Cohabiting is better for men’s mental health, but marriage is better for women’s happiness, suggests a new study.
The study of nearly 4,500 men and women in the UK also reveals that men and women who stick with their first enduring relationship enjoy good mental health.
However, where men recover from serial break-ups, women fare much worse. In fact it may be much better for a woman’s mental health to stay single than to have loved and lost, suggests the study by Michaela Benzeval at Queen Mary, University of London and colleagues.
“The lack of protection of the financial and property rights, and hence the security of cohabiting couples when they separate may explain why women who cohabit have poorer mental health than women who marry,” says the team.
“For women, security is more important,” say Paula Hall, a relationship counsellor at Relate. “They are the ones who have babies and they have very strong nurturing and protective instincts. That may be one reason why marriage is more important to them.
“For men, security is less of an issue. Feeling trapped is a bigger problem for them. That may be way they fare better if they cohabit rather than marry,” she told the BBC.
Marriage has long been associated with good health benefits – particularly for men. Previous studies have shown people who wed have longer life expectancy, lower death rates and better psychological wellbeing than those who remain unmarried, says the team.
Benzeval and colleagues examined data from a major survey – the British Household Panael Survey – covering 10,000 adults from 1991 to 2000.
The men and women under 65 who were included in Benzeval’s analysis were interviewed and given a standard questionnaire to assess psychological distress, including depression and anxiety.
“Enduring first partnerships were associated with good mental health,” say the researchers.
The break-up of partnerships was linked to poor mental health in both sexes, although forming new relationships partially reversed this. However, women took longer to recover than men.
Women’s mental health progressively deteriorated with the more break-ups they experienced.
But this was far from the case in men. “Oddly, the best mental health was observed in men who had undergone two or more partnership reformations, and this was significantly better than all other men,” note the authors.
Single women who never married or moved in with a partner also showed good mental health, in contrast to single men.