by Harry Benson, MARCH 16, 2022


  • Marriage isn’t a guarantee of success. But in a world where all of us mess up, get in bad moods, behave badly sometimes, and treat others not very well, we need something that helps give us a chance. 
  • Marriage has three ingredients that are more like options for cohabitation: it involves a decision, a plan, and the support of friends and family. 
  • Friends and family support marriage by affirming the choice we’ve made and holding us to account for that choice.  

It would be easy to think that marriage is on the way out. Indeed, many prominent commentators think exactly that. After all, marriage rates have been falling across the developed world since the 1970s. Cohabitation has become normalized. People talk about long-term committed couples and relationships as the equivalent of marriage. And politicians and policy makers don’t want to judge lifestyle choices. They tell us that whether we marry or not doesn’t matter.

Unfortunately, this trend away from marriage is most pronounced among the poorest families who need stability most, having the least financial resources to fall back upon. After all, weddings can be expensive. And in some countries, such as the UK and US, couples on low income lose out on welfare payments if they live together or marry. Middle-income couples are now also turning their backs on marriage, meaning that marriage has increasingly become the preserve of the rich, those best off in society.

So do we need marriage? Are the poor leading the way by abandoning it? Are the rich hanging on to marriage as some kind of status symbol? Is marriage permanently dented, or is it just going through a bad patch?

What I want to do is restore your confidence in marriage. I want to reassure you that the statistics continue to show that families who marry tend to have better outcomes, both adults and children, both rich and poor alike. But most of all I want to explain why the act of marriage makes a difference. What is it about marriage that reinforces and enhances commitment? What is the psychology of marriage?

In a study the Marriage Foundation conducted of UK families, we found that 75% of parents who were married when their child was born were still together as a couple when their children reached age 15. Compare that to just 31% of parents who stayed together having cohabited but never married. So much for your long term committed idea. Sure, it exists, and people manage it. But that’s quite a gap: 75% vs 31%. Some people argue that cohabitors are typically younger and less well educated. Yes. That’s true. But in other studies, we’ve found that being married is usually the top, or one of the top, predictors of whether parents stay together even after taking into account age, education, ethnicity, religion, and relationship happiness.

So, marriage helps couples stay together. It also benefits children.

In another study of 14-year-olds in the UK, we found that family breakdown—the absence of a father in the house—was the single biggest factor influencing teenage mental health. The presence or absence of a father is, of course, hugely influenced in turn by whether the parents were married or not in the first place. More remarkably, regardless of whether families stayed together or split up, having parents who were married when their child was born was linked to fewer mental health problems in boys. And in the families who stayed together, both boys and girls had fewer mental health problems if their parents were married.

Moreover, in a survey we did last year of 2,000 adults who were either married now or who had been married at some stage, one in three couples said they wouldn’t have stayed together through their first 10 years or so if they hadn’t been married.

So one in three couples are telling us that being married helped them avoid splitting up early on.

(read rest of Harry Benson’s article at the Institute for Family Studies)