October 4, 2002
LONDON (AP) -- The long-standing feminist tenet that marriage makes men much happier but women more miserable has been dealt a blow by new research that finds wives are no more likely than husbands to suffer emotional problems.
The findings, which come from the largest study to investigate the question of who is more afflicted by marriage, are published in the current issue of the Australian journal Family Matters.
Feminist scholar Jessie Bernard was among the first to postulate that men benefitted emotionally from marriage while women suffered. Her research, published in a 1972 best seller "The Future of Marriage," fed into the evolving feminist belief that the institution of marriage oppressed women.
The theory has lasted, despite that scientists have shown her studies to have been flawed and more recent research has contradicted the 30-year-old findings.
"This view of the effect of marriage on men and women has been enormously influential and has become part of the 'common knowledge' about marriage," said David De Vaus, a professor of sociology at La Trobe University in Melbourne who conducted the latest study.
"But the patterns that were suggested by people like Jessie Bernard .... (are) just not true. The evidence is unequivocal," he said.
"What the early studies did was center largely on typical female disorders - anxiety, depression, phobias," De Vaus said. "What they ignored are the types of mental illness more common in men, such as drug and alcohol abuse."
Bernard, who died in 1996, found that married women were more depressed than married men; that married women were more depressed than single women, but that married men were less depressed than bachelors.
De Vaus' study involved 10,641 Australian adults who were interviewed personally to establish the state of their mental health.
The survey classified people as having a mental disorder based on the World Health Organization definition after asking whether certain symptoms and incidents had occurred in the 12 months leading up to the interview.
"What's very clear ... is that if you look at male typical and female typical disorders and combine them, then men and women in marriage have the same rates of mental disorders. They just have different disorders," De Vaus said.
David Popenoe, co-director of the Family Research Project at Rutgers University in New Jersey, said U.S. researchers have reached similar conclusions but that the scale of the Australian study was particularly impressive. Popenoe was not involved in the Australian study.
The study found mental illness in 16 percent of the women and 16 percent of the men. Depression and anxiety was more common among women, while drug and alcohol addiction tended to afflict men.
Divorced people fared the worst, with 25 percent of both the women and the men suffering emotional problems.
Singletons fared slightly better, with 22 percent of women and 26 percent of men afflicted with mental disorders.
Married people were best off, with only 13 percent of women and 13 percent of men suffering emotional disorders.
Experts say that while it is now clear that married people are emotionally better off than divorced or single people, it remains to be proven that marriage itself reduces the risk of an emotional disorder.
It could be that people with better mental health are more likely to get married, while those with problems shy away from marriage, are not able to attract partners or end up divorced.
"Certainly that's a factor, but it's not just that," said Popenoe, a professor of sociology.
The most likely meaning of the latest findings is that Bernard's findings and her conclusion that marriage emotionally oppresses women were wrong all along, he said.
"When something like that gets stuck in the cultural mind, it doesn't go away easily. There is the small element that marriage has changed since the '50s and '60s, but we also know there were methodological flaws in that study," Popenoe said.
Marriage rates in many developed countries are declining.
"There are going to be many things that, rightly, are going to enter into the decision whether or not to marry," De Vaus said. "It would be a pity if women decided not to get married based on information that it damages their mental health, when in fact the evidence shows the opposite."
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