Reexamining the Case for Marriage: Union Formation and Changes in Well-being


  • Center for Demography and Ecology, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 4412 Sewell Social Sciences Building, 1180 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53706-1393.

Department of Policy Analysis and Management, Cornell University, 254 Martha Van Rensselaer Hall, Ithaca, NY 14853-4401 (


This article addresses open questions about the nature and meaning of the positive association between marriage and well-being, namely, the extent to which it is causal, shared with cohabitation, and stable over time. We relied on data from the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 2,737) and a modeling approach that controls for fixed differences between individuals by relating union transitions to changes in well-being. This study is unique in examining the persistence of changes in well-being as marriages and cohabitations progress (and potentially dissolve) over time. The effects of marriage and cohabitation are found to be similar across a range of measures tapping psychological well-being, health, and social ties. Where there are statistically significant differences, marriage is not always more advantageous. Overall, differences tend to be small and appear to dissipate over time, even when the greater instability of cohabitation is taken into account.