Contrary to popular belief, marriage gives men and women an equal mental health boost, a study in Australia shows.
In 1972, sociologist Jessie Bernard looked at symptoms of anxiety, depression, neurosis and passivity in married and unmarried people. She found that men were better off married than single, and concluded that they got those benefits at the expense of women. That became a central tenet of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s, and is still often cited.
But psychologist David de Vaus from La Trobe University in Melbourne points out that Bernard’s research only looked at a narrow definition of stress. “It is well known that women are much more likely to score highly on those disorders,” he says. Most research has ignored the fact that mental disorder can manifest itself in men in the form of drug and alcohol abuse, de Vaus claims.
De Vaus looked at data from 10,641 adults taken from the 1996 national survey of mental health in Australia, which includes drug abuse among its indicators of stress.
In the winter issue of Family Matters, the journal of the Australian Institute of Family Studies, de Vaus writes that the percentage of married men and women suffering stress was the same, at just 13 per cent.
He also found that 25 per cent of both women and men were miserable when single. Married women with children and a job had the fewest mental health problems of the female sample, suggesting that kids are not as stress-inducing as some parents like to claim.
The findings add hard data to ideas already taking hold in the US. In 2001, Linda Waite’s book The Case for Marriage: Why married people are happier, healthier and better off financially cited other studies that overturn Bernard’s theories.
Psychologists are now debating whether Bernard’s conclusions have always been flawed, or whether women have become genuinely happier inside marriage over the past 30 years.