, to be a fully realized, happy human being. I was wrong.
After my divorce, I made the conscious decision not to date until I was certain I was done grieving the loss of my marriage. I didn’t want to jump into another relationship just because I was lonely or unhappy. And to be certain, I was lonely and unhappy. Even so, I stayed strong.
Now, ten years after the breakup of my marriage, I realize how wrong I was about being a rugged individualist. I’m not. I yearn for a serious relationship. I didn’t see myself in those terms previously, but I now realize I’m a relationship guy. I like my life better when I’m in a relationship. I like me better when I’m in a relationship.
All of that is hard to admit, but what is even harder to admit is the reason I’d like to be in a relationship: I think it will make me happy. I know, the common advice is that you have to be happy being alone before you can be happy being with someone else. I previously bought into that logic. It’s one of the main reasons I avoided dating for so long after my divorce. But is it really true?
New research indicates that marriage (or a long-term relationship) is the source of most happy people’s happiness. Research done by professor emeritus Sam Peltzman of the University of Chicago indicates that married people are much happier than unmarried people.
In the research, Peltzman looked at several variables, including age, race, gender, education, geography, and marital status, and found that of all the variables, marital status was the only one where there was a big gap in happiness. Married people were 30% more likely to report that they were happy than their unmarried counterparts. And it didn’t matter if the unmarried were never married, divorced, or widowed, the statistics remained the same.
Sadly, the population of unmarried people—and by extension, unhappy people—is growing. In 1974, only 6% of people that reached the age of 40 were unmarried. Today, that figure has increased to 25%.
Peltzman’s research is not an outlier. Similar research conducted over the past several decades has come to the same conclusion. And while Peltzman didn’t study why married people are happier than unmarried people, other researchers have. That research falls into two categories. The first posits that marriage doesn’t make you happy. Instead, happy people tend to get married. This is the school of thought that says you have to learn to be happy alone before you can be happy with someone else.
In a way, this makes sense. People who are happy generally enjoy life and are attractive to a potential partner, who is also likely happy. They find each other and it’s only natural for them to decide to continue being happy together. Unhappy people, on the other hand, aren’t particularly enjoying life. And this glumness tends to repel potential mates, who aren’t interested in being brought down by the unhappy person’s gloomy outlook.
Professor Brienna Perelli-Harris, a professor at University of South Hampton in the UK is a believer in this first theory. Her research concludes that the happiest couples marry and that marriage doesn’t lead to their happiness. Unhappy people simply aren’t in the mood to commit to a lifelong relationship.
According to this theory, while Americans’ happiness level has fallen significantly since around 1980, they’ve stopped getting married. Fewer happy people, fewer weddings.
On the other hand, the second category believes that marriage leads to happiness. According to research conducted by Lyman Stone at the Institute for Family Studies, getting married boosts happiness levels for at least two years after the wedding, even controlling for reported pre-marriage happiness levels.
The argument made by people who believe in this second category is that “close, supportive, long-term relationships make you happy. Finding those types of relationships through friendships is possible, but it’s hard. People move away; they get busy. Most friends don’t buy houses or raise children jointly—the kinds of activities that glue people together and force them to cooperate. According to professor Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University, “Marriage is the usual way to find a durable, caring relationship that undoubtedly makes you happier than you would be if you didn’t have it.”
Another study, this one conducted in Europe in 2017, found that married people were happier after getting married than they were before, and that the happiness boost lasted for many years. Of those that participated in the study, those that said that their spouse was their best friend got nearly twice as much satisfaction from their marriage as those who didn’t feel that way about their significant other.
Do unmarried people who live together long-term rather than get married realize these same benefits? Almost, but not quite.
A study conducted in Germany found that cohabitating people realized about two-thirds of the happiness boost from living together as married people did. Why the difference? The study didn’t delve into that question, but some guesses can be made. It may be that married couples realize a slight happiness boost from making a legal, binding commitment that cohabitators don’t realize. The consequences of a marriage not working out tends to be much more serious than those of the breakup of a couple that was simply living together. It could also be as simple as those living together, while generally happy with one another, aren’t committed or in love enough to take the next step into marriage. Regardless, the important point is that there is still a happiness boost for cohabitating couples that, while not as big as for married couples, is still higher than the happiness level those couples reported prior to cohabitating.
What is it that makes cohabitating couples happier than their unmarried, not-living-together counterparts? John Helliwell of the University of British Columbia and co-author of the 2017 study explains it simply: “It’s the sharing of stuff…the legal thing (marriage) is probably the least important part of it.”
I fall into this second way of thinking. Looking back, even when my marriage was on the rocks, I was happier than I have been for most of the time that I’ve been single. Why would that be? These are just guesses, but I think it’s because I was part of a family (when my kids were still at home) and part of a team (with my wife). I felt like I belonged to something bigger than me, something that was important and, at least in theory, lasting. Being divorced, I often feel like what I do doesn’t matter to anyone but me. If I was more irresponsible, I might like that feeling. But the truth is, I enjoy being responsible to someone other than myself. The obligation makes me feel needed. It makes me happy.
In all honesty, I’m not hellbent to get married. I’m not opposed to it, but it’s not my goal. I simply want to be in a relationship, to share my life with another person. I want to love and be loved. I want to understand and be understood. I want someone to go on adventures with, to laugh with, cry with, and to be my better half. Maybe even my best friend. Why? Because I’m convinced it will make me happier.