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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

16 - Marital Status and Mental Health

from Part II - The Social Context of Mental Health and Illness: Introduction to Part II


Williams, Frech, and Carlson examine the evidence for an effect of marital status on mental health, with a particular focus on the factors that identify who benefits from marriage, who suffers from marital dissolution, and under what circumstances. They evaluate three possible explanations for observed associations of marital status with mental health: (1) the marital resource model; (2) the marital crisis model; and (3) selection bias. They conclude that the best recent evidence suggests that, on average, entering marriage improves mental health and exiting marriage undermines mental health, at least in the short run. However, their central argument is that these average associations obscure a great deal of heterogeneity in the experience of marriage and in its consequences for mental health. The authors consider a range of individual, demographic, and relationship characteristics that are likely to moderate the effect of marriage and marital dissolution on mental health. These include gender, marital quality, age / life course, race/ethnicity, values and beliefs, and prior mental health. Students should discuss what other factors are likely to influence whether marriage and divorce are beneficial, neutral, or harmful for mental health. How might the impact of marriage and divorce on mental health change with the times, particularly as alternative family forms become more prevalent?


A general consensus exists among social scientists and the public at large that marriage provides substantial benefits to mental health. For many years, this conclusion was based on cross-sectional studies comparing the average mental health of the married to that of the unmarried at a single point in time. This research clearly showed that married individuals report lower average levels of depression, psychological distress, and psychiatric disorder, and higher levels of life satisfaction and subjective well-being (see Umberson & Williams, 1999 and Waite & Gallagher, 2000 for reviews) than the unmarried. The consistency and relatively large magnitude of observed differences, as well as their persistence across time and in numerous countries (Mastekaasa, 1994; Stack & Eshleman, 1998), led to the conclusion that marriage improves mental health for most people.

Research findings about marital status differences in mental health strongly resonate with cultural views about the individual and societal importance of marriage. Perhaps as a result, they are frequently heralded by the news media with headlines like “Stressed Out?