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The Effects of Marriage on Health: A Synthesis of Recent Research Evidence. Research Brief

Married people are generally healthier than unmarried people, as measured by numerous health outcomes. (1)   To investigate the complex relationship between marriage and health, this review scrutinizes recent research, focusing on studies that use rigorous statistical methods to examine whether marriage is a cause of these better health outcomes.

A focus on the most rigorous recent evidence reveals that marriage has positive effects on certain health-related outcomes. These studies find, for example, that marriage improves certain mental health outcomes, reduces the use of some high-cost health services (such as nursing home care), and increases the likelihood of having health insurance coverage. In addition, an emerging literature suggests that growing up with married parents is associated with better health as an adult. Marriage has mixed effects on health behaviors — leading to healthier behaviors in some cases (reduced heavy drinking) and less healthy behaviors in others (weight gain). For other key health outcomes — in particular, measures of specific physical health conditions-the effects of marriage remain largely unaddressed by rigorous research.

Understanding the Marriage-Health Connection

Measuring the effects of marriage.

Because marriage is likely to be both a cause and a consequence of health outcomes, research must disentangle the influence of selection from the true causal influence of marriage. Distinguishing between these two factors requires careful analysis and advanced statistical methods that have been absent from many studies. This review focuses on studies that provide the most reliable evidence on whether marriage has a causal influence on health outcomes.

The studies providing the strongest evidence use longitudinal data and examine the association between changes in health outcomes and transitions into and out of marriage. Studies of this type provide more convincing evidence of a causal relationship between marriage and health because sample members serve as their own control group, and the effect of marriage is measured by comparing their outcomes before and after marriage. This method avoids comparing two groups that may have different background characteristics — in particular, people who marry and people who do not — which may lead to misleading and inaccurate results.

Some health outcomes are not well suited for this type of analysis, however. For example, many physical health outcomes cannot be examined in this way, because changes can unfold over a long time and may not be apparent immediately after a marital transition. For this reason, the evidence on the effects of marriage on physical health is more limited and somewhat more speculative than evidence on the effects of marriage on other health outcomes examined in this review.

What Is Currently Known?

Effects on Health Behaviors.  Marriage may influence health through its effect on behaviors such as alcohol consumption, drug use, cigarette smoking, diet, and exercise. Recent research suggests that marriage has significant effects on the health behaviors of both men and women, but the pattern is mixed — marriage is associated with healthier behaviors in some cases and less healthy behaviors in others. Studies consistently indicate that marriage reduces heavy drinking and overall alcohol consumption, and that effects are similar for young men and young women, and for both African Americans and whites. ( 8 , 9 , 10 , 11 )   Although the research is less extensive, marriage is also associated with reduced marijuana use for young men, but less so for women. ( 8 , 11 )   Less is known about the effects of marriage on the substance use of older adults. Studies of marriage and smoking reveal no consistent pattern of results, suggesting that marriage may have little or no influence on this behavior. ( 8 , 11 , 12 , 13 )

In contrast to studies of alcohol and drug use, studies of the effect of marriage on weight and physical activity suggest that marriage may have negative effects on healthy behaviors and may encourage a more sedentary lifestyle. Several rigorous studies find that marriage leads to modest weight increases for both men and women — typically averaging less than five pounds. ( 14 , 15 , 16 , 17 , 13 , 12 )   The research on the effects of marriage on physical activity is less conclusive because it is not based on longitudinal analysis and does not fully adjust for differences between those who marry and those who do not. The evidence that is available suggests marriage may lead to reductions in physical activity, particularly for men. (18)

For certain health behaviors — in particular, substance use among younger adults and weight gain among all adults — the influence of marriage has been well studied and is well understood. For other behaviors, less is known and additional research is needed before stronger conclusions can be drawn. One useful area for future research is to examine the effects of marriage on the alcohol use of older adults to determine whether the effects observed for young adults exist in older populations. Additional research using longitudinal data is also needed to examine the effects of marriage on physical activity to determine whether the relationship between marriage and physical activity observed in cross-sectional analyses remains when more rigorous estimation techniques are used.

Effects on Health Care Access, Use, and Costs.   Marriage may influence physical health through its effects on health care access and use. Studies of the link between marriage and health insurance suggest that — by offering access to coverage through a spouse's policy — marriage increases the likelihood of having insurance and reduces the likelihood of becoming uninsured after a job loss or other major life event. (19)   This effect is larger for women. Recent research also finds a link between marriage and health care use. Marriage is associated with shorter average hospital stays, fewer doctor visits, and reduced risk of nursing home admission. ( 20 , 21 , 22 )   Limited evidence also suggests that marriage may increase the use of preventive care such as cancer screenings. (12)

Because of its effects on health care use, marriage is also associated with lower health care costs among older adults. For example, studies show that, because marriage reduces the risk of nursing home admission, marriage may also lead to reduced nursing home costs. (22)   The effect of marriage in shortening hospital stays may also lead to reductions in health care costs. Research indicates that the effect of marriage on health care costs exists independent of the effect of marriage on physical health. (22)   Specifically, many married people rely on their spouses for informal care, and thus require fewer long hospital stays and nursing home admissions, resulting in lower health care costs — even if married and unmarried older adults are equally likely to get sick. ( 20 , 21 )   These studies find that wives are especially likely to provide informal care for their husbands at home, so the effect of marriage on health care costs may be larger for men.

The link between marriage and health care costs needs further study, because most previous research provides only indirect evidence based on examination of effects on high-cost health services, such as nursing home care. Other outcomes ripe for future research include quality of care, use of prescription medications, receipt of high-tech exams and treatments, patient adherence to prescribed treatment regimens, and use of preventive health services other than cancer screenings.

Effects on Mental Health.   Marriage may affect many aspects of mental health. This review focuses on the prevalence of depressive symptoms. The most recent rigorous research suggests that marriage reduces depressive symptoms for both men and women. ( 23 , 24 , 25 , 26 )   In particular, these studies find that getting married decreases depressive symptoms, while getting divorced increases them. Research has also documented that increases in depressive symptoms after divorce are long-lasting and that the prevalence of these symptoms remains elevated years after the marital breakup. (27 , 28 )   In addition, studies comparing the mental health of stably married adults to those who remain unmarried find that those who are stably married have fewer depressive symptoms (and smaller increases in these symptoms as they grow older), even after controlling for baseline mental health. ( 23 , 25 , 26 )

Although research consistently shows that being married reduces depression, the existing evidence has limitations that future research should address. In particular, the most rigorous research typically estimates the effect of marriage and marital transitions by comparing the prevalence of depressive symptoms in the period just before a marital transition to the prevalence in the period just after the transition. This method adjusts for background differences between those who marry and those who do not. However, it may introduce other sources of bias into the estimates, and the direction of this bias is uncertain.

For example, people may experience fewer depressive symptoms in the period leading up to marriage in anticipation of this transition. Similarly, people may experience more depressive symptoms in the period leading up to a divorce, as the quality of their marriage declines. If so, comparing someone's depressive symptoms during the period just before a marital transition to the period immediately after may underestimate the effect of this transition. Conversely, if depressive symptoms are reduced for only a short time after marriage or are elevated for only a short time after a marital dissolution before returning to their pre-transition levels, comparisons of depressive symptoms just before and just after the transition would overestimate the long-term effect. To address these limitations and to obtain a more precise understanding of the relationship between marriage and depression, longitudinal data sets are needed that offer more detailed mental health histories and more information on changes in mental health status than are currently available.

Effects on Physical Health and Longevity.   Many studies have documented that people who marry live longer and enjoy better physical health than those who do not marry. ( 29 , 30 )   However, methodological issues require caution in interpreting this pattern, because most of the research in this area relies on descriptive methods that do not adequately control for the possible selection of healthier people into marriage. Although central to the overall assessment of the link between marriage and health, rigorous research evidence concerning the effect of marriage on specific physical health outcomes is limited, and few solid conclusions can be drawn.

The rigorous research currently available provides limited evidence of an effect of marriage on physical health. Recent research finds a significant positive effect of marriage on how men rate their overall physical health status; however, it finds no such effect for women. ( 30 )   Researchers find a positive effect on women's physical health, as measured by the prevalence of specific health conditions and illnesses. (31)   However, no recent rigorous studies based on U.S. samples have examined whether a similar marriage effect on the frequency of health conditions or illnesses exists among men. Similarly, little evidence exists on the links between marriage and specific health conditions or diseases. One exception is a recent study that suggests a possible link between marriage and the risk of cardiovascular disease for women; however, the study finds no such effect for men. (32)   Overall, the existing research evidence on the links between marriage and physical health is limited to a narrow range of health measures and does not offer a complete picture of the influence of marriage on physical health.

Many studies have pointed to a strong relationship between marriage and longevity, (33 , 29 , 34 )   but this research also has limitations. In particular, these studies are typically limited to simple descriptive comparisons of married and unmarried adults that do not adequately distinguish the effect of marriage from the possible effects of healthier people selecting into marriage. As noted, the most reliable studies of links between marriage and health examine measures directly before and after marital transitions. However, because longevity is determined only at the end of life, it is not possible to observe how a marital transition changes longevity. Some researchers have attempted to address selection using other statistical techniques, (5)   but these studies provide less convincing evidence than do studies of marital transitions. For this reason, the strongest evidence of a positive effect of marriage on longevity comes more from the robustness of this relationship across many studies than from the particular strengths of any single study.

A more definitive test of the effect of marriage on physical health and longevity will require very long-term longitudinal data that afford the opportunity to control for differences in initial health status measured before sample members begin to marry. With data of this type, researchers can examine how differing marital histories affect physical health, controlling for any initial health differences that exist between those who marry and remain married and those who do not.

Intergenerational Health Effects. An emerging literature on the possible intergenerational health effects of marriage suggests that marriage also has potential long-term consequences for the physical health of a couple's children. In particular, studies show that growing up with married parents is associated with better physical health in adulthood and increased longevity. (35 , 36 , 37 )   Research suggests that such intergenerational health effects are especially strong for men and operate equally for African American and white men. ( 38 , 39 , 40 )   There is less evidence examining possible differences in this relationship for African American and white women.

There are many possible reasons why parental marital status may have long-term health consequences for children. However, existing research provides limited evidence on the pathways by which childhood family structure affects adult physical health and longevity. Several studies suggest that the effects work mostly through the role of childhood family structure in shaping children's future socioeconomic attainment, and through adult health risk behaviors, such as smoking and heavy drinking. ( 35 , 39 )   On average, children raised in two-parent families obtain more education and exhibit healthier adult behaviors than children from other types of families. These differences, in turn, have consequences for adult health and longevity.

Research on intergenerational health effects has focused on trends for people born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a period when patterns of marriage, divorce, and single parenthood were much different from today. It is possible that the apparent benefits of marriage for children's health have weakened as single parenthood and divorce have become more common and less stigmatizing. In addition, much of the research is limited to data for small nonrepresentative samples. The available nationally representative evidence is based on data sets that began tracking sample members as adults, which limits the ability to control for differences in the background characteristics of those who grew up in a two-parent family and those who did not.

Future research is needed to

  • Replicate the results of existing research with nationally representative data following sample members from childhood into adulthood,
  • Distinguish more clearly the effect of parental marital status from the effects of other related family characteristics,
  • Identify more precise mechanisms by which childhood family structure might influence adult physical health, and
  • Examine whether the relationships observed in earlier generations also apply to a younger cohort of children coming of age in a period when divorce and single parenthood are increasingly common.

Marriage, Health, and Policy

Recent research suggests that marriage improves certain health outcomes. However, the picture of marriage's overall effect on health is not yet complete. Future research could more fully explore the effects of marriage on health care costs; the health effects of marriage for different racial, ethnic, and socio-economic groups; the role that marital quality might play; and the intergenerational health effects of marriage. Moreover, little rigorous research has been conducted concerning the central question of whether marriage affects physical health. Additional research in these and other areas could help clarify the breadth of the health effects of marriage. Better information about how marriage affects health can contribute to discussions about the role and purposes of public policy in supporting marriage — and possibly give a new meaning to the phrase “healthy marriage.”

1. Schoenborn, Charlotte A. "Marital Status and Health:  United States, 1999-2002." Advance Data, no. 351, December 2004.

2. Lerman, Robert. "Marriage and the Economic Well-Being of Families with Children:  A Review of the Literature." Washington, DC: The Urban Institute and American University, July 2002.

3. Umberson, Debra. "Family Status and Health Behaviors:  Social Control as a Dimension of Social Integration." Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 28, no. 3, 1987, pp. 306-319.

4. House J.S., D. Umberson, and K.R. Landis. "Structures and Processes of Social Support." Annual Review of Sociology, vol. 14, 1988, pp. 293-318.

5. Lillard, Lee A., and Constantijn W.A. Panis. "Marital Status and Mortality:  The Role of Health." Demography, vol. 33, no. 3, August 1996, pp. 313-327.

6. Murray, John E. "Marital Protection and Marital Selection:  Evidence from a Historical-Prospective Sample of American Men." Demography, vol. 37, no. 4, November 2000, pp. 511-521.

7. Waite, Linda J. "Does Marriage Matter?"  Demography, vol. 32, no. 4, Nov. 1995, pp. 483-507.

8. Duncan, Greg, Bessie Wilkerson, and Paula England. "Cleaning Up Their Act:  The Effects of Marriage and Cohabitation on Licit and Illicit Drug Use." Demography, vol. 43, no. 4, Nov. 2006, pp. 691-710.

9. Curran, Patrick J., Bengt O. Muthen, and Thomas C. Harford. "The Influence of Changes in Marital Status on Developmental Trajectories of Alcohol Use in Young Adults." Journal of Studies on Alcohol, November 1998.

10. Miller-Tutzauer, C; K.E. Leonard, and M. Windle. "Marriage and Alcohol Use:  A Longitudinal Study of "Maturing Out". J Stud Alcohol., vol. 52, no. 5, September 1991, pp. 434-40.

11. Bachman, J.G., K.N. Wadsworth, P.M. O'Malley, L.D. Johnston, and J.E. Schulenberg. Smoking, Drinking, and Drug use in Young Adulthood:  The Impacts of New Freedoms and New Responsibilities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Assoc., 1997.

12. Lee, Sunmin, Eunyoung Cho, Francine Grodstein, Ichiro Kawachi, Frank B. Hu, and Graham A. Colditz. "Effects of Marital Transitions on Changes in Dietary and Other Health Behaviours in U.S. Women." International Journal of Epidemiology, vol. 34, 2005, pp. 69-78.

13. Eng, P.M., Ichiro Kawachi, Garrett Fitzmaurice, and Eric B. Rimm. "Effects of Marital Transitions on Changes in Dietary and Other Health Behaviours in U.S. Male Health Professionals." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, vol. 59, 2005, pp. 56-62.

14. Kahn, Henry S., and David F. Williamson. "The Contributions of Income, Education, and Changing Marital Status to Weight Change Among U.S. Men." International Journal of Obesity, vol. 14, 1990, pp. 1057-1068.

15. Kahn, H.S., D.F. Williamson, and J.A. Stevens. "Race and Weight Change in U.S. Women:  The Roles of Socioeconomic and Marital Status." American Journal of Public Health, vol. 81, no. 3, March 1991, pp. 319-323.

16. Sobal, J., B. Rauschenbach, and E. Frongillo. "Marital Status Changes and Body Weight Changes:  A U.S. Longitudinal Analysis." Social Science & Medicine, vol. 56, no. 7, 2003, pp. 1543-1546.

17. Jeffery, R.W., and A.M. Rick. "Cross-Sectional and Longitudinal Associations Between Body Mass Index and Marriage-Related Factors." Obes Res, vol. 10, 2002, pp. 809-815.

18. Nomaguchi, Kei M., and Suzanne M. Bianchi. "Exercise Time: Gender Differences in the Effects of Marriage, Parenthood, and Employment." Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 66, May 2004, pp. 413-129.

19. Short, Pamela Farley. "Gaps and Transitions in Health Insurance:  What Are the Concerns of Women?" Journal of Women's Health, vol. 7, no. 6, 1998, pp. 725-737.

20. Freedman, Vicki A. "Family Structure and the Risk of Nursing Home Admission." Journal of Gerontology, Social Sciences, vol. 51B, 1996, pp. S61-S69.

21. Iwashyna, Theodore J., and Nicholas A. Christakis. "Marriage, Widowhood, and Health-Care Use." Social Science & Medicine, vol. 57, no. 11, 2003, pp. 2137-2147.

22. Prigerson, Holly G., Paul K. Maciejewski, and Robert A. Rosenheck. "Preliminary Explorations of the Harmful Interactive Effects of Widowhood and Marital Harmony on Health, Health Service Use, and Health Care Costs." The Gerontologist, vol. 40, no. 3, 2000, pp. 349-57.

23. Kim, Hyoun K., and Patrick McKenry. "The Relationship Between Marriage and Psychological Well-Being." Journal of Family Issues, vol. 23, no. 8, 2002, pp. 885-911.

24. Lamb, Kathleen A., Gary R. Lee, and Alfred DeMaris. "Union Formation and Depression: Selection and Relationship Effects." Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 65, 2003, pp. 953-962.

25. Marks, Nadine F., and James David Lambert. "Marital Status Continuity and Change among Young and Midlife Adults." Journal of Family Issues, vol. 19, no. 6, 1998, pp. 652-686.

26. Simon, Robin W. "Revisiting the Relationships Among Gender, Marital Status, and Mental Health." American Journal of Sociology, vol. 4, 2002, pp. 1065-1096.

27. Aseltine Jr., Robert H., and Ronald C. Kessler. "Marital Disruption and Depression in a Community Sample." Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 34, 1993, pp. 237-251.

28. Johnson, David R., and Jian Wu. "An Empirical Test of Crisis, Social Selection, and Role Explanations of the Relationship Between Marital Disruption and Psychological Distress:  A Pooled Time-Series Analysis of Four-Wave Panel Data." Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 64, 2002, pp. 211-224.

29. Manzoli, Lamberto, Paolo Villari, Giovanni M. Pirone, and Antonio Boccia. "Marital Status and Mortality in the Elderly:  A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis." Social Science & Medicine, vol. 64, 2007, pp. 77-94.

30. Williams, Kristi and Debra Umberson. "Marital Status, Marital Transitions, and Health:  A Gendered Life Course Perspective." Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 45, 2004, pp. 81-98.

31. Lorenz, Frederick O., K.A.S. Wickrama, Rand D. Conger, and Glen H. Elder, Jr. "The Short-Term and Decade-Long Effects of Divorce on Women's Midlife Health." Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 47, 2006, pp. 111-125.

32. Zhang, Zhenmei and Mark D. Hayward. "Gender, the Marital Life Course, and Cardiovascular Health in Late Midlife." Journal of Marriage and Family, vol. 68, no. 3, 2006, pp. 639-657.

33. Kaplan, Robert M. and Richard G. Kronick. "Marital Status and Longevity in the United States Population." Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, vol. 60, 2006; pp. 760-765.

34. Sorlie, P.D., E. Backland, and J.B. Keller. "U.S. Mortality by Economic, Demographic, and Social Characteristics:  the National Longitudinal Mortality Study." American Journal of Public Health, vol. 85, no. 7, 1995, pp. 949-956.

35. Hayward, Mark D., and Bridget K. Gorman. "The Long Arm of Childhood:  The Influence of Early-Life Social Conditions on Men's Mortality." Demography, vol. 41, no. 1, 2004, pp. 87-107.

36. Maier, E. Hailey, and Margie E. Lachman. "Consequences of Early Parental Loss and Separation for Health and Well-Being in Midlife." International Journal of Behavioral Development, vol. 24, no. 2, 2000, pp. 183-89.

37. Schwartz, Joseph, Howard S. Friedman, Joan S. Tucker, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, Deborah L. Wingard, and Michael H. Criqui. "Sociodemographic and Psychosocial Factors in Childhood as Predictors of Adult Mortality." American Journal of Public Health, vol. 85, no. 9, 1995, pp. 1237-1245.

38. Preston, Samuel H., Mark E. Hill, and Greg L. Drevenstedt. "Childhood Conditions that Predict Survival to Advanced Ages Among African-Americans." Social Science & Medicine, vol. 47, no. 9, 1998, pp. 1231-1246.

39. Tucker, Joan S., Howard S. Friedman, Joseph E. Schwartz, Michael H. Criqui, Carol Tomlinson-Keasey, Deborah L. Wingard, and Leslie R. Martin. "Parental Divorce:  Effects on Individual Behavior and Longevity." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, vol. 73, no. 2, 1997, pp. 381-391.

40. Warner, David F. and Mark D. Hayward. "Early-Life Origins of the Race Gap in Men's Mortality." Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 47, 2006, pp. 209-226.

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Marital quality and health: Implications for marriage in the 21 st century

Theodore f. robles.

University of California, Los Angeles

Being in a happy marriage is related to better psychological and physical health. This paper describes current approaches to conceptualizing and measuring marital quality and physical health, and results from a recent meta-analysis examining associations between marital quality and physical health outcomes. To illustrate the practical significance of these findings, this paper also illustrates how the magnitude of the marital quality – physical health association is similar in size to associations between health behaviors (diet, physical activity) and health outcomes, and briefly reviews the state of the science regarding plausible biobehavioral pathways that explain how marital functioning influences health. After describing the current state of research on factors that might modify the association between marital quality and health, particularly individual differences and gender, the paper concludes with implications of the past 50 years of research on marital quality and health for marriage in the 21 st century.

Marriage often involves a public commitment to stay together through “sickness and health,” and marriage itself may influence sickness and physical health as well. Being married is associated with better physical health compared to not being married. However, the effect is likely due to several factors ( Liu & Umberson, 2008 ), including selection (healthier people may be more likely to get and stay married), shared resources (joint economic, psychosocial, and societal benefits), and the negative effects of marital disruptions (divorce, widowhood).

The degree of happiness with the marriage, or marital quality, is also related to physical health ( Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001 ). In this article, I review the results from a recent meta-analysis of marital quality and physical health research ( Robles, Slatcher, Trombello, & McGinn, 2014 ). Meta-analysis involves statistically aggregating results across studies to determine the magnitude of association (the effect size) between marital quality and health outcomes. I then describe plausible explanations for why marital quality might be related to physical health, whether such associations might differ for different people, and implications for marriage and health in the 21 st century.


Researchers define marital quality as a subjective, global evaluation of the relationship and behaviors in the relationship ( Fincham & Bradbury, 1987 ), and can be measured in a variety of ways. Common measures involve self-reported attitudes towards one’s partner and marriage, ratings of the frequency or acceptability of partners’ behaviors, or both. Researchers can also videorecord couples while they discuss problems or other issues in their relationship, and then code the recordings for behaviors indicating high (supportive behaviors) or low marital quality (hostile or withdrawing behaviors).

Likewise, physical health can be measured many ways, including physician ratings of a patient’s functioning, participant self-reports of how healthy they feel, or objective biological markers like blood pressure or cholesterol levels. The increased use of biological markers in psychological research makes developing a clear definition of what is (and is not) a physical health outcome critical. Fortunately, the National Institutes of Health provided useful definitions ( Biomarker Definitions Working Group, 2001 ), which were used in the meta-analysis to categorize health outcomes into three categories: 1) Objective, and 2) Subjective clinical endpoints, where “clinical endpoints” refer to how a patient feels, functions, or survives; and 3) Surrogate endpoints, which are biological markers that can substitute for clinical endpoints based on empirical research. Examples of the latter include blood pressure and coronary artery calcification (for more examples see Table 1 in Robles et al., 2014 ). The theoretical framework guiding the meta-analysis shown in Figure 1 (derived from Burman & Margolin, 1992 ; Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001 ; Robles et al., 2014 ; Slatcher, 2010 ), includes examples of each type of health outcome.

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Conceptual framework depicting mechanisms that explain how marital quality may influence health, modifying factors such as individual differences and gender differences, and examples of surrogate and clinical endpoints.

Across all health outcome categories, the meta-analysis showed small but consistent associations between greater marital quality and better health ( Figure 2 ). Of course, health problems may put strain on the marriage, and reduce marital quality. However, in longitudinal studies, marital quality generally predicts poorer health, rather than the reverse. Unfortunately, most studies measured marital quality with measures that could not distinguish whether effects were due to high marital strain, low marital support, or both. Assessing both positive and negative aspects of marital functioning and relating both to health outcomes is a key direction for future work.

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Summary of effect sizes in the Robles et al. (2014) meta-analysis. Effect sizes are depicted as the correlation coefficient r , which ranges from −1.00 to +1.00. Positive values indicate that greater marital quality is related to better physical health. The size of the squares is proportional to the number of studies in each category. The height of the vertical bars indicates the 95% confidence interval around the effect size, which is the range of average effect sizes one would expect in 95 out of 100 future meta-analyses.

Across the studies, the strongest associations were for clinical endpoints, but overall the magnitude of associations would be considered “small” based on most statistical conventions. The small effects raise the question of whether the observed effect sizes have any practical significance for public health. One way to address practical significance is comparing the magnitude of effect sizes to other factors that influence physical health, notably behaviors like diet and physical activity. Thus, we compared effect sizes for links between marital quality and health to effect sizes for links between health behaviors and health outcomes, as daily activities like diet and physical activity are considered important targets for health promotion. Based on other meta-analytic findings, associations between diet, exercise, or sedentary activity and clinical endpoints were also small in magnitude (for specific details, see Robles et al., 2014 ). However, most experts would agree that changing health behaviors, despite their “small” effects, is important for improving public health.

Another way to address practical significance is considering whether plausible mechanisms explain the association between marital quality and health. Because physical health is the ultimate outcome, such mechanisms should be biologically plausible. In addition, much like health-related behaviors like physical (in)activity, candidate mechanisms should exert their effects on a daily basis. Fortunately, married partners have frequent contact with one another and likely think about each other on a daily basis. In the next section, I briefly review the viable psychosocial pathways that may explain how marital quality influences health.


The center portion of Figure 1 describes candidate psychosocial mechanisms. Each mechanism likely exerts effects on a daily basis, and can influence biological mediators that can impact health. The evidence linking candidate psychosocial mechanisms to biological mediators is stronger for some mechanisms than others, notably psychopathology and health behaviors (see Robles et al., 2014 for an in-depth review).

Social-cognitive processes refer to how people think about their partner, such as how people explain their spouse’s behavior ( Bradbury & Fincham, 1990 ). Emotional processes refer to how couples regulate each other’s emotional experience and expression. The presence and support provided by one’s spouse is an important resource for reducing negative emotions like anxiety or sadness ( Beckes & Coan, 2011 ), which can further influence biological mechanisms. For example, disclosing thoughts and feelings to one’s spouse may have benefits for sleep, including reducing the time it takes to fall asleep, and increasing the amount of time asleep relative to time in bed ( Kane, Slatcher, Reynolds, Repetti, & Robles, in press ). Likewise, marital strain can also lead to persistent negative thoughts about one’s partner and difficulties regulating negative emotional experience and expression ( Snyder, Simpson, & Hughes, 2006 ).

The negative effects of marital strain on regulating negative emotions may explain why poor marital quality increases risk for mood and anxiety disorders, and exacerbates and perpetuates substance use disorders ( Whisman & Baucom, 2012 ). Accordingly, psychopathology , particularly depression, may explain the association between marital quality and health. In our meta-analysis, among studies that examined depression and marital quality as predictors, depression and marital quality were typically independent predictors of health, and marital quality often emerged with larger effect sizes than depression.

The associations between marital quality and substance use further suggests a mechanistic role for health behaviors . Relationship strain may increase health-compromising behaviors (substance use, unhealthy eating) as a coping strategy ( Whisman, Uebelacker, & Bruce, 2006 ). More generally, couples tend to become more similar to each other in health behaviors like physical activity and diet over time ( Homish & Leonard, 2008 ). Spouses also influence each others’ health behaviors, such as modeling healthy eating or pestering a spouse to eat healthier ( Lewis & Butterfield, 2007 ). Support may increase personal resources, like self-efficacy, to aid efforts to change behavior ( DiMatteo, 2004 ). Finally, marital quality may be particularly important for health behaviors that often co-occur between spouses, such as eating and sleep ( Troxel, Robles, Hall, & Buysse, 2007 ).

The biological mediators in Figure 1 include the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems ( Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001 ). The typical approach to studying biological mediators in marriage research involves bringing couples into the laboratory, and asking them to discuss problems in their relationship for 10 – 30 minutes while obtaining physiological measures (e.g., heart rate, blood pressure, blood or saliva samples). Our meta-analysis showed clear evidence that greater marital quality is related to smaller increases in heart rate and blood pressure (smaller cardiovascular reactivity) during problem discussions. These findings are notable because greater cardiovascular reactivity during laboratory stressors (like playing a video game or performing mental arithmetic) predicts faster progression of atherosclerosis ( Chida & Steptoe, 2010 ), the underlying biological process involved in heart disease. While similar links from marital quality to cardiovascular reactivity to atherosclerosis progression have not been made, clear associations exist between marital functioning and cardiovascular reactivity, and marital functioning and cardiovascular disease outcomes.

In summary, compelling data suggests that marital quality is associated with the mechanisms described in this section. However, the studies needed to establish these mechanisms as causal explanations or risk factors for poor health must: 1) explicitly test whether marital quality predicts changes in the explanatory mechanisms described above, and 2) test the degree to which changes in those mechanisms explain later health outcomes. Despite 50 years of research, no study to date has met those stringent criteria.


Figure 1 implies that two factors that could make the association between marital quality and health stronger for some and weaker for others: personality and gender ( Figure 1 ). Research on the role of personality, marriage, and health has primarily focused on hostility and neuroticism ( Smith, Baron, & Grove, 2013 ). Beyond modifying the association between marital quality and health, personality may directly impact psychological and behavioral processes, or modify the association between such processes and biological processes. For example, greater trait hostility is associated with greater relationship conflict and less supportive interpersonal relationships, greater physiological responses to interpersonal stressors, health-compromising behaviors like smoking, and depressive symptoms in married couples.

Unfortunately, no studies have directly tested whether personality characteristics modify associations between marital quality and health outcomes. Importantly, as noted by others (illustrated here with a hypothetical married couple named Don and Megan), Megan’s personality is Don’s social context ( Smith et al., 2013 ). Thus, there may be important associations between Megan’s personality and Don’s health, or between Megan’s report of Don’s personality and Don’s health. An example of the latter is a study where spouse-reported ratings of the participant’s personality, particularly high negative affectivity, high dominance, and low affiliation, were related to greater participant’s coronary artery calcification ( Smith et al., 2008 ).

There has been considerable interest in whether associations among marital quality, physiological mechanisms, and health differ between men and women ( Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001 ; Wanic & Kulik, 2011 ). The meta-analysis found some, but not overwhelming evidence for gender differences in the link between marital quality and health, and gender differences that emerged were small in magnitude. Thus, extremely large sample sizes (> 1,500 people of each gender), rare in the vast majority of the existing research, are necessary to have enough statistical power to detect gender differences if they exist.

The small gender differences and the enormous sample sizes required to detect such differences suggest a need for focusing on gender-related factors, including the ways people think about relationships relative to themselves and/or focus on others to the potential exclusion of the self, and people’s roles in domestic labor and childcare ( Kiecolt-Glaser & Newton, 2001 ). Incorporating gender-related and theory-based concepts that exist along a continuum more accurately reflects the state of gender relations in modern marriage, and has a side benefit of increasing statistical power. Moreover, same-sex marriage provides an unprecedented opportunity to examine the role of gender-related factors like domestic labor participation without confounds due to gender or biological sex.

Overall, “for whom is marital quality especially beneficial or detrimental?” is an incredibly understudied question. Factors including age, cohort, and well-established predictors of divorce and declines in marital satisfaction such as low socioeconomic status need significant attention in future research on marital functioning and health. Such work would strengthen our understanding of who is at risk for poor health, and identify targets for prevention and intervention efforts.


The past half-century of research suggests a small, but practically significant association between marital quality and health, which may be explained by a number of plausible psychosocial and biological mechanisms. Considerably less is known about “for whom” the association between marital quality and health is stronger or weaker. I conclude by describing the implications of this work for marriage in the 21 st century, which is a product of major demographic and cultural changes, including declining marriage rates, and increasing cohabitation, same-sex marriage, and age of first marriage ( Cherlin, 2010 ). Culturally, the meaning of marriage changed from a formal institution promoting family and economic stability, to a means of obtaining love and companionship, and more recently (late 20 th century) into a means of pursuing personal choices and self-fulfillment ( Cherlin, 2004 ).

Noting the demographic and cultural changes, scholars recently noted that modern marriages suffer from “suffocation” ( Finkel, Hui, Carswell, & Larson, 2014 ). Compared to previous history, marriage is being “asked” to fulfill higher-order needs like happiness and personal fulfillment, while modern economic and social challenges make it difficult for couples to invest time and energy in the marriage to fulfill such needs ( Finkel et al., 2014 ). Such challenges include income inequality, economic incentives that favor work over family time, and increased social isolation. Interestingly, those same challenges, combined with others (availability of unhealthy food, and factors that disrupt sleep and limit social activity) are obstacles to maintaining good physical health. To “oxygenate” marriage and thus increase marital quality, Finkel and colleagues suggest that couples make better use of or increase the amount of time and energy invested in marriage. Alternatively, couples might consider revising expectations about marriage; rather than expecting one’s marriage to be the critical source of personal fulfillment, looking to others in one’s social network to fulfill emotional needs may be more optimal ( Finkel et al., 2014 ).

The research reviewed in this paper suggests that any efforts to increase marital quality may have the additional benefit of promoting health. However, strong empirical evidence demonstrating a clear causal role of marital quality for health will be needed to support this assertion. Thus, marital prevention and intervention research should consider measuring physical health outcomes in addition to mental health and marital outcomes. Indeed, couple-focused interventions in chronic illness show considerable promise ( Martire, Schulz, Helgeson, Small, & Saghafi, 2010 ). At the same time, basic research on how and for whom marital quality impacts health is also needed to identify candidate treatment targets and mechanisms of change, and groups of people and patients who might benefit most from marital interventions.


Preparation of this manuscript was supported by William T. Grant Foundation Research Grant 9333 and National Institutes of Health Grants R21AG032494. I would like to thank the coauthors of the meta-analysis, Richard Slatcher, Joseph Trombello, and Meghan McGinn for their considerable efforts in analyzing articles, interpreting effect sizes, and writing the meta-analysis.


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How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness

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  • Published: 19 December 2017
  • Volume 20 , pages 373–390, ( 2019 )

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  • Shawn Grover 1 &
  • John F. Helliwell   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-7963-6420 2  

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Subjective well-being research has often found that marriage is positively correlated with well-being. Some have argued that this correlation may be result of happier people being more likely to marry. Others have presented evidence suggesting that the well-being benefits of marriage are short-lasting. Using data from the British Household Panel Survey, we control individual pre-marital well-being levels and find that the married are still more satisfied, suggesting a causal effect at all stages of the marriage, from pre-nuptual bliss to marriages of long-duration. Using new data from the United Kingdom’s Annual Population Survey, we find that the married have a less deep U-shape in life satisfaction across age groups than do the unmarried, indicating that marriage may help ease the causes of the mid-life dip in life satisfaction and that the benefits of marriage are unlikely to be short-lived. We explore friendship as a mechanism which could help explain a causal relationship between marriage and life satisfaction, and find that well-being effects of marriage are about twice as large for those whose spouse is also their best friend.

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1 Introduction

Although cross-sectional studies, Footnote 1 especially in western industrial societies, Footnote 2 have shown those who are married (and those living as married) to have significantly higher life satisfaction than those who are single, separated, divorced or widowed, some widely cited studies using panel data from Germany and the United Kingdom have suggested that while life satisfaction may rise for a few years after marriage it eventually falls back to pre-marriage levels.

This apparent inconsistency between the cross-sectional and life course studies poses two sorts of threat to the growing interest in using subjective well-being as a measure of human progress. First, if major changes in life circumstances have only temporary effects of life evaluations, then this casts doubt on the value of life satisfaction as a welfare measure. Second, if the cross-sectional and panel methodologies give very different estimates of the value of marriage, then confidence drops in both methodologies, and suspicion arises that the cross-sectional estimates are capturing either selection effects or some other person-specific characteristics not accounted for elsewhere. In particular, those who marry tend to be more social, healthier, better educated and have more engaging jobs, all features of life likely to increase happiness with or without marriage. And there is lots of evidence that happier people tend to attract more friends and potential partners (Stutzer and Frey 2006 ). All of these factors could explain cross-sectional estimates that were higher than those obtained by following specific individuals through their lives.

The existence of high levels of adaptation, or reversion to fixed life satisfaction set points determined by genetics or other stable personality traits (Brickman and Campbell 1971 ), by contrast, would lead to smaller cross-sectional as well as panel estimates, since for each individual there would be only a few happy post-marriage years before return to the set point. Footnote 3

The aim of this paper is to use measures of life satisfaction from different surveys to estimate the size and permanence of the effects of marriage on subjective well-being. Using methods that we argue provide secure estimates of the effects of marriage in the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), we find estimates of positive effects of marriage, even when controlling for pre-marital life satisfaction. These estimates are not only significant in size but also close in magnitude to those obtained from cross-sectional estimates, thus increasing the credibility of both estimation methods.

We then dig deeper into the possible sources of these effects. We first look at the age patterns for the positive effects of marriage, finding that the U-shape in age is less marked for those who are married. In the same vein, we explore the role of friendship within marriage, finding that in our United Kingdom data the well-being benefits of marriage are much greater for those who also regard their spouse as their best friend.

1.1 Setting the Stage

Two widely cited papers have used panel data to show life satisfaction gains after marriage that are dissipated within a few years. First, Lucas et al. ( 2003 ) analyzed the German Socio-Economic Panel Study (GSOEP) and concluded that the set point theory applies to marriage because they found that married individuals have a higher pre-marital happiness baseline than those who will remain unmarried and although they report increased life satisfaction around the time of their marriage their subsequent well-being reverts to their pre-marital baseline after a few years. Second, Clark and Georgellis ( 2013 ) used the BHPS to show that married people are more satisfied in the years immediately before and after their marriage, but that marriage had a negligible effect for individuals who had been married for at least 5 years.

Subsequent research, some by the same authors, has questioned the reliability of these findings. Zimmermann and Easterlin ( 2006 ) analyzed the GSOEP and found that when allowing age to vary “individuals who remain married two or more years do not revert to their baseline value before marriage”. Footnote 4 The authors explain that their results differ from Lucas et al. ( 2003 ) because of “their [Lucas et al.] failure to treat age as varying with time, and thus to control for life circumstances that affect life satisfaction negatively”. Footnote 5

Yap et al. ( 2012 ) used a propensity score matching Footnote 6 method to match unmarried individuals who would go on to be married to similar individuals who would remain unmarried for the duration of the sample and found that while the well-being of the married sample rose around the time of their marriage and then fell, the well-being of the unmarried sample fell during the entire period. This finding is consistent with the U-shape in age as most people marry in their 20s and 30s when well-being is generally in decline. Thus this finding can explain why married individuals simultaneously revert to their premarital baseline and maintain a well-being advantage over their peers who remain unmarried. The same authors found similar results to hold in Switzerland Footnote 7 and Australia. Footnote 8

Qari ( 2014 ) used the GSOEP to show that the adaptation result is sensitive to the baseline period used. Qari found that “using 5 years prior to marriage as the relevant baseline year allows us to calculate utility while single more accurately. If we—instead of this—use only 1–2 years prior to marriage as the reference category, the same sample generates evidence of complete “adaptation” as in previous longitudinal studies”. Footnote 9 Thus, when analyzing the panel data results in the BHPS, we must be careful about which baseline we choose, noting that using individual fixed effects will implicitly invoke a baseline equivalent to the within-sample pre-marital years for those who eventually become married. If this time period is too short, as we find to be the case in the BHPS life satisfaction data, then the baseline is likely to be contaminated by the happy period during which friendship with the eventual marriage partner is being developed and enjoyed.

The use of fixed effects in panel data with rarely varying regressors is problematic. Beck ( 2001 ) noted this issue and said “although we can estimate [a model] with slowly changing independent variables, the fixed effect will soak up most of the explanatory power of these slowly changing variables. Thus, if a variable … changes over time, but slowly, the fixed effects will make it hard for such variables to appear either substantively or statistically significant”. Footnote 10

Plumper and Troeger ( 2007 ) noted that variables can be time-invariant either by definition or because of the period or sample under analysis. The BHPS suffers from the latter problem as we only have 12 years of life satisfaction data. Marital status typically does not change much over short periods of time. In the BHPS, 92.73% of people who were single in a period remained single in the next period, 82.45% of people who were living as couple remained living as a couple in the next period and 97.83% of people who were married remained married in the next period. Plumper and Troeger ( 2007 ) proposed a method entitled fixed effects vector decomposition (FEVD) to deal with time-invariant (or rarely so) regressors and Boyce ( 2010 ) applied the method to life satisfaction and marital status and found that the marriage benefit was nearly three times larger in a model using FEVD rather than a model just using fixed effects. This suggests that the limited variance of marital status in the panel data is a real problem with significantly large effects.

The anticipatory effects of marriage and the use of lags and leads make the relatively invariant nature of the BHPS even more questionable. Clark and Georgellis ( 2013 ) used dummies for four periods prior to marriage and five periods after marriage. Thus, the long-term effect of marriage, which is the effect after five periods, can be compared to the pre-marital baseline only if someone has been in the sample for that entire period. This would require someone to have at least five unmarried periods and at least six married periods. We shall show the importance of this restriction, and hence the limitations of fixed effects estimation, by using a base point slightly farther in advance of the wedding date, making use of fixed effects estimation in the same way as Clark and Georgellis ( 2013 ).

2 Data and Methods

2.1 data and summary statistics.

This paper uses two data sets: the BHPS and the UK APS. The summary statistics for the variables we have used from each of these two surveys are shown in Appendix Tables  4 and 5 . Each is used for a different purpose.

The BHPS is the key longitudinal survey we use to estimate the effects of marriage in a way that fully accounts for the reverse channels of causation running from happiness to marriage. The BHPS also contains a key friendship question permitting us to test the interaction between marriage and friendship.

The BHPS is a panel data set with 18 waves, collected from 1991 to 2009 in the United Kingdom. The BHPS’s principal well-being measure is overall life satisfaction, where respondents are asked “How dissatisfied or satisfied are you with your life overall” and scores are measured on a 1–7 scale. The BHPS has overall life satisfaction only for Waves 6–10 and 12–18, thus these waves will be the principal focus of this paper’s analysis. Overall, the BHPS surveyed approximately 30,000 individuals; however, not all respondents completed all waves.

The much larger UK APS provides the sample size and power to show the differences between the life satisfaction among the married, the unmarried, and the never-married for all age groups. This permits a strong indirect test of the adaptation hypothesis, which would require that the positive effects of marriage be heavily clustered in the age range in which marriages typically take place. The survey also permits us to show that the cross-sectional U-shape in happiness is much flatter for the married than for others,

The UK APS is a cross-sectional dataset with 328,665 observations collected between May 2011 and April 2013 in the United Kingdom. The UK APS data set has four relevant well-being measures: life satisfaction, worthwhileness, anxiety and happiness. We use the life satisfaction measure, where respondents are asked, on a scale from 0 to 10 “Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?” We concentrate on the life satisfaction measure for two reasons: it has been the primary variable in other research, and it provides, since it is an evaluation of life as a whole, the best overarching measure of the quality of life. Footnote 11

2.2 Methods and Tests

There are several stages to our analysis. First we replicate the Clark and Georgellis ( 2013 ) analysis, using the BHPS data, with their lag structures, and the same fixed effects estimation technique to show, as they do, that for those who have been married at least 6 years, life satisfaction is not significantly higher than at their chosen pre-marriage base point. Then we shall show the importance of using a longer and more plausible pre-marriage period by limiting the sample to those with at least five single periods to ensure that the baseline period is not driven by the periods leading up to marriage.

Next, we shall use the BHPS data to show that the risk of reverse causation is real, and must be accounted for properly. To provide a likely upper-bound estimate of the possible causal effects running from happiness to marriage, we shall estimate the impact of life satisfaction ten periods ago on probability of marriage considering only the population that was unmarried ten, nine and eight periods ago. The results will show significant reverse causality.

The inclusion of previous life satisfaction is a direct way of purging our estimated marriage effects of the reverse effects running from happiness to marriage, as well as from other stable factors that might raise both marriage prospects and happiness. This we will do by comparing two models, the first of which makes no attempt to allow for reverse causation, while the other also includes lagged life satisfaction from ten periods ago. Footnote 12 Both equations include age, age squared, health limitations and log income as control variables, and in both cases, observations are only included from waves where lagged life satisfaction from ten periods ago is available (i.e., only waves 16 to 18) and where the individual was unmarried ten, nine, eight, seven and six periods ago, thereby including only individuals with five or more unmarried years prior to their marriage. OLS estimation will be used, with standard errors calculated assuming that residuals are clustered at the level of the individual respondent. We shall decompose our average results to show the effects for different stages of marriage.

Following this direct estimation using longitudinal data, we use much larger samples of data from the United Kingdom Annual Population Survey (UK APS) to show the life satisfaction differences between the ever married and the never married, in order to see if those patterns are consistent with the set point hypothesis.

Finally, we shall turn to consider some of the likely channels through which marriage might be affecting life satisfaction. We shall first do this by using the much larger APS data samples to show that marriage appears to help individuals to deal with midlife pressures. We then return to the BHPS data to test for a possible interaction effect between marriage and friendship.

3 Results and Discussion

3.1 the fragility of fixed effects estimation.

We first used fixed effects estimation using the same lags and leads as imposed by Clark and Georgellis ( 2013 ), to estimate the long-term marriage effect for people who have been married at least 6 years. It is approximately zero. However, when we shifted the baseline so as to include individuals in the regression only if they have at least five periods of a “never married” status, then the long-term effect returns to being large and significant at the 5% level (results in Appendix Table  6 ). We believe that this is a more appropriate specification. Failing to ensure that people have at least 5 years to use as a pre-marital baseline causes the anticipatory well-being effects of marriage and the limitations of the BHPS to falsely drive down the estimated impact of marriage.

3.2 The Likelihood of Reverse Causation

We assessed the likelihood of such reverse causation by using life satisfaction of ten periods previous to explain the likelihood of becoming married 8, 9 or 10 years later. If we find a significant effect, then we have convincing evidence that selection effects are significant, and need to be accounted for in any credible attempt to estimate the causal effect of marriage on life satisfaction. We found that an increase of one point on the life satisfaction scale is associated with an increase in probability of marriage of 1.37%. This effect is significant at the 1% level. For perspective, the mean probability of someone unmarried in each of ten, nine and eight periods ago being married in the current period is 22.74%. This indicates that the selection effects found in papers such as Stutzer and Frey ( 2006 ) are present in the BHPS data as well.

3.3 Using Previous Life Satisfaction to Eliminate the Selection Effect

The existence of a selection effect does not preclude a true causal effect from marriage to life satisfaction. In Table  1 we present regressions explaining individual life satisfaction estimated with and without the inclusion of previous life satisfaction to test whether the reverse causation can fully explain the life satisfaction difference between the married and unmarried. It cannot.

The inclusion of lagged life satisfaction as an independent variable lowers the coefficient on being married slightly from 0.586 to 0.499. The effect remains highly significant ( p  < .001). This indicates that selection effects do not fully explain why the married exhibit higher happiness levels than the unmarried.

The equations also show results for those living as a couple, for whom the life satisfaction effects are approximately three-quarters as great as for the married. Footnote 13 The effect of marriage increases from 0.499 to 0.550 when the number of children is controlled for, and remains highly significant. When an interaction term is included to show the difference between men and women in the well-being effect of marriage, the life satisfaction impact of marriage is shown to be 0.169 higher for females than males. This effect is significant at the 5% level.

We can also use the BHPS data to show the life satisfaction effects at different stages of the marriage relationship. We do this in Table  2 and Figs.  1 and 2 . Footnote 14 We estimate separate effects for the 2-year period prior to marriage, the period including marriage and the three following years, years 4–6 following marriage, and all those with marriages entered seven or more years previously. Table  2 shows the estimation results both without and with the inclusion of life satisfaction 10 years previously. Figures  1 and 2 show the positive effects of the marriage relationship, with the comparison group including respondents who remain unmarried and those who become married more than 2 years later. The whisker lines showing the 95% confidence intervals of the estimates reveal highly significant life satisfaction effects in each stage of the marriage, with the peak being during the marriage and immediate post-marriage years. The effects are smaller when lagged life satisfaction is included, but they remain highly significant even for marriages more than 7 years old, at 0.2 points on the seven point scale. This is very close to the equivalent cross-sectional estimates we provide later from the much larger UK APS sample, where life satisfaction is measured on a 0 to 10 scale.

BHPS life satisfaction impact before and after marriage—without controlling for previous life satisfaction

BHPS life satisfaction impact before and after marriage—controlling for previous life satisfaction

The estimates of the average well-being effects of marriage may include some unhappy years that precede separation and divorce. Thus, the long-term well-being difference between the never-married and those who stay married may be greater than the above would suggest.

3.4 Marriage and the U-Shape in Age

If the benefits of marriage are fleeting and individuals subsequently return to their set-point levels of well-being, we would expect that the difference between the married and unmarried would be greatest at ages when many people of that age are recently married and much smaller at ages when fewer people are getting married. Given that the median of age of marriage in the United Kingdom is approximately 30.8 for men and 28.9 for women, Footnote 15 adaptation and set-point theory would suggest that the difference between married and unmarried should be the greatest in one’s late 20s and 30s, when marriage is typically more recent. But the cross-sectional evidence from the UK APS, as shown in Fig.  3 , rules out this possibility, thus casting further doubt on the set-point interpretation of the marriage effect.

Difference in U-shape between ever married and never married

We find that the U-shape in the relationship between life satisfaction and age (Blanchflower and Oswald 2008 ; Piper 2015 ; Graham and Pozuelo 2017 ) exists for both the married and unmarried but is deeper for the unmarried, and the difference between married and unmarried is greatest when people are in their late 40s and 50s. We can test whether this result is driven by disproportionate selection out of marriage, where people who are less satisfied with their lives will be more likely to divorce. This is done in Fig.  3 , where we see similar results persist when we compare people who have ever been married to people who have never been married, although, as would be expected, the difference between the ever-married and the never-married is smaller than the difference between the married and unmarried. When comparing the effects by gender, marriage seems to be more important for women than men in middle ages, with the largest gap for those ages 51 to 55 where there is no overlap between the 95% confidence intervals.

One potential explanation for this result is that the social support provided by a spouse helps ease the stresses of middle age. It has already been shown, although with US data, that the U-shape in age, for daily measures of positive and negative affect, is smaller on weekends than of weekdays, and the determinants of the additional weekend happiness are shown to relate to the social contexts both at home and at work. Footnote 16 The U-shape difference for the married is likely to have a similar explanation, although the BHPS does not have enough social context variables to permit more direct testing.

3.5 Friendship as a Mechanism

Although both friends and marriage are among the longest-standing and strongest independent correlates of life satisfaction (e.g. Myers 2000 ; Powdthavee 2008 ), there has been no study of the possibility of interactions between marriage and friendship as sources of life satisfaction. The likelihood of finding an interactive link between marriage and friendship was suggested to us by earlier Canadian results (Helliwell and Huang 2013 ) showing that the life satisfaction benefits of having more friends are significantly smaller for the married than the unmarried respondents. The BHPS provides an even more direct way of testing for a possible interaction between marriage and friendship, as it contains a question asking respondents to identify their best friend, permitting us to construct an interaction term for those respondents whose spouses are also their best friends.

Friendship could help explain why the benefits of marriage are not subject to adaptation, as one’s partner provides unique social support for each challenge one faces in life. Additionally, friendship can help explain why people who are unmarried but living as a couple enjoy most of the well-being benefits of marriage, especially if, as we find, their partner is also their best friend.

If friendship explains much of the well-being benefits of marriage, then life satisfaction should be higher for those whose spouses are also close friends. This is easily tested using the BHPS data, since respondents are asked about their closest friendship, with spouse or partner being one of the choices. Approximately half of married people and of those who are cohabiting list their partner as their best friend. Footnote 17

To test the impact of having a best friend as a partner, we regressed life satisfaction on relationship status interacted with whether their partner is their best friend and standard controls and the results are presented in Table  3 . Given their small number and unusual status, those who are neither married nor cohabitating but whose partner is still their best friend are omitted from the analysis. Footnote 18 Those whose spouse or partner is also considered their best friend get almost twice as much additional life satisfaction from marriage or cohabitation as do others. Footnote 19

Figure  4 shows that married individuals whose spouse is their best friend have higher life satisfaction than those who do not, even when controlling for age, gender, income, health limitations and previous life satisfaction. The same results hold for those who are cohabiting. When the effects are analyzed by gender, the well-being benefit of being married to one’s best friend appears much higher for women than for men, although on average fewer women than men regard their spouse as their best friend. Further research is required to indicate how the friendship mechanism may differ for men and women or if there are other factors driving this result. Footnote 20

Life satisfaction by marriage or cohabitation type (including previous Life Sat. Controls)

Our finding that the happiness benefits of marriage flow largely through social channels, in particular though friendship, has strong parallels to the results of by Lim and Putnam ( 2010 ) for the life satisfaction effects of religion. They find that most or all of the subjective well-being benefits of religious involvement flow through the number of church friends, in particular those who share common values. The two pieces of research taken together suggest that friendship is a strong mediating factor for the life satisfaction consequences of two key life circumstances: marriage and religion. While all friends are important for happiness, those who share who share beliefs (in the Lim and Putnam example) or are married to each other (as in our results) are super-friends, with well-being effects apparently much larger than for friends on average.

4 Summary and Conclusions

This paper makes four contributions. First, even when controlling for pre-marital life satisfaction levels, those who marry are more satisfied than those who remain single. Second, contrary to past papers claiming full adaptation, the benefits of marriage persist in the long-term, even if the well-being benefits are greatest immediately after marriage. Third, marriage seems to be most important in middle age when people of every marital status experience a dip in well-being. Footnote 21 Fourth, those who are best friends with their partners have the largest well-being benefits from marriage and cohabitation, even when controlling for pre-marital well-being levels. The well-being benefits of marriage are on average about twice as large for those (about half of the sample) whose spouse is also their best friend.

Finally, we need to emphasize one important limitation. Our findings in relation to the set point are directly applicable only in those western countries for which there are suitable longitudinal surveys. Despite this qualification, our results showing that the long-term benefits of marriage are substantial help to solidify the important case that changes in key life circumstances have large and enduring consequences for life evaluations. These results combine with the large international differences in average life evaluations to demonstrate that life evaluations are not fully determined by genetic and other factors to define immutable long-term individual happiness set points. Footnote 22

See Gove et al. ( 1983 ), Di Tella et al. ( 2003 ), Peiró ( 2006 ) and Stack and Eshleman ( 1998 ).

Based on the implied acronym, such western industrialized rich democracies have been labeled WEIRD. See Henrich et al. ( 2010 ), who argue that experiments in WEIRD contexts may be misleading guides to the lives lived by most of the world’s population. The special nature of WEIRD countries extends to cross-sectional estimates of the effects of marriage on life evaluations. If the world population is divided among 7 global regions, significant positive effects of marriage, relative to being single, are found in only the regions containing the WEIRD countries and in the middle east. See Helliwell et al. ( 2010 ), Table 10.2.

See Lucas ( 2007 , 76) and Suh et al. ( 1996 ).

Zimmermann and Easterlin ( 2006 , 519).

The authors estimated a propensity score for each person using logistic regression to predict whether the person became married or not from sex, age, age squared, logarithmic household income, and education. Then they matched each married person to an unmarried person with closest propensity score.

Anusic et al. ( 2014a ).

Anusic et al. ( 2014b ).

Qari ( 2014 , 36).

Beck ( 2001 , 285). Switek and Easterlin ( 2016 ) implicitly include fixed effects by estimating the effects of several life transitions on life satisfaction in a panel of young Swedish adults. They estimate significant life satisfaction gains from transitions into partnerships (including marriage and cohabitation) and losses upon exiting, but do not test explicitly for subsequent reversion to possible baselines.

For a comparison of life evaluations and emotional reports, see Helliwell and Wang (2012, 13–16).

Note that the U-shape in age, as defined by the negative and positive coefficients on age and age squared respectively, disappears when we add previous life satisfaction. This parallels Frijters and Beatton ( 2012 ), who find that inclusion of individual fixed effects also removes the U-shape in age. In our case the reason is likely to be that the previous life satisfaction variable embodies a substantial part of the age effect, while in their case it may be because entries to and exits from the survey population may cause individual fixed effects to also include an age component.

Dush and Amato ( 2005 ) find a similar ranking, but a greater difference between marriage and living together, for their US sample.

We are grateful to a referee for suggesting this useful extension. To introduce an immediate pre-marriage group, we split the previous living-as-couple observations into two groups: those about to be married within 2 years, and all the remaining observations.

See Haurant ( 2013 ).

See Helliwell and Wang ( 2014 , Table 6).

There are differences by gender. Among the married, 64% of men and 48% of women respondents list their spouse as their best friend. For the cohabiting unmarried, the percentages are 57% for men and 48% for women.

Fewer than five percent of unmarried non-cohabiting respondents list their partners as their best friends.

The impact of being best friends with one’s spouse was not significantly different for married individuals with and without children.

Those reporting their spouses to be their best friends, are also more likely to report themselves to be happily married, a group found by Chapman and Guven ( 2016 ) to underlie the positive happiness effects of marriage. Dush and Amato ( 2005 ) find that the happiness of the marriage explains some but not all of the marriage effect.

This result seems to be applicable globally, even in regions of the world where average effects of marriage are not positive, as shown in the longer working paper version of this paper.

Cummins et al. ( 2014 ) argue that set point theory can be reconciled with the idea that life circumstances have long-term impacts on life satisfaction if those in poor life circumstances are interpreted as being unable to achieve their set points.

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Grover, S., Helliwell, J.F. How’s Life at Home? New Evidence on Marriage and the Set Point for Happiness. J Happiness Stud 20 , 373–390 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-017-9941-3

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Choice of marriage partner, courtship patterns and mate selection, restrictions on marriage: the incest taboo, the act of marriage, love and marriage, economic aspects of marriage, sexuality and marriage, forms of marriage, universality of marriage, family structure and types of households, changes in marriage and the family.

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Marriage and families are found in all societies; however, marriage and family customs vary significantly across cultures. Cultures differ with regard to what is considered appropriate premarital behavior, whom one marries, how one marries, a proper marriage ceremony, and length and purpose of the marriage. From an anthropological perspective, there are various marriage systems or “marriagelike” relationships that fulfill both biological and social functions. Regarding families, all societies have parent-child social groups but the size and form of the family varies. Although marriage remains customary across societies, it does not necessarily constitute the basis for family life.

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Marriage is found in virtually all societies, and the majority (some 90%) of people in every society get married at least once in their lifetime (Carroll & Wolpe, 1996; Ember, Ember, & Peregrine, 2006). Cultures vary with regard to what is considered appropriate premarital behavior, whom one marries, how one marries, a proper marriage ceremony, and length and purpose of the marriage. Each culture also defines marriage differently although there are some common criteria across many societies. Marriage is typically defined simply as a “socially approved sexual and economic union, usually between a woman and a man”  (Ember et al., 2006, p. 343), which is generally denoted symbolically in some way (e.g., ceremony, certificate, symbols—rings). Normally, there are reciprocal rights and obligations between the two spouses and their future children. Viewing marriage as a social process where new relationships are set up between the kin of both the husband and the wife essentially describes all forms of marriage. With this, marriage maintains social patterns through the production of offspring.

Traditionally, marriage was defined as a union between a man and a woman with children born to the woman being recognized as legitimate offspring to both parents (Royal Anthropological Institute, 1951). Marriage was thought to change the status of a man and a woman, stipulate the degree of sexual access for the married partners, establish the legitimacy of the children born to the wife, and create relationships between the kin of both the wife and husband. Anthropologists have since noted the exceptions to this standard definition and have expanded it to reflect broader practices. As such, Miller (2008) offers a working definition of marriage given the complexity of practices that fall under the umbrella of marriage— “a more or less stable union, usually between two people, who may be, but are not necessarily, co-residential, sexually involved with each other, and procreative with each other” (p. 140).

British anthropologist Edmund Leach (1955) observed that marriage may accomplish the following depending on the society. Leach described these rights of marriage as possibilities for either or both spouses:

  • Establish legal father and mother of children
  • Provide control over sexuality of spouse
  • Give rights to labor of spouse
  • Give rights over spouse’s property
  • Create a joint fund of property (for children)
  • Begin a socially significant affinal relationship between spouses and their relatives

In some cultures, there are other reasons for marriage. For instance, the Hindu religion considers marriage sacred and representative of the marriage between the sun goddess Surya and the moon god Soma. Without a wife, a man is considered spiritually incomplete (Kumari, 1988). Representing the two interacting principles of Yin (female, passive, weak) and Yang (male, active, strong), long-term relationships in China are thought to be a spiritual necessity that ensures survival. Still others may marry to gain higher status (Sonko, 1994).

From the ethnographic literature, we know that one group of people did not have marriage as it has been typically defined. During the 19th century, a caste group in southern India called the Nayar appear to have treated sexual and economic relations between men and women as separate from marriage. At puberty, Nayar girls took ritual husbands but after the ceremony, the husband had no responsibility for his wife and typically never saw her again. The girl lived in a large household with extended family and was visited by other men through the years. If she became pregnant by any of them, the man was not responsible for supporting her or the child except for paying for a midwife. The female’s relatives remained responsible for supporting her. Thought to be a response to extended male absence during military service, Nayar unions seemed to fulfill the needs of this particular caste group within a historical and cultural period. Today, the Nayar men are not involved in soldiering to the extent they once were, and stable marital relationships have become the norm (Ember et al., 2006).

Across societies, many people live in long-term, common-law domestic partnerships that are not legally sanctioned. Some people have civil marriages which are licensed and legalized by a justice of the peace while others go through religious marriage ceremonies so they are united from a religious perspective but not a legal one (Kottak, 2008).

Every society has directives and ideological notions about whom one should marry ranging from arranged marriages to exogamous individual choice of partner. Sometimes these directives are informal and implicit, and other times they are formal and explicit. Marriage is one of the primary ways to establish relationships of affinity in contrast to consanguine relationships, which are from bloodlines.

Exogamy and Endogamy

Exogamy, the practice of seeking a husband or wife outside of one’s own defined social group, has adaptive value because it links people into a wider social network that can nurture, provide for, and protect during times of need (Kottak, 2008). For example, the Hindus of northern India practice village exogamy in order to ensure that spouses live in a far-away village or town. In addition, exogamy ensures genetic diversity between groups and maintains a successful human species.

In contrast, endogamy is the practice of marriage within a particular group so that the spouse comes from a specific social category. Sometimes endogamy is based on geographic location. For instance, village endogamy is favored in the eastern Mediterranean among both Christians and Muslims, and among Muslims throughout India and among Hindus in southern India. In other cultures, endogamy occurs to maintain a strong kinship network. Some religious and ethnic groups prefer endogamy in order that groups remain intact. An extreme example of endogamy is India’s caste system, which, although abolished in 1949, still remains in terms of structure and ideology. Royal endogamy, usually royal brother-sister marriage in a few societies, is similar to caste endogamy whereby certain sacred, political, and economic functions can be maintained. Inca Peru, ancient Egypt, and traditional Hawaii allowed royal brothersister marriages. Other kingdoms, including European royalty, have practiced endogamy through cousin marriage rather than brother-sister marriage (Kottak, 2008).

Hypergyny, Hypogyny, and Isogamy

Status also plays an important role in the selection of a spouse across cultures. Hypergyny, or “marrying up,” indicates a marriage where the bride has a lower status than the groom. Hypergyny is commonplace in northern India especially among upper-status groups and in middle- and upper-class individuals in the United States. The opposite of hypergyny is hypogyny, or “marrying down,” in which a bride has a higher status than the groom. Hypogyny is relatively rare cross-culturally. Isogamy is marriage between partners who are status equals and occurs in cultures where gender roles are viewed as holding equal value (Miller, 2008).

Arranged Marriages

Arranged marriages are marriages that are “arranged” by parents of the bride and groom based on whether they believe the families are good matches. Arranged marriages are well-known in many Middle Eastern, African, and Asian countries. The most important criteria that parents consider are the family’s reputation, social status, education, occupation and income of the spouse, and the absence of undesirable family traits like mental illness or divorce (Miller, 2008).

Cousin Marriages

An example of kin endogamy is cousin marriages, which has two forms: parallel cousins and cross-cousins. The marriage between parallel cousins is comprised of the children of either one’s father’s brother or one’s mother’s sister (linking siblings are the same gender). The marriage between cross-cousins includes children of either one’s father’s sister or one’s mother’s brother (linking siblings are of different genders). Parallel-cousin marriage is practiced by many Muslim groups in the Middle East and northern Africa, especially patrilateral parallel-cousin marriage, which is cousin marriage into the father’s line (Miller, 2008). Matrilateral cross-cousin marriage (cousin marriage into the mother’s line) is favored by Hindus of southern India but only includes about a fourth of the population (Ramesh, Srikumari, & Sukumar, 1989).

Levirate and Sororate

Still common as a form of second marriage, cultural norms in many societies require individuals to marry the spouse of deceased relatives so that alliances between descent groups can be maintained. Levirate is the custom of a man marrying his brother’s widow. Sororate describes when a woman marries her deceased sister’s husband. In some societies, this practice is permitted but not required and widows make other arrangements (Potash, 1986).

There is a plethora of research about what attracts people to potential mates. Proximity has long been linked to attraction, and physical attractiveness seems to be a key ingredient in romantic relationships especially for males. Several hypotheses have been proposed about what attracts someone to a partner for a romantic relationship. The matching hypothesis proposes that people with equal physical characteristics select each other as partners (Brehm, 1985). The similarity hypothesis proposes that people with similar demographics of age, race, religion, social class, education, intelligence, attitudes, and physical attractiveness tend to form intimate relationships (Brehm, 1985). Another approach is the reciprocity hypothesis, suggesting that people like others who are unlike them (Byrne & Murnen, 1988).

How and why individuals are attracted to each other varies significantly across cultures. Despite some of the differences, there are cross-cultural similarities with regard to mate selection. In a well-known study conducted by evolutionary psychologist David Buss (1989, 1994), more than 10,000 respondents across 37 different cultures responded to questions about factors in choosing mates. In 36 out of 37 cultures, females, as compared with males, rated financial prospects as more important, and in 29 of the 36 cultures, they rated ambition and industriousness as more important. In all 37 cultures, females preferred older mates and males preferred younger mates. In 34 of the cultures, males rated good looks as more important than did females, and in 23 of the cultures, males rated chastity as more important than females. Buss concluded that his findings represented and supported an evolutionary framework of universal mate selection across cultures whereby females look for cues in potential male mates that signal resource acquisition and males place more value on reproductive capacity.

Others have emphasized the cultural differences in Buss’s study. As compared with more advanced or modern cultures, traditional, less advanced cultures place greater value on chastity, domestic skills (e.g., housekeeping), desire for home and children, and abilities to support the home (Zebrowitz-McArthur, 1988). In China, India, Taiwan, and Iran, chastity was viewed as highly desirable in a prospective mate while in the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway, it was considered irrelevant (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). Being a good housekeeper was highly valued in Estonia and China and of little value in Western Europe and North America. Refinement/neatness was highly valued in Nigeria and Iran and less so in Great Britain, Ireland, and Australia. Being religious was highly valued in Iran, moderately valued in India, and little valued in Western Europe and North America (Buss, 1994, p. 199).

Gender differences were also revealed in Buss’s study. Women across cultures place high value on characteristics of men that relate to providing resources—good earning capacity, financial prospects, ambition, industriousness, and social status. Men across the 37 cultures place a high premium on the physical appearance of a potential mate; according to Buss (1994), this supports an evolutionary argument because men use physical attractiveness as an indicator that the woman is fertile and has good reproductive capacity.

Other similar studies have shown that men across cultures rate physical attractiveness higher than women do in terms of preferences in a marital partner (Hatfield & Sprecher, 1995). However, there seem to be more consistencies than differences in descriptions of physical attractiveness. For instance, female attractiveness cross-culturally is connoted by characteristics of kindness, understanding, intelligence, good health, emotional stability, dependability, and a pleasing disposition (Shiraev & Levy, 2007). Attractiveness is usually described in terms of cleanliness, health, and feminine plumpness. Although the degree of plumpness varies across cultures, extreme thinness seems to be considered unattractive and unhealthy (Zebrowitz-McArthur, 1988).

Other theories, such as the social construction perspective, suggest that interpersonal attraction is due to individual and cultural factors instead of evolutionary factors.

One study conducted in the United States highlights gender similarities in mate selection with both men and women rating kindness, consideration, honesty, and a sense of humor as important traits in mate selection (Goodwin, 1990). A more recent study (Pines, 2001) of American and Israeli students and their perceptions of romantic relationships combines both the evolutionary and social construction theories. Pines (2001) found that more men than women, regardless of culture, reported physical attractiveness as a major part of attraction (evolutionary theory). However, culture was important in other factors of attraction (e.g., compared with Israelis, Americans indicated status, closeness, and similarity as key determinants of attraction—social construction theory). In one study demonstrating different standards of beauty, Daibo, Murasawa, and Chou (1994) compared judgments of physical attractiveness made by Japanese and Koreans. In Japan, attractiveness ratings were positively correlated with large eyes, small mouths, and small chins. In Korea, however, attractiveness ratings were positively correlated with large eyes, small and high noses, and thin and small faces. Koreans were more likely than the Japanese to attach other judgments such as maturity and likeability to judgments of attractiveness (Daibo et al., 1994).

Patterns of courting and flirtation have similarities across many cultures (Aune & Aune, 1994), but there are many exceptions to the rules. Kissing, for example, is a widely acceptable cross-cultural phenomenon but is unknown to people in some cultures in Africa and South America, who would not consider kissing as an aspect of mate selection and reproduction (Shiraev & Levy, 2007). In Mediterranean cultures, physical affection is displayed by touching as a form of communication and is considered acceptable and appropriate, whereas in the United States it may be considered inappropriate with some groups. The expectation of marital fidelity appears to be almost universal, although among some Arctic peoples, it is customary to offer a host’s wife to a guest (Shiraev & Levy, 2007). Men everywhere react more negatively, as compared with women, when their partners share sexual fantasies about having sex with others. Women everywhere are more distressed than men when their partner is kissing someone else (Rathus, Nevid, & Fischer-Rathus, 1993).

A relatively new phenomenon is Internet dating and the development of computer-mediated relationships (CMR). Since the 1990s, the Internet has become a primary venue for social encounters across the globe—offering an expanded world of mate possibilities in a shorter period at less expense (Lawson & Leck, 2006). Although some theorists have lamented the technological isolation and reduction of face-to-face interaction leading to emotional disconnection or superficial attraction that can occur with the Internet (Lawson & Leck, 2006), others have suggested that the Internet can be helpful in promoting romantic relationships because physical attributes and traditional/ constraining gender and relationship roles are downplayed while other factors related to emotional intimacy (e.g., rapport, similarity, mutual self-disclosure) are emphasized (Lawson & Leck, 2006). Whitty and Carr (2006) describe how online relating is different than romantic and sexual relationships offline. Advantages include opportunity to “grow” a relationship, safe space to flirt and experiment with relationship development, and greater freedom for people who are anxious or introverted (Whitty & Carr, 2006). The biggest benefits of Internet dating are the sheer number of potential partners and the freedom of choice among partners (Lawson & Leck, 2006). In fact, in one study examining the dynamics of Internet dating, Internet daters reported being lonely and many said they were seeking comfort after a crisis situation. The majority of the respondents liked the control over the presentation of self on the Internet and the feeling of a safe environment for getting to know someone. Finally, respondents reported that Internet dating provided freedom from commitment and stereotypic roles (Lawson & Leck, 2006).

Some of the typical dating problems still remain with Internet dating—people still tell lies, trust has to be negotiated, presentation of self must be managed, compatibility continues to be important, and appearance and shyness issues do not completely disappear when dating online. Rejection and emotional pain still can be part of Internet dating, as they are with face-to-face dating. There is also a dark side of online relationships, including Internet infidelity, Internet addiction, pedophilia, cyberharassment, cyberstalking, and misrepresentation of self (Whitty & Carr, 2006). However, many Internet daters say they are willing to take the risks associated because of the advantages offered by this technology (Lawson & Leck, 2006). Overall, successful relationships online start with people being honest and upfront in their profiles (Whitty & Carr, 2006).

One of the most basic and universal rules of exclusion to marriage is the incest taboo, or a rule prohibiting marriage or sexual intercourse between certain kinship relations. The most common form of incest taboo across societies is against marriage or sexual intercourse between fathers and their children and mothers and their children. In the majority of cultures, brother-sister marriage is prohibited, although there are exceptions. Historically, brothersister marriage in royal families was considered the norm and even existed to some extent in the general population (Kottak, 2008). A prime example of this was brother-sister marriages of royalty in Egypt at the time of the Roman Empire (Miller, 2008). In some cultures, incest taboos include cousin marriage, although in other cultures, cousin marriage is considered a viable option in order to build localized kinship networks. In other groups, such as the Nuer of southern Sudan, the incest taboo includes all members of the patrilineage in order to create widely dispersed kin networks (Kottak, 2008; Miller, 2008).

One of the most practical explanations for the incest taboo is that it arose to ensure exogamy, which was evolutionarily advantageous in terms of increasing survival via the creation and maintenance of alliances outside the social network. Despite prevalence of the taboo, in one study across 87 societies, some occurrences of incest were identified (Meigs & Barlow, 2002). Reportedly incest was “widely practiced” among the Yanomami of Venezuela and Brazil. Among the Ashanti people, punishment for incest shifted from death to merely being fined. Among 24 Ojibwa individuals, 8 cases of parent-child incest and 10 cases of brother-sister incest were found (Kottak, 2008). In Western societies, father-daughter incest is considered a risk under certain conditions (Meigs & Barlow, 2002). Father-daughter incest is most common with stepfathers and nonbiological male household members but also occurs with biological fathers, especially those who were absent or did little caretaking of their daughters in childhood (Kottak, 2008).

Societies have some way of marking the onset of marriage. Many societies have formal ceremonies and rituals that denote the beginning of marriage while others use symbolic or informal practices to indicate that a marriage has occurred. In the societies where a ceremony occurs, several elements emphasizing important aspects of the particular culture commonly occur as part of the ceremony. For instance, feasting and celebrations typically accompany marriage ceremonies, often with the underlying purpose of bringing the two families and friends together in unification. Shinto customs are still followed by many in Japanese wedding ceremonies with the drinking of rice wine (sake) after the ceremony to confirm the marriage (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). In some cultures, marriage ceremony customs include ritualized expressions of hostility between kin groups such as the trading of insults, which occurs on the Polynesian atoll of Pukapuka (Kottak, 2008). In Kenya, the rebuilding of a house in the bride’s village represents an important part of the marriage ceremony (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002).

The role of romantic love has been debated historically and cross-culturally. Many argue that romantic love did not become part of marriage until Western Europe and America accepted the idea given the strong influence of the Enlightenment and the individualistic emphasis during the French and American Revolutions (Coontz, 2007). Romantic love is more common in cultures where women are dependent on men economically, but increasingly, marriage based on romantic love is becoming widespread in many cultures (Levine, Sato, Hashimoto, & Verma, 1995).

There is cultural variation in the extent to which love plays a role in marriage. Marriage for love is a fairly recent development in the Western world and may be related to the individualistic orientation (Coontz, 2005). In many Western cultures, marriage is viewed as the culmination of romantic love represented by the idealistic and somewhat “fairy-tale” notion that people meet their soul mates, fall in love, marry, and live “happily ever after,” proving that “love conquers all” (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). People in collectivistic cultures place less emphasis on romantic love and love commitment in marriage. Historically, people married to acquire status through influential in-laws, for political reasons, to forge family alliances, to increase labor forces, and to effect business mergers. Romantic love was not unknown but it was not considered an essential part of marriage and thus was discouraged on the basis of being a selfish and weak reason to marry. For instance, in ancient India, love before marriage was perceived as irresponsible and antisocial. During the Middle Ages, the French viewed love as a type of insanity only curable through sexual intercourse either with the beloved or with someone else (Coontz, 2007).

In contrast, many of the arranged marriages common in Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world do not have romantic love as a basis (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). This “Eastern ideal” is based on the notion that individuals have several possible mates with whom they could have a successful and enduring marriage. Arranged marriage is still practiced in some places, such as India, where arrangements may be made between families during a child’s infancy. Such arrangements are typically based on the parents’ status and knowledge of other families and possible matches; the marriage is considered the blending of two families (Ember et al., 2006; Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). Arranged marriages are viewed as more than just a union between two individuals and more as an alliance between families and even communities (Gardiner & Kosmitzki, 2002). However, trends are changing even in countries where arranged marriage has been popular. For example, in Japan, love marriages are replacing the earlier practice of arranged marriages, yet traditional customs often remain as part of the ceremony.

For thousands of years, the institution of marriage served many economic, political, and social functions at the cost of minimizing the needs and wishes of individuals (Coontz, 2005). Especially in the last 200 years, marriage, particularly in Europe and America, has become more personal and private with a greater emphasis on the emotional and sexual needs of the couple. With this historical transition came free choice in mate selection as the societal norm and love as the primary reason for marriage. As Coontz (2005) notes, “Marriage has become more joyful, more loving, and more satisfying for many couples than ever before in history. At the same time it has become optional and more brittle. These two strands of change cannot be disentangled” (p. 306). For some, this transformation of marriage and love has been appreciated as a liberating option from restrictive social and cultural expectations. For others, the shift has meant a significant loss of rules and protocol for relationships with nothing offered in its place. With such factors, the need to marry or remain unhappily married decreases.

Coontz (2005) suggests historical factors that have supported single living and personal autonomy. Factors include the belief that women have just as much sexual desire as men; less societal/governmental regulation of personal behavior and conformity; reliable birth control, which became readily available in the 1960s, relieving women from fears of unwanted pregnancy; increasing economic independence of women; and more time- and laborsaving devices, which have lessened the demand on women to do housekeeping. Examining the role of love in marriage provides a unique lens that reveals many aspects of culture, economic, interpersonal, and emotional (Padilla, Hirsch, Muñoz-Laboy, Sember, & Parker, 2007).

Most marriages (approximately 75%) are accompanied by some type of economic transaction, and exchanges between partners of goods or services and their families and friends (Ember et al., 2006).

Bride Price

Bride price or bridewealth, common in horticultural and pastoralist cultures, is the transfer of goods or money from the groom’s family to the bride’s family. This is the most common economic transaction across cultures. Payment of the bride price can be in the form of money, livestock, or even food. Bride price still occurs globally but is most popular in Africa and Oceania. For example, the Nandi typically offer five to seven cattle, one or two sheep and goats, cowrie shells, and money equivalent to one cow as the bride price.

Brideservice is a type of bride price where labor is transferred from the groom to his parents-in-law over a designated time period. This still occurs in about 19% of societies that have an economic transaction as part of marriage. One particular example is the brideservice still practiced in the Amazon (Ember et al., 2006).

Exchange of Families

In a few societies (about 6% who have economic transactions at marriage), a sister or female relative of the groom is exchanged for the bride. This occurs, for example, among horticultural and egalitarian societies such as the Tiv of West Africa and the Yanomamö of Venezuela and Brazil (Ember et al., 2006).

Gift Exchange

Gift exchange between the two kin groups linked by marriage occurs in some 11% of societies that have economic transactions at marriage. In the United States, it is customary that the groom’s family is responsible for paying for the rehearsal dinner the night before the wedding whereas the bride’s family is expected to pay the costs for everything else (Miller, 2008). Among the Andaman Islanders, kin groups become united through the parents exchanging gifts via a third party once a boy and girl have voiced their intention to marry (Ember et al., 2006).

A dowry is the transfer of goods (sometimes money) from the bride’s side to the new married couple for their use. Occurring in about 8% of societies with economic transactions at marriage, the dowry normally includes household goods such as furniture, cooking utensils, and perhaps even a house. Dowries are still practiced in parts of Eastern Europe, southern Italy, France, and India (Ember et al., 2006).

In parts of India, the dowry passes to the groom’s family making the more accurate term groom price (Miller, 2008). Sometimes, an indirect dowry is provided from the groom’s family by giving goods to the bride’s father who then passes them along to her. Among the Basseri of southern Iran, the groom’s father gives cash to the bride’s father in order to set up the couple’s new household (Ember et al., 2006).

In many cultures, marriage sanctions sexual relations between partners. In others, sexuality is confined to procreative purposes. Depending on the society, there are different views about procreation. In some societies, it is believed that spirits place babies in women’s wombs. Some cultural groups believe that a fetus must be nourished by continual insemination during pregnancy. The Barí of Venezuela believe that multiple men can create the same fetus (multiple paternity). When the baby is born, the mother names the men she recognizes as fathers and they assist her in raising the child (Kottak, 2008).

Sexual practices differ as well depending on the society. Some societies are more restrictive concerning sexuality. The regulation of premarital sex and extramarital sex differs depending on the society. For example, Inis Beag, off the coast of Northern Island, is a sexually conservative and prohibiting culture. Nudity is prohibited, sexual ignorance is widespread, female orgasm is unknown, marital sex occurs infrequently, and the idea of sexual pleasure is nonexistent (Messenger, 1993). In other societies, such as the Melanesian Islands in the South Sea, marital sex is perceived as a normal and natural form of pleasure; however, premarital and extramarital sex are almost equal to the crime of murder (Davenport, 1965). Reportedly, in the Melanesian Islands, marital intercourse including orgasm is expected to occur two to three times per day in the early years of marriage, and later to subside to once a day or less. Premarital masturbation is encouraged for both males and females. The Trobriand Islanders approve of and even encourage premarital sex and provide thorough instruction in various forms of sexual expression for adolescents, believing that it is important preparation for later marital activities. The Ila-speaking population of central Africa encourage trial marriage between adolescents so that girls can “play wife” with boys of interest before marriage. Reportedly, virginity in this group does not occur after age 10 (Ember et al., 2006). Other cultural groups, such as many Muslim societies, “test” the female’s virginity by displaying blood-stained sheets from the wedding night as proof of her premarital chastity.

Extramarital sex is fairly common across societies, with about 69% of men and 57% of women engaging in extramarital sex more than occasionally. Most societies have a double standard with regard to women’s sexual behavior and expect that women will have more restrictions against extramarital sex.

One commonality of sex occurring during marriage is privacy in almost all societies. North Americans typically find privacy in their bedrooms while others have to locate other private areas or sometimes perform coitus with others present. Nighttime is generally the preferred time for coitus in most cultures although there are examples of preferences for daytime sex (e.g., the Rucuyen of Brazil). There are other prohibitions in some cultures restricting sexual activity, for example, before certain activities like hunting or planting or because of certain events like death, pregnancy, or menstruation (Ember et al., 2006).

The acceptance of homosexual relations differs widely across societies. Some more restrictive societies deny homosexuality and thus forbid homosexual practices. Historically in other groups, like the Siwans of North Africa, there are examples of much greater permissiveness regarding homosexuality, and all males were expected to engage in homosexual relations. The Etoro of New Guinea are reported to have preferred homosexuality to heterosexuality with specific prohibitions against heterosexuality most of the days during a year. Furthermore, male homosexuality was thought to make crops flourish and strengthen males (Ember et al., 2006).

Typically, marriage has been between a male and a female, but some societies have recognized marriage between people of the same biological sex. In the anthropological literature, alternative forms of marriage have also been noted.

Monogamy is the marriage between two people (opposite gender if heterosexual and same gender if homosexual). Heterosexual monogamy is the most frequent form of marriage across cultures and constitutes the only legal form of marriage in many countries (Miller, 2008). Serial monogamy appears to be a common form of monogamy in North American, where people may have more than one spouse in their lifetimes but never legally at the same time (Kottak, 2008).

Same-Sex Marriages

Some societies recognize various kinds of same-sex marriages (Kottak, 2008). Same-sex marriages are legal in Denmark; Norway; Holland; South Africa; Ontario, Canada; and Massachusetts, in the United States. There is much debate politically and socially regarding the legal status of same-sex marriages (Miller, 2008).

Depending on the historical and cultural setting, samesex marriages have been accepted. In some African cultures, for instance, women may marry other women in order to strengthen their social and economic status among society (Kottak, 2008). Among the Nandi of Kenya, approximately 3% of marriages are female-female marriages. The Nuer of southern Sudan are also reported to have womanwoman marriage. In this type of marriage, a woman with economic means gives gifts to obtain a “wife” and brings her into the residential compound just as a man would do if he married a woman. The wife in a Nuer woman-woman marriage performs productive labor by having sexual relations with a man, as the two women do not have a sexual relationship with each other. Her children, however, will belong to the two women who are married (Miller, 2008). In former times, the Cheyenne Indians allowed married men to take berdaches (two-spirits/male transvestites) as second wives (Ember et al., 2006).

Plural Marriages/Polygamy

Polygamy is marriage that involves multiple spouses, which is still permitted in many cultures (Miller, 2008). The most common form of plural marriage is polygyny, which is the marriage of one man with more than one woman. Polygyny in many societies serves as an indicator of a man’s wealth and prestige—in other words, the more wives he has, the greater status he accrues. In other societies, polygyny is practiced because a man has inherited a widow from his brother (levirate). In still others, polygyny is a way to advance politically and economically. For polygyny to work, there has to be some agreement among the wives about their status and household chores. Generally, there is a first wife or a senior wife who is in charge of the household and has some say-so regarding who is taken as another wife. For instance, among the Betsileo of Madagascar, each wife lived in a different village, but the senior, first wife, called “Big Wife”, lived in the primary village of her husband where he spent most of his time (Kottak, 2008). Other customs like having separate living quarters for cowives who are not sisters helps lessen jealousy among the cowives. The Tanala of Madagascar require the husband to spend one day with each cowife in succession and assist with cultivation of that wife’s land. If this rule is not followed, a wife can sue for divorce and alimony up to a third of the husband’s property. Such a practice gives cowives greater equality in matters of sex, possessions, and economics (Ember et al., 2006).

Marriage between one woman and more than one man (polyandry) is extremely rare, although it is still practiced in Tibet and parts of the surrounding Himalayan region. In Tibet, fraternal polyandry (brothers jointly marrying a wife) is still practiced. Fraternal polyandry is one of the least common forms of marriage globally, but in Tibet, it remains a viable and ideal form of marriage and family. Practically, the eldest brother is normally the dominant authority. The wife is expected to treat all brothers equally, and the sexual aspect of sharing spouses is not viewed as repulsive by males or females. Any offspring are treated similarly, and the children consider all the brothers their fathers. The typical explanation given for this type of marriage in Tibet is that it is a materialistic and economically advantageous one. The brothers do not have to divide their property and can therefore have a higher standard of living. Due to changes in social and economic conditions, polyandry may vanish within the next generation (Kottak, 2008).

Other Forms of Marriage

In the Brazilian community of Arembepe, people can choose among various forms of sexual union including common-law partnerships (not legally sanctioned), civil marriages, and “holy matrimony” (religious ceremony but not legally sanctioned). This means that some can have multiple spouses at the same time from the different types of unions (Kottak, 2008).

Also common among the Nuer was what EvansPritchard (1951) called the ghost marriage. The Nuer believed that a man who died without male heirs in his family was likely to trouble his living kin through an unhappy and angry spirit left behind. To appease the angry spirit, a relative of the dead man would often marry a woman “to his name” so that the woman was married to the ghost but lived with one of his surviving kinsmen.

The custom of female-male marriage practiced across societies appears to have adaptive functions that solve problems in societies. For instance, marriage has been proposed as an answer to gender division of labor that exists in every society. If societies designate different economic activities for men and women, there needs to be a mechanism by which the products of labor can be shared between men and women, and marriage is one possible solution.

Another interpretation of why marriage is universal is based on the extended care required for human infants. It has been suggested that infants have a prolonged dependency on the mother (typically the main caregiver in most cultures); this limits the kind of work she can do (hunting, for example). Therefore one solution is that the man must be available to help the woman with certain tasks, thus the mechanism of marriage (Ember et al., 2006).

A third interpretation of why marriage is universal is sexual competition between males for females. Marriage offers one possibility for reducing male rivalry and destructive conflict so that societies can survive (Ember, et al., 2006).

Many believe that divorce occurs more frequently in the modern United States as compared with other societies. However, anthropologists have reported comparable rates of separation and remarriage among hunting and gathering societies and other groups to those in modern-day industrial societies. For example, the highest rates of divorce ever recorded in the first half of the 20th century were in Malaysia and Indonesia, which surpassed the U.S. record rates of 1981 (Coontz, 2007). Depending on the society, ease of divorce varies. Marriage is much easier to dissolve in societies where marriage is more of an individual affair. In other societies where marriage represents a political and social union between families and communities, divorce is more difficult (Kottak, 2008). Considerable bridewealth and replacement marriages (levirate and sororate) work to preserve group alliances and thus decrease divorce rates. A wife among the Shoshone Indians could divorce her husband by merely placing her husband’s possessions outside the dwelling, which was considered her property. Divorce is official among the Cewa of East Africa when the husband leaves his wife’s village taking along his hoe, axe, and sleeping mat (Coontz, 2007). In the traditional society of Japan, a woman wanting a divorce had to complete two years of service at a special temple while the man could simply write a letter containing three and half lines in order to divorce his wife.

Coontz (2007) posits that the reasons for divorce in any given time period relate to the reasons for marriage. For example, a common reason for divorce in contemporary society is the loss of love, lack of individual fulfillment, or absence of mutual benefit. This has to do with the primary reason for marriage being love and romance.

In Western societies, there is more flexibility with the notion of a failed marriage. Generally, if romance, love, sex, or companionship dies out in a marriage, then couples in contemporary Western society may opt for divorce. However, sometimes for economic reasons, obligations to children, negative public opinion, or simply inertia, couples may maintain “failed” marriages. Among countries across the globe, the United States has one of the highest rates of divorce, although rates have dropped as compared with the 1970s. From historical records of divorce in the United States, there is an increase after wars and a decrease after tough economic times. The high rates of U.S. divorce are thought to be related to the economic independence enjoyed by many women and the cultural ideas of independence and self-actualization which give greater permission for people to abandon marriage if it is not working for them (Kottak, 2008).

A family is a group of people who consider themselves related through kinship, while a household is defined as people who share a living space and may or may not be related (Miller, 2008). Most households consist of members who are related through kinship, although an increasing number do not. For instance, a group of friends sharing living quarters or a single person living alone constitute a household. Young adults in the United States usually live away from home when they go to college. In more complex societies, family members tend to live apart from one another, while in more simple societies, the family and the household are impossible to differentiate (Ember et al., 2006). Across most societies, a primary function of families is the socialization and protection of children so that the children can obtain the cultural behavior, beliefs, and values necessary for survival. The nature of the family inevitably shifts and reflects the social and cultural changes in economics, education, and political systems (Georgas, Berry, van de Vijver, Kagitçibasi, & Poortinga, 2006).

All societies have families, although family form and households vary from society to society. The nuclear household, still commonly referred to as the nuclear family, comprises one adult couple, either married or “partners,” with or without children. Most people belong to at least two different nuclear families during their lifetime. Anthropologists distinguish between the family of orientation, the family in which one is born and grows up, and the family of procreation, the family formed when one marries and has children of his or her own. Nuclear-family organization is widespread cross-culturally and varies in significance from culture to culture, but it is not universal. For instance, in the classic Nayar group, the nuclear family is rare or nonexistent (Kottak, 2008). In contrast, in North America, the nuclear family is the only well-defined kin group and remains somewhat of a cultural ideal (Ember et al., 2006). Such a family structure is thought to arise from industrialism and contributes to geographic mobility and isolation from extended family members. Many North American married couples live far away from their parents in locations generally determined by their jobs in communities (neolocality) and establish households and nuclear families of their own (Ember et al., 2006).

An extended household is a domestic group containing more than one adult married couple related either through the father-son (patrilineal extended household) or motherdaughter line (matrilineal extended household) or through sisters and brothers (collateral extended household). Extended families are the prevailing form in more than half of the world’s societies (Ember et al., 2006). For example, in former Yugoslavia, extended-family households, called zadruga, consisted of several nuclear families living together. The zadruga was headed by a male household head and his wife, considered to be the senior woman. Also included were married sons and their wives and children, and unmarried sons and daughters. Each nuclear family had their own sleeping quarters; however, many items were freely shared among members in the zadruga (e.g., clothes, items from the bride’s trousseau, and other possessions). The Nayar, a caste of southern India, provide another example of extended households. The Nayar lived in matrilineal extended-family compounds called tarawads (residential complexes with several buildings headed by a senior woman and her brother). The tarawads were home to the woman’s siblings, her sisters’ children, and other relatives of matrilineal descent. These compounds were responsible for child care and provided the home for retired Nayar men who were military warriors (Ember et al., 2006).

Expanded-family households (those that include nonnuclear relatives) also exist in some cultures. For example, in lower-class families of North America, expanded-family households are more common than in middle-class families. If an expanded-family household consists of three or more generations, then it is considered an extended-family household. Collateral households, another type of expanded family, include siblings and their spouses and children (Ember et al., 2006). Polygamous married people are considered to constitute complex households in which one spouse lives with or near multiple partners and their children. Descent groups including lineages and clans of people claiming common ancestry may reside in several villages, but rarely come together for social activities. These descent groups are common in nonindustrial foodproducing societies (Kottak, 2008).

Globalization, including technological advances and international migration, has increased the opportunity for interactions among different types of people and contributed to rapid changes in the structure and function of marriage and the family. The institution of marriage continues to retain popularity although many of the details of marriage are undergoing transformation. For instance, the Internet has provided new forms of finding a potential partner and courtship. Also, the age of first marriage is rising in most places due in part to increased emphasis on completing education and higher marital aspirations (e.g., owning a house). Marriages between people of different nations and ethnicities are another example, now increasingly commonplace and leading to pluralistic practices and customs of marriage and family. Coontz (2007) claims that marriage “has been displaced from its pivotal position in personal and social life” (p. 15) with many children being raised in alternative settings. The definition of marriage has also changed, given that most people today live in a global climate of choice with many options. This makes divorce and other relationship forms like cohabitation viable options for many people across the world.

In many societies, people choose to have children without being married, or being a single parent becomes a necessity, and thus one-parent families are becoming more common globally. Traditionally, single-parent families have been more common in Western societies, but there continues to be a large increase in one-parent families with the majority headed by women (approximately 90%). In the 1970s, of the Western countries, Sweden had the highest rates of single-parent families, but now the United States has the largest percentage. One-parent families occur for several reasons, including divorce/separation of two-parent families, births outside of marriage, deaths of spouses, and single people who decide to have children. Some parents may choose to remain single because of lack of suitable partners. For example, in the former Soviet Union, the ratio of women to men is much higher because males are more likely to have died from war, alcoholism, and accidents. In other countries, a common explanation is that one-parent families are able to manage because of support from the state; for example, in Sweden, unmarried and divorced mothers receive significant social supports, maternity leave, and educational leave (Ember et al., 2006).

Another family form that is making a comeback, at least in the United States, is the multigenerational family (three or more generations living together). According to the 2000 Census, there are almost 4 million U.S. multigenerational households; this represents about 4% of all households, and this number continues to rise. The majority of these households include grandparents living with their children and their grandchildren in the house of the grandparent. In about one third of these households, the grandparents live in the home of their children (or son- or daughter-in-law) and their grandchildren. A very small percentage of these households are comprised of grandparents and great-grandparents as well as children and grandchildren of the grandparents (Generations United, 2006).

Some of the reasons for the rise in multigenerational households include financial factors such as high housing costs, high cost of living, child care/elder care expenses, unemployment, parents returning to school, and parents working to save money to become independent. Cultural reasons such as immigration, value systems, importance of ritual and celebration of holidays and events, and desire to stay connected with one’s cultural group all are reported reasons for multigenerational households. Other reasons include individual beliefs that child care and elder care are family responsibilities or that age-integration within communities is important, and a desire to be involved and connected with offspring and elders. Situational factors such as the inability to live alone after being widowed, a divorce that requires moving to a parent’s home with children, an illness requiring regular care and assistance, single parenting, housing shortages, and extended life span also promote multigenerational households (Generations United, 2006). In the future, multigenerational families are expected to become more commonplace and continue to increase. By 2010 in the United States, it is expected that more children will know their great-grandparents, people in their 60s will be caring for 80- to 90-year-old parents, more children will grow up with the support of older relatives, and there will be an increase in four-generational households (Generations United, 2006).

Grandparenting in general is a relatively new phenomenon as of the last 100 years, due to increased life expectancy and good health. The number of grandparents parenting grandchildren has increased generally due to crisis situations involving drugs, divorce, desertion, and death (Glass & Huneycutt, 2002). Other factors contributing to the increase of grandparents raising their grandchildren include high teenage-pregnancy rates, more parents in prison (with some 80% having dependent children), more women using drugs, and parents dying from AIDS. All of these scenarios that lead to the number of grandparents raising their grandchildren are thought to be on the rise.

Increasing numbers of lesbian women and gay males are exploring parenting options (McCann & Delmonte, 2005) and taking on parenthood through donor insemination, surrogacy, fostering, and adoption. Although there appears to be no definitive research pointing one way or another, gay parenting has been a contentious issue for many because of the presumed damaging effects that gay parents can have on their children. Concerns have been raised regarding whether the child will become homosexual, whether the child will be bullied, whether the child will have appropriate opposite-sex role models, and more (McCann & Delmonte, 2005).

Another complexity for family structure is the challenge presented by international migration. Parents may still identify with their ancestral culture and children often become immersed in the new culture, quickly adapting to the language and customs. This can cause rifts in the relationship between parents and children and can contribute to disagreements about social issues like dating, clothing, and careers. Sometimes children also serve as cultural brokers for their parents, navigating complex and unfamiliar bureaucratic systems since their parents may not speak the language or be acculturated to the new country and customs. Immigrant children typically adapt to the dominant culture faster than their parents, which also contributes to conflict between parent and child—parents trying to hold on to previous traditions, while children are adapting to the new, dominant culture as their new way of life. Immigrant children frequently become masters of both cultures, easily adapting between both worlds (Suárez-Orozco & SuárezOrozco, 2001). Immigrant parents are often conflicted between encouraging their children to develop the cultural competencies of the dominant culture and trying to maintain their own traditions (Suárez-Orozco & Suárez-Orozco, 2001). In addition, resettlement issues such as obtaining housing, food, and employment, and dealing with the bureaucracy of immigration and documentation, can overwhelm parents’ ability to attend to their children. Immigrant families may also experience stress due to adaptation to the United States, including such tasks as learning and/or enhancing English skills and finding employment, housing, and schools; these are difficult tasks for anyone, but especially for immigrants as they also deal with new and different social/cultural expectations and attitudes.

International adoption (sometimes referred to as transnational adoption) is becoming more common in the United States and European countries. Although still on a relatively small scale, international adoption represents a significant shift from historical adoption practices and constitutes an entirely different family structure (Conn, 2009). More than 20,000 internationally adopted children enter the United States each year from China, Russia, and Guatemala.

Marriage and family are universal forms of mating and relating; however, the forms of marriage and family are variable depending on social, cultural, and historical influences (Ferguson, 2007). Family arrangements are more diverse now than ever before, and relationships have shifted from having a biological emphasis to a social emphasis. In the future, there is likely to be increased diversity and transformation in the institution of marriage, along with family forms and households, across the globe (Miller, 2008).


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I. introduction, ii. misunderstanding the arranged marriage, iii. understanding arranged marriage, iv. conclusion and suggestions for further research.

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Understanding Arranged Marriage: An Unbiased Analysis of a Traditional Marital Institution

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Naema N Tahir, Understanding Arranged Marriage: An Unbiased Analysis of a Traditional Marital Institution, International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family , Volume 35, Issue 1, 2021, ebab005, https://doi.org/10.1093/lawfam/ebab005

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This research asks one simple question, a question many studies on the arranged marriage omit to ask, namely “What exactly is the arranged marriage?” Author Naema Tahir, born and bred in the arranged marriage culture, but educated in the free-choice marriage culture, argues that much literature on the arranged marriage fails to offer full exploration of this traditional marital system. Instead, the arranged marriage is often analysed through the lens of the modern free choice marriage system. However, this is not a neutral lens. It considers the free choice marriage to be the ideal. As a result, the arranged marriage is perceived to be a “marriage of shortcomings”, one that fails to meet the standards of the free-choice marriage system. The author encourages readers to break this frame and offers a neutral perspective on this traditional marital system practised by billions around the world. Readers are invited to an in-depth and rigorous analysis of the foundations upon which the arranged marriage system rests. While this analysis zooms in on the case study of one particular focus group, the British Pakistani diaspora, it reveals broad insights into the arranged marriage system in general. This analysis highlights and critically examines social principles fundamental to the arranged marriage system and which are much misunderstood, such as hierarchy, patriarchy, collectivism, group loyalty and the role of parental and individual marital consent. The author argues that it is vital to first understand the traditional structures of the arranged marriage, before one can understand modernizing tendencies the arranged marriage system is currently undergoing. As such, this study hugely contributes to an unbiased understanding of the arranged marriage and changing arranged marriage patterns and is a valuable reading for those interested in marriage, marital systems and the future thereof.

There is a tendency in academic literature to view the arranged marriage from the lens of the autonomous marriage. In this literature the arranged marriage is compared in a binary to the autonomous marriage. 1 While a comparison of the arranged marriage to the autonomous marriage should be an unbiased one, the contrary is true. From this binary, both marital systems are not viewed neutrally. The autonomous marriage, thriving on individual choice, is perceived to be the ideal marital system, while the arranged marriage, supported by traditional kin authority, is not considered ideal. Resulting from this, the autonomous marriage sets the standards of an ideal marriage all marriages must aim for, including the arranged marriage. The arranged marriage is then measured by characteristics typical of the autonomous marriage system. However, the arranged marriage, even in its most modern manifestation, is not an autonomous marriage. Monitoring the arranged marriage as if it were or should be autonomous, emphasizes defects, deficits, lacunas in the arranged marriage on matters related to autonomy. Measured this way, the arranged marriage turns into something faulty. It becomes a marriage of shortcomings.

There is a necessity to study the arranged marriage on its own terms and not in a binary with the autonomous marriage. 2 This will enable judging the arranged marriage on the qualities and rewards it holds for its practitioners. At its core, this article hopes to contribute to an understanding of the arranged marriage from an unbiased lens.

This article is set up in three sections.

Section II will investigate biased understandings of the arranged marriage in more detail, by critically evaluating the binary approach in scholarly literature, illustrated further by a study of a variety of categorizations and close interpretation of definitions on the arranged marriage. Section II argues that in scholarly literature, the arranged marriage is framed as a lesser version of the ideal of autonomous conjugal union.

Section III will aim to construct a Weberian ideal type 3 of the traditional arranged marriage as a useful tool that offers neutral, unbiased insights into general features all arranged marriage systems, to varying degrees, share. The arranged marriage will be understood as a guardianship invested marital system, which is organized in a hierarchical, aristocratic manner, upheld by parental authority, group orientation and belonging. This section will provide a conceptual, theoretical analysis of the arranged marriage by drawing on literature that intersects between tradition and modernity, by leading scholars in the field. 4 Through this analysis a marital system will surface which is embedded in a cultural inherited belief that the young must be relieved of mate-selection which is perceived, not so much as a harmless liberty with mere individual impact, but as a burden that the strongest shoulders in the community must be bear, and as a choice that has broad implications for the family, extended family, and community.

Section IV will conclude as to how knowledge on the arranged marriage proper, as an aristocratic guardianship system, can be applied to the varied practices of changing patterns in arranged marriages, that include the increasing involvement of the young in mate-selection and marriage making. This section will also offer suggestions for further research.

This article will focus on analyses of conjugal practices of British immigrant Pakistanis residing in the UK, the largest Pakistani diaspora in the world that strongly upholds the arranged marriage system. While narrowing down the focus to one culture, norm and values will surface that typically underlie the arranged marriage system in general.

For this article, the following working definition of arranged marriage will be employed: marriage for which the mate selection is under the guardianship and authority of elders of the (extended) families of both marital agents and that aligns the families in a durable relational bond that allows for a legitimate space and belonging for the conjugal union. 5 The following working definition will be employed of the autonomous marriage: marriage for which the mate selection is undertaken by the marital agents, who base their selection on subjective criteria with the aim to align the agents in a durable relational conjugal union. 6

1. Biased Binary Approach

The so-called binary approach in the study or representation of the arranged marriage is much criticized in literature. 7 This binary is considered ‘liberal individualist’ 8 or Eurocentric. 9 Set in a binary with the autonomous marriage, the arranged marriage is judged by the idealized standards of the autonomous marriage. That which is idealized is individual freedom and conjugal choice. Individualism is considered progressive, there is free choice and the freeing of individual potential. 10 The autonomous marriage elevates the individual who emancipated themselves and rose from the bonds of a history in which marriage choices were not left to solely the individuals. 11 Individuals assume that this transformation from ‘arranged marriages to love matches is progressive and “healthy” … the result should be happier marriages’. 12 Central to the autonomous marriage is the nuclear family, otherwise known as the conjugal or the atomistic family. 13 The dissolving of the extended family into the nuclear family is also seen as a marker of modernity and progress. 14 Modernity signifies improvement, including modernity in the way one marries. 15 Through modernization, arranged marriage will be replaced by self-chosen unions. 16 ‘[A]lthough Western ideas about the family are often opposed or resisted at first, many of these ideas are nevertheless adopted, often in modified forms, because the Western style family is so closely associated with development.’ 17 And while this theory may have its critics, 18 this article claims that it still holds ground as regards arranged marriage.

As suggested by the convergence theory and developmental paradigm, 19 the arranged marriage is held to the expectation that it will one day adapt to the Western ways, and advance into the autonomous marriage, as a sign of emancipation, of progress.

Until then, the arranged marriage appears lacking in those very features so particular of the autonomous marriage: free choice, individual energy, emphasis on the idiocentric conjugal union and the self-centred nuclear family. Literature magnifies those very features and puts the arranged marriage to the test: can it fulfil standards of full and free autonomy? Failing to do so turns the arranged marriage into something faulty. The arranged marriage culture is seen as ‘deficient’ and ‘deformed’. 20 It becomes the ‘other’. 21 ‘[T]he “Orient” is constructed and represented in the binary opposition against the Occident as the “Other”.’ 22 This binary distinction ‘[p]roblematically contributes to the discursive portrayal of arranged marriages as certainly less than and other to mainstream marriage practices’. 23

The social principles of individual freedom and autonomy are given much weight in perspectives on the arranged marriage. However, such principles are not neutral. They are ‘European values, assumptions, cultural codes’, are ‘culturally-determined and biased’, and offer ‘limited historical perspectives’, 24 providing a lens through which the arranged marriage is evaluated. There then, is a free-choice system at one end of the spectrum, a space that cannot be shared with the arranged marriage, for that is a parent-orchestrated endeavour and parents’ ‘subtle coercion has a tainting effect on the child's quality of choice’. 25 Thus emerges at the other end of the spectrum the not so free system called the arranged marriage.

Of course, the arranged marriage is certainly not considered a forced marriage in the studied literature—though media often equate the two. 26 However, literature on the arranged marriage frequently mentions forced unions and thus frequently connects arranged marriage to forced marriage. Besides, an overlap between arranged and forced marriage is often recognized and referred to as a ‘grey area’ with the potential of ‘slippage:’ the slightest increase of duress can lead the arranged marriage to ‘slip’ into a forced one. 27 The arranged marriage is always haunted by force.

The heightened attention to freedom and the lack thereof highlights consent, arguably the most important legal principle the arranged marriage is expected to prove. This consent must be full and free. 28 A recurring question in literature is whether arranged marriage supports full and free consent. 29 If consent is present, the union is considered an arranged marriage. Without consent the union is considered coerced. Consent separates arranged marriage from forced marriage. 30 This leads to a preoccupation in legal and policy discourse with the presence of consent and the absence of coercion in the arranged marriage. 31 The presence of consent and the absence of coercion determine the value of the arranged marriage. In essence, the arranged marriage is framed in yet another binary: that between consent versus coercion, a binary that is damaging and limiting. 32 The culture of the arranged marriage in itself becomes problematic. 33 This culture needs to prove constantly that there is no coercion involved. In addition, the binary is limiting in a different sense too. Consent, full and free is a human rights standard, 34 as well as a legal tool to declare the legitimacy of marriage as an uncoerced union. 35 Yet, consent as it operates in the law is given a ‘Western individualistic bent’. 36 As such, read in ‘plain language’ ‘only “free market” or choice marriages —a hallmark of Western societies—meet the “free and full” requirement because “there is nothing to prevent men and women from taking spouses which do not meet their families” approval’. 37

Arranged marriage contexts do not evolve around the freeing of individual energy. They are characterized by collective dynamisms with a particular ‘distribution of power and wider familial and community involvement’. 38 ‘The arranged marriage process, heavily reliant on parental and sometimes extended family input, fails to measure up to the requirements of free and full consent.’ 39 The attention given to full consent ignores that something given an individualistic bent is a strange bedfellow in a system that is not primarily or fully individualistic, nor aims to be. Consent is a universal principle which certainly has its place in the arranged marriage system. Yet, the language of consent in the discourse on arranged marriage is an expression of the ‘rational individual with free will’ 40 or the ‘free self’. 41 It is the language of an atomistic individual, of ‘an autonomous agent who is able to choose and act freely’. 42 This is not the language of a member deeply engrained in community belonging, duty, and purpose.

To reiterate, individual autonomy, including the right to consent, dictates the preoccupation in literature on arranged marriage. Notions such as agency, control, freedom to date, freedom to reject a selected candidate, negotiating power, the right of marital subjects to fall in love, choice and the freedom to self-select, receive profound consideration as a consequence.

In this regard, it is illustrative that arranged marriage is often categorized in types which reflect differing amounts of yet again this very notion of individual autonomy. There are three main types of categorization: traditional, semi-arranged, or love-arranged marriage types. 43 Arranged marriages earmarked as traditional are described as offering no or very little involvement by the young, 44 as if involvement or the lack thereof is the only feature of traditional arranged marriage. Semi-arranged or hybrid types, also known as joint-venture types, point to control shared by the elders and the young alike, 45 which again only emphasize this control as a shared element, as if nothing is of any relevance other than control . Finally, the love-arranged types are embodiments of near full individual control and individual love. 46 This categorization according to a ‘sliding scale of control’ 47 does not highlight what the arranged marriage in general is or what it offers, other than control, to those practising it. Some authors even reject ‘arranged’ as a word to describe this marital system, as this word suggests a lack of control. 48 Individual control has become a dominating feature by which arranged marriage is judged. But it is again agency and control towards more autonomy that academics are consumed with and not agency or autonomy towards more traditional features arranged marriage offers. Those are simply ignored or not sought for. Those remain irrelevant and underexamined.

There could only be one reason why social principles that are founded upon the philosophy of idiocentrism and the freeing of individual energy, are tirelessly sought in a system that thrives on allocentrism, group-belonging and honour for group loyalty. Arguably, the arranged marriage culture only seems to satisfy the Eurocentric mind if it contains the same recognizable ingredients as the autonomous marriage culture. And as it does not, the arranged marriage represents a lesser marital version than the prized autonomous marriage.

2. Biased Definitions of Arranged Marriage

The above bias is reflected in descriptions and definitions of the arranged marriage. Many descriptions or definitions only really offer information as to who selects the mate, eg ‘parent orchestrated alliances’, 49 or ‘marriages that are instigated by the family’, 50 or ‘arranged by family members or respected members in the religious or ethnic community’. 51 Other definitions view the arranged marriage from a biased Eurocentric appreciation. These definitions accentuate ‘individualizing tendencies’. 52

While there is nothing wrong with individuation and autonomy, especially if so desired by those involved in arranged marriages, 53 headlining these modern notions points to a Eurocentric domination as to how the arranged marriage ought to be valued. Simultaneously, such one-sided promotion undervalues notions that cannot be grouped under ‘individualizing tendencies’ and the freeing of individual energy.

A case in point are the following definitions. Arranged marriages are featured as those ‘in which the spouses are chosen for one another by third parties to the marriage such as parents or elder relatives’, 54 or ‘the partners to which are chosen by others , usually their parents’. 55 In these definitions elders are referred to as ‘third parties’ or ‘others’. These wordings seem innocent, yet they are not. They suggest that marital subjects are the ‘first parties’. This qualification is justified if marriage is perceived to be an alliance between individuals, which is the case in the autonomous marriage system. This qualification is not correct if marriage is seen as an alliance between (extended) families, which emerges in the arranged marriage system. 56 ‘ First ’ parties suggests a hierarchy above ‘ third ’ parties, which is not an attribute of the arranged marriage system where singular members of the group, in this case the marital agents, are not valued above the elders or generally above one’s group. Similarly, mentioning that ‘parents rather than. spouses’ or ‘two families rather than individuals’ 57 contract a marriage is again pointing to a Eurocentric preference for self-selection.

Other definitions amplify attention to the individual more explicitly. For example in the definition ‘marriage arranged by the families of the individuals’, 58 the individual is seen as a separate entity, while, as we shall learn in Section III, a ‘tradition directed person … hardly thinks of himself as an individual’. 59 Indeed, ‘[t]he ideology that underpins a South Asian “arranged” marriage is that obligations to one’s immediate and more extended family have priority over personal self-interest’. 60 Ignoring this, is judging the arranged marriage from a ‘Western individualistic bent’. 61 In the same vein, many definitions contain the words ‘control’, ‘agency’ ‘choice,’ which all emphasize individual autonomy as the standard and which in effect draw attention to arranged marriage as primarily a space where marital agents negotiate increasing amounts of individual control. Other definitions refer to this ‘control’ highlighting dominion and power, suggesting that the arranged marriage is a battlefield between the elders and the young: ‘Traditional arranged marriage placed considerable power in the hands of the parents, and in particularly the father’. 62 Or, ‘In “traditional” societies, parents or the extended family dominate marriage choices’. 63 The power difference referred to suggests there are two parties with opposing aims and interests, which again is not an insightful reflection of unified interests so characteristic of group cultures. Also, culture here is presented as merely problematic: a father’s or parent’s role is that of power or domination, with negative connotations, and not much else.

A third set of definitions emphasizes the changing and flexible arranged marriage types, especially towards offering more control to the individual. It seems as if the arranged marriage is trying to prove that it is very capable of accommodating modernity and is progressive and evolving, for it has choice, agency, room for dating and romance, or the right of marital agents to say ‘no’ at any stage of the arrangement. This latter is illustrated well by Ahmad’s words referring to marriage as a dynamic process: ‘a family-facilitated introduction of a potentially suitable matched prospective candidate followed by a managed pattern of courtship prior to a potential, and agreed to marriage’. 64 Her words seem to suggest that the only acceptable arranged marriage is a progressive arranged marriage, one that resembles the autonomous marriage.

Love too, when mentioned, generally suggests lovelessness in arranged marriage as opposed to true love in autonomous marriage. 65 Arranged marriages are contrasted to marriage where there is romantic love 66 or to ‘love marriages’ based on romantic attachment between the couple’. 67 Arranged marriages when ‘a couple validates its love choice to their respective families’ 68 would be termed love-arranged or western type marriages. One commonly held view is that love will (hopefully) grow in arranged marriage as time passes. 69 Reference to ‘marriage, then love’, 70 supports this theory. Or when ‘love is not forthcoming’ the couple ‘are increasingly supported to divorce … ’. 71 In these examples it is yet again the love between the spouses, primarily romantic, sensual love, or individual affection that is stressed, which again celebrates the love so typical in the autonomous marriage system. 72

Families that are not conjugal have valued ‘not affection, but duty, obligation, honour, mutual aid, and protection … ’. 73 Such love for family or culture or any type of gift-love 74 are hardly mentioned in descriptions of arranged marriage. Even when ‘companionate’ love features, the focus remains on the spouse’s companionship for one another, and not for any(thing) other. Arguably the Eurocentric perspective holds little regard for other loves than the romantic.

3. Evaluation of Biased Science on the Arranged Marriage

The manner in which the arranged marriage is described in the literature studied is a marker of recognizing the arranged marriage as worthwhile only in so far it mirrors the characteristics of the autonomous marriage system. The words employed to describe the arranged marriage reflect autonomy-related values, but exclude community-related values that are foundational to the arranged marriage system. The arranged marriage is thus undervalued for the fundamental characteristics upon which it rests. These are ignored, not understood, arguably misunderstood, if at all known. Set against the autonomous marriage, the arranged marriage then becomes the other, deficient, deformed, a marriage of shortcomings, a marriage lacking in freedom and a marriage that is catching up and trying to prove it is not as traditional, thus not so backwards or rigid as analysts of the arranged marriage suggest.

The arranged marriage proper then remains a much understudied marital system and can only be understood by abandoning the binary approach and adopting a neutral lens. One needs ‘to turn the picture round’ as Tocqueville puts, in his eloquent study of aristocratic systems. 75 Such an aristocratic system is the arranged marriage, as we shall learn below.

As mentioned before, arranged marriages are frequently categorized in types, varying from traditional to hybrid to loosely arranged modern versions. They are frequently studied individually, through empirical research which offers a rich, complex, and varied analysis of arranged marriage practices, in diaspora communities, transnational communities as well as in communities and cultures around the world that are globalizing and are in transition. Yet, while all arranged marriages are arguably different, all do share a basic set of similarities. This section aims to bring these to the surface, drawing on sociology, so as to arrive at an ideal type of the arranged marriage.

The arranged marriage as an ideal type is a theoretical construct. 76 The ideal type emphasizes typical features of the arranged marriage, which all concrete individual arranged marriages share with one another and which are presented ‘into a unified analytical construct’. 77 As such the ideal type, ‘in its conceptual purity … cannot be found empirically anywhere in reality’. 78 ‘It is a utopia’. 79 Yet, it is a necessary tool to bring to the surface a neutral, unbiased understanding of the arranged marriage. It is also a ‘measuring rod’ 80 to measure the reality of cultural differences or change the arranged marriage system is constantly undergoing. 81

Before I proceed, it is vital to address academic opposition against the essentialization of the arranged marriage system. This essentialization is criticized as it captures the arranged marriage in a binary opposition with the autonomous marriage, idealizing the autonomous marriage and ‘othering’ the arranged marriage. This essentialization exaggerates cultural difference. 82 It portrays the arranged marriage as a rigid, static, unchanging, unnuanced system. 83 It ‘assumes the complete hold over the migrant of traditional gender and family norms by underscoring the foreignness of … arranged marriages’. 84 Authors opposing this essentialization are quick to point out that the arranged marriage is a dynamic and highly flexible system, that is able to accommodate change, modernization, individualizing tendencies, agency, romantic love and negotiating spaces, in which especially women assume more control in their endeavours to navigate around victimization by patriarchy. 85

What these scholars are in actual fact doing, unknowingly, is trying to exhibit to the Eurocentric mind evidence that the arranged marriage resembles the autonomous marriage. These authors demonstrate that the arranged marriage is very capable of upholding choice, agency, and control. These authors preoccupy themselves with bringing those qualities in the arranged marriage to the surface of their research. Sequentially, traditional features of this marital system remain understudied.

This section will not essentialize the arranged marriage system from a Eurocentric viewpoint for it desires not to repeat the othering of the arranged marriage. It will not try to prove that the arranged marriage is a flexible modern institution able to accommodate a constant flux of variety and diversity. As valuable as an investigation of that change may be, one cannot study the arranged marriage by studying how it absorbs constant flux. ‘[W]eber defines reality as an “infinite flux” which cannot be apprehended in its totality’. 86 One cannot apprehend arranged marriage on its fundamental shared characteristics if only the constant flux and change towards autonomy dominate academic engagement.

Despite being diverse and different on individual level, there are common qualities that make a marriage an arranged marriage and thus a largely unexamined ideal type of the arranged marriage will be examined in Section III of this article. The rich diversity between cultures, countries, social and economic classes, between religions and religious denominations, between those that have migrated and those that have not, as well as the constant evolution of the arranged marriage, will be left to the efforts of other scholars. 87

At its core, all arranged marriage cultures have marriage arrangers, whether these arrangers operate on their own or co-jointly with the marital agents. All marriage arrangers are senior members of the family or community, whether these arrangers operate on their own or co-jointly with the marital agents. All arranged marriage cultures value marriage to be arranged by these senior marriage arrangers, whether these arrangers operate on their own or co-jointly with the marital agents. All arranged marriage cultures consider mate selection to be not primarily the responsibility of the marital agents, whether they share this responsibility substantially or subtly with the marital agents. All arranged marriage cultures consider mate-selection physically and mentally risky, shameful and burdensome for the young to be engaged in, whether the young engage themselves in such matters or not. Family is placed central to marriage in all arranged marriage cultures, as they all consider marriage an alliance between families, whether or not the marital agents emphasize their conjugal alliance above that of the family’s. All arranged marriages guard against an incoming candidate harming family unity or family interests. Objective reasons for marrying are always valued as these support aforementioned family unity and interests, regardless of whether there is room for individual desire and preference. Finally, all arranged marriages are voluntarily accepted by marital agents on the basis of legitimate parental guidance and authority.

As such, all arranged marriage cultures are hierarchical cultures, as they accord different roles and responsibilities to the elders and to the younger ones of a group; they are group cultures that strongly incorporate its members through loyalty to the group and its interests; they are all driven by parental guardianship and authority, rooted in protection, providence and voluntary compliance. These principles of community, hierarchy, guardianship and authority are foundational to the ‘way of life’ 88 of the arranged marriage system, and will be explained below.

1. Arranged Marriage is a Community Oriented System

Literature frequently makes reference to arranged marriage cultures as collectivist, community oriented, occurring in extended families, whether there is individualism or not. 89 Marriage concerns the whole family and families are characteristically extended with extended kinship ties. 90 Marriage choices ‘have a far-reaching impact upon … relatives, affecting the futures and socio-economic positions of a much wider range of kin than just parents and children’. 91 Beyond the conjugal alliance, marriage creates alliances between a variety of family-members. 92 ‘Strategic marriage choices enable social mobility even within the extended kinship network.’ 93 Fox argues that arranged marriage preserves family unity, ‘by felicitous selection of the new spouse’ which ‘allows for the furtherance of political linkages and/or economic consolidation between families … it helps keep families intact over generations; and … it preserves family property within the larger kin unit’. 94 Objective selection criteria are emblematic of the families’ desire to preserve a stable family. ‘Parents usually assess the reputation, economic standing and personalities of the potential in-laws and the educational level and occupation of the potential groom or bride.’ 95 The strong emphasis on pragmatic, unromantic reasons that guide mate-selection are considered wise: the new conjugal addition must suit family background and thus fit harmoniously into its organization. 96 As such, extended families remain strong in the social order. Less attention is paid therefore to subjective love. One learns that spousal love may come as martial time goes by. 97 This need not be romantic, it may as well be love in a ‘more all-encompassing sense’. 98 Typical of group cultures is that ‘[i]ndividual choice … may be constricted either through requiring that a person be bound by group decisions or by demanding that individuals follow the rules accompanying their station in life’. 99 The individual is ‘sacrificed’. 100 ‘The tradition-directed person … hardly thinks of himself as an individual.’ 101 He is a ‘collective being’ not a ‘particular being’. 102 But such sacrifice ‘is more than offset by the advantages of fulfilling one’s role within the family … ’. 103

2. Arranged Marriage is a Hierarchical System

The mere fact that marriage arranging requires some element of wisdom, experience and providence, suggests hierarchy. Not everyone is suited to make marriage choices, certainly not young children and this applies to all cultures, whether autonomous or arranged. In the latter culture, arranging marriages is a responsibility bestowed upon elders, mostly parents of the marital agents. 104 Elders, given their status and rank, are considered most able, equipped, wise and well connected to undertake the grave and delicate task of mate selection. It is their proper place to screen and select mates and it is the proper place of the young to trust and respect the judgment of the elders in this regard. Pande points to a case of a young woman called Shabnam appreciating this ‘proper place’ as she would never directly go up to her parents with her marriage wishes as ‘parents deserve their izzat ’ 105 (respect NT). And while elders are given the privilege of mate selection, they do not and may not select for their own benefit, but in the best interests and the good of the group, 106 into which are incorporated the interests and the good of the marital agents. 107

Arranged marriage cultures are thus hierarchical. 108 To understand arranged marriage, is to understand hierarchy. Yet, the social principle of hierarchy does not sit well with the Western mind. 109 The western mind views society from the lens of equality and freedom and hierarchical systems lack equality and freedom. Thus arranged marriage is rejected: it is a space where parents have the ‘power’ and upper hand and ‘dominate’ in marriage choices. 110 Arranged marriage becomes nothing more than a ‘chain of command’ 111 or a ‘power hierarchy’. 112 However, as Dumont argues, this is not true hierarchy. 113 To understand hierarchy one must ‘detach … from egalitarian societies’. 114 One must view hierarchical systems on its own merits, in an organic manner. 115

‘[H]ierarchy. comes from the very functional requirements of the social bond.’ 116 Literature offers the organism, a whole or the body as a metaphor to understand hierarchical systems. 117 Hierarchy is ‘the principle by which the elements of a whole are ranked in relation to the whole’. 118 The whole body and its parts are strongly bound together by rules, 119 social control, 120 and a common value system. 121 One accepts as necessary the rank order and the fulfilment of distinct obligations—without this the whole cannot function as it is supposed to function. 122 Decisions are taken by the most able in the interests of the whole and its parts. 123 The most able are the guardians and guardianship and hierarchy are strongly intertwined. 124

Families in arranged marriage cultures are organized hierarchically, with each member aware of its own and other’s status and social ranking, 125 with each member submitting to ‘group control’ and fulfilling ‘socially imposed roles’, 126 with each member keeping in one’s proper place, honouring order, 127 and subject to a ‘hierarchized interdependence’. 128 It is deeply understood that elders arrange marriages—it is their obligation to find matches from good families, and to exercise control as to who joins the family. 129 This applies whether or not they share this task with the marital agents. ‘From the viewpoint of many parents, arranging and seeing through your children’s marriages is a primary duty, to the extent that your role as a parent is unfulfilled until this duty is accomplished.’ 130 It is ‘a matter of great family honour.’ 131 It is a necessity too as ‘marriage normally confers the statuses of wife and husband, which have been and still are regarded in many societies as necessary to being seen as an adult rather than as a child’. 132 It is only through marriage that intimate life with a stranger turned into family is legitimate. So, the young depend on the patronage of the elders. 133 Amber, a twenty-four year old student ‘sought her parent’s intervention stating it was their ‘responsibility’. 134 Elders are not to abandon this role, nor to share it with the less qualified. They too are answerable to tradition and community. 135 But they are bound also, as good guardians and figures of authority, to choose wisely and in the best interest of the child. 136 Below a further exploration will be provided on guardianship, which is ‘a standard justification for hierarchical rule’ 137 and authority which too manifests itself through hierarchical relations. 138

3. Arranged Marriage is a System of Guardianship and Parental Authority

Arranged marriage cultures thrive on authority and entrusted leadership of guardians. Though literature never does, one could call arranged marriage a rule of guardians 139 or of parental authority or an aristocratic marital system. 140 In such a system ‘rulership should be entrusted to a minority of persons who are specially qualified to govern by reason of their superior knowledge and virtue’. 141 The entrusted uphold community values, such as ‘altruism, sacrifice, love … order, security, loyalty, duty’. 142 They govern as guardians, as figures of authority. 143 Traditionally, elders are the entrusted ones. 144 And the young honour their authority. 145 The arranged marriage of Manju and Jagdesh, both from Indian middle class families, offers a good example of these notions. 146 Manju, twenty-one years old at the time and Jagdesh, twenty three, were ‘both told that they would be a good match and should marry’ and soon after their agreement, the marriage took place. 147 Or the case of Saima, a 20-year old student who says that ‘my parents will obviously find the guy for me … I trust them for it … If they come out with a decent guy and say we’d like you to marry him, I’d say yes … ’. 148 In both examples parental authority occupies a central role in match making.

A. But what exactly is authority?

‘The need for authority is basic. Children need authorities to guide and reassure them. Adults fulfil an essential part of themselves in being authorities; it is one way of expressing care for others.’ 151

‘Deeply embedded in social functions, an inalienable part of the inner order of family … ritualized at every turn, authority is so closely woven into the fabric of tradition and morality … ’. 162 As such, traditional authority is embedded in arranged marriage cultures. It ‘roots in the belief that it is ancient’. 163 In arranged marriage cultures traditionally there is trust in parental leadership. 164 One is assured that parents know what is best for their child, as they know their child, sometimes even better than the child knows itself—they see through them. 165 This inspires obedience. 166

Parental authority is a necessary component in arranged marriage systems. Marriage affects a whole family’s stability and future, so marriage choices need to be supervised. 167 The young, inexperienced and not yet wise, are traditionally not considered well trained for this task, as they may be misguided by love. 168 So, arranged marriage societies isolate the young from potential mates. 169 In addition, social control, typical for group cultures, is applied to guard behaviour. 170 Young people can easily fall prey to romantic and sexual behaviour considered disruptive to the dignity and order of the family. 171 Here then arises the necessity for elders to authorize rational mate selection. 172 Of course, this does not exclude that young people may step out of their role. If they do, shame and dishonour may be brought to the family. 173 Such youngsters are considered deviants who must be blamed, heavily punished or re-educated. 174 As such being nourished by parental authority offers security, 175 and enables moral life. 176

4. Studying Arranged Marriage Practices

The idealized typology of the arranged marriage, as a Weberian theoretical construct, demonstrates that, at the outset, arranged marriage systems are traditionally systems of community, hierarchy, guardianship, and authority. So described, the arranged marriage finds its rationality in a system that safeguards mate selection by placing this under the guardianship and authority of elders of the (extended) families of both marital agents with the aim to align both families in a durable relational bond, that strengthens its economic and societal standing, and that allows for a legitimate space and belonging for the conjugal union.

This typology is an ideal construct, in the same way the autonomous marriage is also an ideal construct. Borrowing then from William Goode who arrived at an ideal type of the conjugal family, which was also seen as an ideal , the arranged marriage as typified above is also seen as an ideal in that a ‘number of people view some of its characteristics as proper and legitimate, no matter that reality may run counter to the ideal’. 177 Elders in arranged marriage contexts all around the world consider it an ideal to take upon themselves the role of proper guardians and authorities in marriage arranging, and children, in their turn, ideally accept the parental choice, understanding that this is wisely made, that it gains its majesty in legitimate authority. All around the world, this ideal is an inspirational reference point in arranged marriage cultures.

This said, of course reality does not always represent the ideal portrayed, however inspirational. Still, the value of the ideal and the ideal type remain: this construct, even if it is an utopia, is necessary as it provides a neutral and unbiased understanding of the arranged marriage, one that is detached from a restrictive binary approach that others the arranged marriage. The ideal construct serves also as a measuring rod to study the reality of arranged marriage practices that depart from that construct. It ‘[p]rovides the basic method of comparative study’. 178

Taking a look then into these realities, one will find that, for one, elders are not always capable of arranging marriages well. ‘The notion that parents will always act in the child’s best interests is … based on an idealized interpretation of the parent/child relationship and assumes that adults will be altruistic whenever they relate to children with love, care and empathy.’ 179 Elders may not always understand what guardianship truly entails. They may confuse parental authority with the exercise of parental power, force even.

In addition, elders continuously share marriage arranging duties with their children, as the variety of semi-arranged marriage types suggest. These hybrid arranged marriage types are expressions of transformations of marital agents’ role in exercising self-determination and self-realization in marriage matters. They also reflect the changes in traditional parenthood: where once it was the elders who decided for the collective, this is now scrutinized by marital agents’ desires for freedom to (also) decide. In the words of Aguiar ‘arranged marriage has become the locus of a set of liberal and communitarian discourses that articulate competing visions of individual and collective agency’. 180 This does not always run smoothly. Elders may not always believe that transitions towards freedom and individualism are proper. Families often act as buffers against ‘too much’ individualism that is perceived as an isolating and alienating force that disrupts family cohesion and hinders traditions to be passed on from generation to generation. Many, in arranged marriage cultures, parents as well as young people, are grappling with the blended agendas of the liberal and communitarian, of the individual and the collective that are shaping arranged marriage realities. A very sensitive portrayal of an intergenerational struggle in this regard can be seen in the drama film A Fond Kiss : protagonist Casim, son of Pakistani Muslim immigrants to the UK, asks his parents to accept his love choice for Roisin, a Catholic divorcee. In their turn, his parents, emotionally destroyed and shamed by Casim’s desires, plead to their son to accept an arranged marriage to his cousin Yasmin. This Casim refuses and the family breaks up. 181

As indicated earlier, the tendency is to view such realities from a Eurocentric lens, that prizes liberalism and equality, and that advocates the individual’s rise from traditional structures as a marker of sovereignty, supported by contract, geared towards independence and freedom from authority. 182

Again, such views monopolize examination of arranged marriage, are biased, ‘culturally-determined’ and entrenched in ‘limited historical perspectives’. 183 ‘Many people in this world have registers of well-being that are not the same as degrees of freedom, measures such as duty, devotion and responsibility.’ 184 Many people do not value, experience, nor desire full independence from parental authority.

Hybrid arranged marriages are in a sense partly separated from and partly belonging to traditional as well as liberal structures. It is vital to represent and express belonging to these traditional structures in the discourse on arranged marriage. It is important to acknowledge notions of guardianship, authority, and community when one measures change and modernization in arranged marriage realities, but also when one measures distancing from that very modernization in efforts to hold on to traditions.

The current tendency, when marital agents demand a stronger role in mate selection, is to capture this in a language of freedoms, control, agency and the rising individual. This language presupposes that marital agents’ main aim is to free oneself, become independent and ultimately exit the arranged marriage system. 185 It presupposes too that marital agents are very capable of acting independently of their parents. The fact of the matter is, that many marital agents are deeply connected to a system of parental guardianship and authority, they are hierarchically interdependent with family, they cherish strong belonging to their community and understand family cohesion as a necessary component of their family’s well-being in which their well-being is integrated. Marital agents granted or demanding a role in match making, challenge in essence (part of) the authority of parents, but do not act as fully atomistic units. When parents allow their child to jointly decide with them on marriage matters, this is articulated in literature mostly as a step that invests power in the child. However, this ought to also be valued as a sharing of parental authority or guardianship with the child. Adding authority and guardianship to the conversation on the arranged marriage gives rise to a language that relates to and represents community. For instance, why do some parents share their authority, why do others not? It might be possible that some parents deem their children disciplined enough to select wisely, pointing to the principle that ‘discipline is authority in operation?’ 186 It might be that some parents believe that their children can act as their own guardians, partly or in full, given that these children are educated and skilled in ways the elders are not? Might it be that in diaspora contexts elders are searching for new meaning to traditional concepts such as authority and guardianship and need a language to cope with this hybrid dynamic rather than a language that calls upon their children to exit anything traditional? Asking and addressing such questions will contribute to a discourse on arranged marriage that respects the very foundations it is built upon. It is knowledge about these foundations that is pivotal if we wish to understand the arranged marriage proper and change in that domain.

This article argued for a full renunciation of the binary approach adopted in literature in studying arranged marriage. In the binary approach, the arranged marriage emerges as a lesser conjugal union in comparison to the ideal and prized autonomous conjugal union. Recognizing that the arranged marriage must be valued on its own merits, this article sought for an ideal typical construct of the arranged marriage, as a neutral departure point in a study of this marital system and as a tool to explore arranged marriage realities. The arranged marriage is fundamentally rooted in the sociological principles of collective belonging, parental guardianship and the protective, provident authority of elders in match making. This article calls for a fresh discourse on arranged marriage and changing arranged marriage patterns that reflect these principles in order to arrive at a much needed and understudied fuller appreciation and conversation of a marital system that engages hundreds of millions.

In order to be as impartial as humanly possible, this article does not offer personal opinions on or preferences for the arranged or the autonomous marriage. It is of fundamental importance that any scholar on the arranged marriage system (and many other subjects for that matter) is an unbiased scholar or at least strives to be. Neither advocacy of nor opposition to the arranged marriage, and neither advocacy of nor opposition to the autonomous marriage should enter a scholar’s theories and findings. A scholar’s role is not to express any preference for either system, it is not to value one system as better than the other, it is to become independent from any prejudice of one over the other

This article is based on, The Arranged Marriage – Changing Perspectives on a Marital Institution (Unpublished Dissertation Utrecht University) Utrecht, 2019.

Authors referring to this binary are eg F. Shariff, ‘Towards a Transformative Paradigm in the UK Response to Forced Marriages’ (2012) 21 (4) Social and Legal Studies 549–65; M. Aguiar, Arranging Marriage, Conjugal Agency in The South Asian Diaspora (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018); R. Pande, ‘Geographies of Marriage and Migration: Arranged Marriages and South Asians in Britain’ (2014) 8 (2) Geography Compass 75–86; S. Anitha and A. Gill, ‘Coercion, Consent and the Forced Marriage Debate in the UK’ (2009) 17 Feminist Legal Studies 165–84; M. Khandelwal, ‘Arranging Love: Interrogating the Vantage Point in Cross-Border Feminism’ (2009) 34 (3) Signs 583–609; F. Ahmad, ‘Graduating Towards Marriage? Attitudes Towards Marriage and Relationships among University-educated British Muslim Women’ (2012) 13 Culture and Religion 193–210.

M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschafslehre (Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr, 1988) p. 191.

Notably, H. Arendt, Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1977); M. Douglas, ‘Cultural Bias’ in M. Douglas (ed.), The Active Voice (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1982), as referred to by Thompson et al., Cultural Theory (Boulder, San Francisco: Westview Press, 1990); Thompson et al. ibid; M. Douglas, Risk and Blame (London, New York: Routledge, 1992); R.A. Dahl, Democracy and its Critics (New Have: Yale University, 1989); L. Dumont, Homo Hierarchicus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); R.A. Nisbet, The Quest for Community (California: ICS Press, 1990); R.A. Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition (London: Heinemann Educational Books Ltd, 1966); R. Sennett, Authority (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980).

For origins of the term ‘arranged marriage’ see Aguiar (n 1) 14.

‘Autonomous marriage’ is used in I.L. Reiss, Family Systems in America (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976) as referred to by G.R. Lee and L. Hemphill Stone, ‘Mate-Selection Systems and Criteria: Variation according to Family Structure’ (1980) 42 (2) Journal of Marriage and Family 319–26, 319.

Anitha and Gill (n 1); Shariff (n 1); Aguiar (n 1); Pande (n 1); Khandelwal (n 1).

Shariff (n 1) 556, on binary between consent and coercion.

Compare Ahmad (n 1) 194; see also Pande (n 1) 82; see also Aguiar (n 1) 14.

Nisbet 1990 (n 4) pp. 3–4; A.J. Cherlin, ‘Goode's “World Revolution and Family Patterns”: A Reconsideration at Fifty Years’ (2012) 38 (4) Population and Development Review 577–607, 580, 581; see for progress towards the atomistic family C.C. Zimmerman, Family and Civilization (Wilmington Delaware: ISI Books, 2008) pp. 124, 247–49; in general on progress see J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2008); R.A. Nisbet, History of the Idea of Progress (New York: Basic Book, Inc. Publishers, 1980); see also Arendt (n 4) 100, 101 on progress theory.

See S. Coontz, Marriage, a History, How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Penguin Group, 2005) p. 25; See for more on this evolution J. Witte Jr., From Sacrament to Contract , Marriage, Religion, and Law in the Western Tradition (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) pp. 194–215.

X. Xiaohe and M. King Whyte, ‘Love Matches and Arranged Marriages: A Chinese Replication’ (1990) 52 (3) Journal of Marriage and the Family 709–22, 709.

See for these terms W.J. Goode, World Revolution and Family Patterns (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970) p. 1, and Zimmerman (n 10) pp. 30–36.

A. Thornton, Reading History Sideways: The Fallacy and the Enduring Impact of the Developmental Paradigm on Family Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), as referred to by Cherlin (n 10) 581; see also, K. Allendorf and R.K. Pandian, ‘The Decline of Arranged Marriage? Marital Change and Continuity in India’ (2016) 42 (3) Population and Development Review 435–464, 435.

Cherlin (n 10) 581.

Allendorf and Pandian (n 14) 435.

Thornton (n 14), as referred to by Cherlin (n 10) 593.

Cherlin (n 10) 594.

On the ‘convergence theory’, see Goode (n 13) and Cherlin (n 10); on ‘developmental paradigm’ see Thorntan (n 14) as referred to by Cherlin (n 10) 581; see also A. Shaw, A Pakistani Community in Britain (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1988) pp. 2, 3 on the expected disappearance of Pakistani migrants’ culture.

M. Enright, ‘Choice, Culture and the Politics of Belonging: The Emerging Law of Forced and Arranged Marriage’ (2009) 72 (3) The Modern Law Review 331–59, 338.

R. Pande, ‘Becoming Modern: British-Indian Discourses of Arranged Marriages’ (2016) 17 (3) Social & Cultural Geography 380–400, 384; see on consequence of ‘othering’ of migrants, Pande (n 1) 75; Shariff (n 1) 562.

E. Said, Orientalism (New York: Penguin, 1978) as referred to by S.R. Moosavinia et al, ‘Edward Said’s Orientalism and the Study of the Self and the Other in Orwell’s Burmese Days’ (2011) 2 (1) Studies in Literature and Language 103–13, 104.

Pande (n 21) 384.

Moosavinia et al, (n 22) 104; Said (n 22).

P.J. Gagoomal, ‘A “Margin of Appreciation” for “Marriages of Appreciation”: Reconciling South Asian Adult Arranged Marriages with the Matrimonial Consent Requirement in International Human Rights Law’ (2009) 97 The Georgetown Law Journal 589–620, 601; compare Shariff (n 1) 557.

E.g.: ‘I fled in just the clothes I was wearing’: How one Muslim woman escaped arranged marriage, Mirror , 17 September 2012; L. Harding, ‘Student Saved from Arranged Marriage’, The Guardian , 14 March 2000, as referred to by R. Penn, ‘Arranged Marriages in Western Europe: Media Representations and Social Reality’ (2011) 42 (5) Journal of Comparative Family Studies 637–50, 639, for more examples, see 639–41; see also Aguiar (n 1) 11, 12.

Enright (n 20) 332; Shariff (n 1) 557; Anitha and Gill (n 1) 171; G. Gangoli et al, Forced Marriage and Domestic Violence among South Asian Communities in North East England (Bristol: University of Bristol, Northern Rock Foundation, 2006), as referred to by Anitha and Gill (n 1) 167.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), G.A. Res. 217A, (III), U.N. Doc A/810, 10 December 1948, Article 16 (2); International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), GA. Res. 2200A (XXI), 16 December 1966, Article 23 (3); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), G.A. Res. 2200A (XXI), 16 December 1966, Article 10 (1).

Aguiar (n 1) 11–13, see also Anitha and Gill (n 1); Shariff (n 1).

Aguiar (n 1) 11, 67.

Anitha and Gill (n 1); Aguiar (n 1) 67.

Anitha and Gill (n 1); Aguiar (n 1) 13, 14; Shariff (n 1).

Enright (n 20) 338.

UDHR (n 28); ICCPR (n 28); ICESCR (n 28).

Aguiar (n 1) 13.

Gagoomal (n 25) 611.

R.W. Hodge and N. Ogawa, ‘Arranged Marriages, Assortative Mating and Achievement in Japan,’ in Nihon University Population Research Institute, Research Paper, Series No. 1986, as referred to by Gagoomal (n 25) 601.

Shariff (n 1) 562; see also Anitha and Gill.

Shariff (n 1) 557.

Aguiar (n 1) 67; see also Anitha and Gill (n 1) 171.

Anitha and Gill (n 1) 171.

Anitha and Gill (n 1) 171; see also Thompson et al, (n 4) 7 on the ‘individualistic social context’.

See for a slightly different categorization R.B. Qureshi, ‘Marriage Strategies among Muslims from South Asia’ 1991 10 (3) The American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences , as referred to by A.U. Zaidi and M. Shuraydi, ‘Perceptions of Arranged Marriages by Young Pakistani Muslim Women Living in a Western Society’ 2002 33 (4) Journal of Comparative Family Studies 495–514, 496.

Qureshi (n 43) as referred to by Zaidi and Shuraydi (n 43) 496; Gagoomal (n 25) 592; Cherlin (n 10) 589; see also for modified traditional types, Shariff (n 1) 558; H. Siddiqui, ‘Review: Winning Freedoms’ (1991) 37 Feminist Review 78, 81, as referred to by Enright (n 20) 340, ft 45; see also R. Pande, ‘I Arranged my Own Marriage': Arranged Marriages and Post-colonial Feminism’ (2015) 22 (2) Gender, Place & Culture 172–87, 175; S.P. Wakil et al, ‘Between Two Cultures: A Study in Socialization of Children of Immigrants’ (1981) 43 (4) Journal of Marriage and Family 929–40, 935; see also Ahmad (n 1).

Qureshi (n 43), as referred to by Zaidi and Shuraydi (n 43) 496; S.A. Patel, An Exploratory Study of Arranged-Love Marriage in Couples From Collective Cultures (Dissertation Northern Illinois University, Ann Arbor: ProQuest LLC) 2016, 10; J. Kapur, ‘An Arranged Love Marriage: India’s Neoliberal turn and the Bollywood Wedding Culture Industry’ (2009) 2 Communication, Culture, and Critique 221–33, as referred to by Patel 10; Cherlin (n 10) 590; Shariff (n 1) 558.

Shariff (n 1) 558; S. Seymour, Women, Family, and Child Care in India: A World in Transition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) p. 212, as referred to by Kandelwal (n 1) 595; K. Kezuka, ‘Late Marriage and Transition from Arranged Marriages to Love Matches: A Search-theoretic Approach’ 2018 42 (2) The Journal of Mathematical Sociology 237–56, 237; N.D. Manglos-Weber and A.A. Weinreb, ‘Own-Choice Marriage and Fertility in Turkey’ (2017) 79 (2) Journal of Marriage and Family 372–89, 373; Pande (n 21) 389.

Shariff (n 1) 558, who refers to M. Stopes-Roe and R. Cochrane, Citizens of this Country: The Asian-British (Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, 1990).

Ahmad (n 1) 195, 200; M.J. Bhatti, Questioning Empowerment: Pakistani Women, Higher Education & Marriage (Dissertation University at Buffalo, State University of New York, 2013) 153.

R. Huch, ‘Romantic Marriage’, in H. Keyserling ed., The Book of Marriage: A New Interpretation by Twenty-four Leaders of Contemporary thought (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1926) pp. 168, 177, as referred to by Gagoomal (n 25) 607/n 112.

S. Davé, ‘Matchmakers and Cultural Compatibility: Arranged Marriage, South Asians, and American television’ (2012) 10 (2) South Asian Popular Culture 167–83, 168.

F.B. Ternikar, Revisioning the Ethnic Family: An Analysis of Marriage Patterns Among Hindu, Muslim, and Christian South Asian Immigrants (Dissertation, Chicago, Illinois, August 2004) 41.

Ahmad (n 1) 206, see also 207.

See among others Ahmad (n 1) and Aguiar (n 1).

Enright (n 20) 331, italics added.

Pande (n 21) 384, italics added, referring to the Oxford English Dictionary.

K. Charsley and A. Shaw, ‘South Asian Transnational Marriages in Comparative Perspective’ (2006) 6 (4) Global Networks 331–44, 335; Zaidi and Shuraydi (n 43) 496.

Zaidi and Shuraydi (n 43) 496; see also Penn (n 26) 637.

Zaidi and Shuraydi (n 43), 496 (italics omitted).

D. Riesman et al, The Lonely Crowd: A Study of the American Changing Character (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961) p. 17.

A. Shaw, ‘Kinship, Cultural Preference and Immigration: Consanguineous Marriage Among British Pakistanis’ (2001) 7 (2) Royal Anthropological Institute 315–34, 323.

G.W. Jones, Changing Marriage Patterns in Asia (Working Paper, Asia Research Institute, Series 131, 2010) 4.

P. Wood, ‘Marriage and Social Boundaries among British Pakistanis’ (2011) 20 (1) Diaspora 40–64, 41.

Ahmad (n 1) 200.

Charsley and Shaw (n 56) 338; Khandelwal (n 1).

Davé (n 50) 167, 168.

Charsley and Shaw (n 56) 338.

M. Aguiar, ‘Cultural Regeneration in Transnational South-Asian Popular Culture’ (2013) 84 Cultural Critique (2013) 181–214, 183.

Aguiar (n 1) 7.

A. Patel, ‘Marriage, then Love — Why Arranged Marriages Still Work Today,’ Global News , 26 July 2018.

K. Qureshi et al, ‘Marital Instability among British Pakistanis: Transnationality, Conjugalities and Islam’ (2014) 37 (2) Ethnic and Racial Studies 261–79, 276.

Pande (n 1) 75; for more on this love see K. Bejanyan et al, ‘Associations of Collectivism with Relationship Commitment, Passion, and Mate Preferences: Opposing Roles of Parental Influence and Family Allocentrism’ (2015) 10 (2) PLoS ONE 1–24, 3; Goode (n 13) 9, 12; Coontz (n 11) 149; Compare Zimmerman (n 10) 39.

R.A. Nisbet, Twilight of Authority (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc. 2000) 235.

C.S. Lewis, ‘The Four Loves’ in C.S. Lewis (ed.), Selected Books (London: Harper Collins, 1999) pp. 5, 15.

A. de Tocqueville, La Démocratie en Amérique (Paris: Gallimard, 1961, 2 vols.), English Translation by H. Reeve: Democracy in America (London: 1875) as referred to by Dumont (n 4) 17.

Compare the ideal type of the conjugal family, Goode (n 13) 7.

Weber (n 3) 191, translation by H. Ross, Law as a Social Institution (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2001) p. 34.

L.A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977) p. 223.

Compare Goode (n 13) 7.

Khandelwal (n 1) 584, 586, 605.

Ahmad (n 1) p. 194; Pande (n 21) p. 384; see also R. Mohammad, ‘Transnational Shift: Marriage, Home and belonging for British-Pakistani Muslim Women’ (2015) 16 (6) Social & Cultural Geography 593–614, 596.

Pande (n 44) 172, 183; Pande (n 21) 384.

Khandelwal (n 1); Ahmad (n 1); Pande (n 1); Mohammad (n 83); Pande (n 44) 181.

S.J. Hekman, Weber, the Ideal Type, and Contemporary Social Theory (New York: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983) p. 20.

For existing analyses on the topic, see Goode (n 13); D. Mace and V. Mace, Marriage East and West (London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1960); for marriages and caste in India, see Dumont (n 4); for Pakistani immigrants in Oxford and arranged marriages, see Shaw (n 19); see also Pande (n 45); Ahmad (n 1); Aguiar (n 1).

Thompson et al (n 4) 1.

See e.g. Aguiar (n 1) 15, 25, 139–44; G.L. Fox, ‘Love Match and Arranged Marriage in a Modernizing Nation: Mate Selection in Ankara, Turkey’ (1975) 37 (1) Journal of Marriage and Family 180–93, 181; Lee and Stone (n 6) 320; Kezuka (n 46).

Lee and Stone (n 6) 320: see also Mate selection theories, Encyclopaedia of Sociology, The Gale Group Inc., Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/mateselection-theories (last visited 14 July 2019).

Shaw (n 60) 325.

See eg Goode (n 13) pp. 240, 241; R.O. Blood, The Family (New York: Free Press, 1972) pp. 293–96, as referred to by Fox (n 89) 187.

A. Shaw, ‘Drivers of Cousin Marriage among British Pakistanis’ (2014) 77 Human Heredity 26–36, 31.

Fox (n 89) 181.

Shaw (n 93) 31.

See also Fox (n 89) 181; Lee and Stone (n 6) 320.

Gagoomal (n 25) 611; Lewis (n 74) 5, 15 in general on gift-love.

Thompson et al. (n 4) 6, referring to the grid-group analysis.

Tocqueville vol 2 (n 76) 90–92, as referred to by Dumont (n 4) 17; Shaw (n 19) 6.

Riesman et al (n 59) 17.

Dumont (n 4) 7.

Shaw (n 19) 6, referring to immigrant Pakistanis.

Lee and Stone (n 6) 320.

Pande (n 44) 177.

Lee and Stone (n 6) 320 see also Fox (n 89) 181.

See for various examples Gagoomal (n 25) 615, 617, 618.

G.P. Monger, Marriage Customs of the World: From Henna to Honeymoon (Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO, 2004) 13.

Dumont (n 4) 2, 239, 19, 20; Nisbet (n 73) 217.

Jones (n 62) 4; Wood (n 63) 40–64, 41.

P. Crone, Pre-Industrial Societies (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2003) p. 99; Dumont (n 3) 19.

Dumont (n 4) 19.

Ibid., 17, 2.

Compare Crone (n 111) p. 104 on an organic view of society.

Nisbet (n 73) 217.

Dumont (n 4) 66, 240, 243, 244; Crone (n 111) pp. 99, 107; Thompson et al (n 4) 59.

Dumont (n 4) 66.

Thompson et al (n 4) 6.

Ibid., (n 4) 6.

T. Parsons, ‘A Revised Analytical Approach to the Theory of Social Stratification’ in R. Bendix et al (eds.), Class, Status and Power (London: Glencoe, 1954), as referred to by Dumont (n 4) 19.

Thompson et al (n 4) 6; Dumont (n 4) 17–19; see in general on guardianship Dahl (n 4) 52–64, 73.

Parsons (n 121), as referred to by Dumont (n 4) 19, see also 239, 240.

Dahl (n 4) 52.

Monger (n 108) 13.

Crone (n 111) p. 105, who refers to pre-industrial societies and hierarchy.

Dumont (n 4) 18.

M. Shams Uddin, ‘Arranged Marriage: A Dilemma for Young British Asians’ (2006) 3 Diversity in Health and Social Care 211–19, 211; F.M. Critelli, ‘Between Law and Custom: Women, Family Law and Marriage in Pakistan’ (2012) 43 (5) Journal of Comparative Family Studies 673–93, 677; Fox (n 90) 186,181.

Shaw (n 60) 324.

Shams Uddin (n 129) 211.

G.R. Quale, ‘A history of marriage systems’ in Contributions in Family Studie s, Issue 13 (Westport, US: Greenwood press, 1988) 2.

Tocqueville II (n 76), as referred to by Dumont (n 4) 18; see also Sennett (n 4) 126.

Ahmad (n 1) 201; in a similar vein see Mohammad (n 83) 603; see also Wakil et al (n 44) 936 on this responsibility.

Tocqueville II (n 76), as referred to by Dumont (n 4) 18, 17.

A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America II (London: Everyman’s Library, 1994) 196.

Arendt (n 4) 93.

On guardianship see Dahl (n 4) 52.

On aristocracy see Tocqueville II (n 76), see Dumont (n 4) p. 18.

See for an explanation on tradition and authority, M. Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization , A.M. Henderson and T. Parsons (trans.), T. Parsons (ed.) (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947) 341, as referred to by Nisbet 1966 (n 4) 142.

Compare Pande (n 44) 177; Shams Uddin (n 129) 211; Ahmad (n 1) 201 on trust and respect for parents.

Gagoomal (n 25) 589, 590.

Ibid., 590.

Ahmad (n 1) 201.

Arendt (n 4) 92.

Sennett (n 4) 15; see also Arendt (n 4) 92.

Weber (n 144) 341, as referred to by Nisbet 1966 (n 4) 142; Zimmerman (n 10) 215.

Zimmerman (n 10) 215.

Arendt (n 4) 93, 103.

Sennett (n 4) 18; Arendt (n 4) 93.

Sennett (n 4) 15–22.

Sennett (n 4) 16.

Arendt (n 4) 111; Weber, as referred to by Sennet (n 4) 22.

Weber, without further reference, as referred to by Sennett (n 4) 22.

Derived from Sennett (n 4) 19.

Nisbet 1966 (n 4) 107, 108.

Ibid., 142.

Shams Uddin (n 129) 211: Ahmad (n 3) 201.

MTV Documentary, True Life: I'm Having an Arranged Marriage , 2007, as referred to by Gagoomal (n 25) 617; Pande (n 21) 387; Gagoomal (n 25) 615; see also Sennett (n 4) 17 on a conductor that sees through members of the orchestra.

Sennett (n 4) 17.

Lee and Stone (n 6) 320; Fox (n 89) 181.

See W.J. Goode, ‘The Theoretical Importance of Love’ (1959) 24 (1) American Sociological Review 38–47, 43–46; compare also Bejanyan et al (n 72) 3.

Goode (n 168) 43; H. Papanek, ‘Purdah in Pakistan: Seclusion and Modern Occupations for Women’ (1971) 33 (3) Journal of Marriage and Family 517–30, 520.

Goode (n 168) 43; Thompson et al (n 4) 6; Shams Uddin (n 129) 212.

See for more Bejanyan et al (n 72) 3.

Goode (n 168) 43; Papanek (n 169) 520.

F. Bari, Country briefing paper: Women in Pakistan, Asian Development Bank July 2000. http://www.adb.org/Documents/Books/Country_Briefing_Papers/Women in Pakistan , as referred to by Critelli (n 129) 677; Shaw (n 60) 330; see also Riesman et al (n 59) 24.

Thompson et al (n 4) 59; see also in general on shame, N.P. Gilani, ‘Conflict Management of Mothers and Daughters Belonging to Individualistic and Collectivistic Cultural Backgrounds: A Comparative Study’ 1999 22 Journal of Adolescence 853–65, 854, 855; Riesman et al (n 59) 24.

A. de Tocqueville, Democracy in America II , 298, 303, as referred to by Nisbet 1966 (n 4) 114.

Nisbet 1966 (n 4) 151.

Goode (n 13) 7.

Coser (n 80) 223.

C. Breen, Age Discrimination and Children’s Rights. Ensuring Equality and Acknowledging Difference (Leiden: Brill Nijhoff, 2006) as referred to by A. van Coller, ‘Child Marriage – Acceptance by Association’ (2017) 31 International Journal of Law, Policy and The Family 363–76, 369.

Aguiar (n 1) 215.

Film A Fond Kiss , Ken Loach 2004; see also the Film What Will People Say , Iram Haq 2017 on a similar intergenerational struggle between an immigrant Pakistani father and his daughter in Sweden.

Derived from Nisbet 1966 (n 4) 116.

Moosavinia et al (n 22) 104; Said (n 22).

S. Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), as referred to by Aguiar (n 1) 219.

For more on this exit see Anitha and Gill (n 3) 176–80; Shariff (n 3) 550, 551, 553, 561, 562.

Nisbet 1966 (n 4) 150.

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The Lure of Divorce

Seven years into my marriage, i hit a breaking point — and had to decide whether life would be better without my husband in it..

Portrait of Emily Gould

This article was featured in One Great Story , New York ’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

In the summer of 2022, I lost my mind. At first, it seemed I was simply overwhelmed because life had become very difficult, and I needed to — had every right to — blow off some steam. Our family was losing its apartment and had to find another one, fast, in a rental market gone so wild that people were offering over the asking price on rent. My husband, Keith, was preparing to publish a book, Raising Raffi, about our son, a book he’d written with my support and permission but that, as publication loomed, I began to have mixed feelings about. To cope with the stress, I asked my psychiatrist to increase the dosage of the antidepressant I’d been on for years. Sometime around then, I started talking too fast and drinking a lot.

I felt invincibly alive, powerful, and self-assured, troubled only by impatience with how slowly everyone around me was moving and thinking. Drinking felt necessary because it slightly calmed my racing brain. Some days, I’d have drinks with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, which I ate at restaurants so the drink order didn’t seem too unusual. Who doesn’t have an Aperol spritz on the way home from the gym in the morning? The restaurant meals cost money, as did the gym, as did all the other random things I bought, spending money we didn’t really have on ill-fitting lingerie from Instagram and workout clothes and lots of planters from Etsy. I grew distant and impatient with Keith as the book’s publication approached, even as I planned a giant party to celebrate its launch. At the party, everyone got COVID. I handed out cigarettes from a giant salad bowl — I had gone from smoking once or twice a day to chain-smoking whenever I could get away with it. When well-meaning friends tried to point out what was going on, I screamed at them and pointed out everything that was wrong in their lives. And most crucially, I became convinced that my marriage was over and had been over for years.

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I built a case against my husband in my mind. This book of his was simply the culmination of a pattern: He had always put his career before mine; while I had tended to our children during the pandemic, he had written a book about parenting. I tried to balance writing my own novel with drop-offs, pickups, sick days, and planning meals and shopping and cooking, most of which had always been my primary responsibility since I was a freelancer and Keith had a full-time job teaching journalism. We were incompatible in every way, except that we could talk to each other as we could to no one else, but that seemed beside the point. More relevant: I spent money like it was water, never budgeting, leaving Keith to make sure we made rent every month. Every few months, we’d have a fight about this and I’d vow to change; some system would be put in place, but it never stuck. We were headed for disaster, and finally it came.

Our last fight happened after a long day spent at a wedding upstate. I’d been drinking, first spiked lemonade at lunch alone and then boxed wine during the wedding reception, where I couldn’t eat any of the food — it all contained wheat, and I have celiac disease. When we got back, late, to the house where we were staying, I ordered takeout and demanded he go pick it up for me. Calling from the restaurant, he was incensed. Did I know how much my takeout order had cost? I hadn’t paid attention as I checked boxes in the app, nor had I realized that our bank account was perilously low — I never looked at receipts or opened statements. Not knowing this, I felt like he was actually denying me food, basic sustenance. It was the last straw. I packed a bag as the kids played happily with their cousins downstairs, then waited by the side of the road for a friend who lived nearby to come pick me up, even as Keith stood there begging me to stay. But his words washed over me; I was made of stone. I said it was over — really over. This was it, the definitive moment I’d been waiting for. I had a concrete reason to leave.

A few days later, still upstate at my friend’s house, I had a Zoom call with my therapist and my psychiatrist, who both urged me in no uncertain terms to check myself into a psychiatric hospital. Even I couldn’t ignore a message that clear. My friend drove me to the city, stopping for burgers along the way — I should have relished the burger more, as it was some of the last noninstitutional food I would eat for a long time — and helped me check into NYU Langone. My bags were searched, and anything that could be used as a weapon was removed, including my mascara. I spent my first night there in a gown in a cold holding room with no phone, nothing but my thoughts. Eventually, a bed upstairs became free and I was brought to the psych ward, where I was introduced to a roommate, had blood drawn, and was given the first of many pills that would help me stop feeling so irrepressibly energetic and angry. They started me on lithium right away. In a meeting with a team of psychiatrists, they broke the news: I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder; they weren’t sure which kind yet. They gave me a nicotine patch every few hours plus Klonopin and Seroquel and lithium.

I wasn’t being held involuntarily, which meant I could write letters on an official form explaining why I ought to be released, which the psychiatrists then had three days to consider. I attached extra notebook pages to the letters explaining that I was divorcing my husband and was terrified I would never be able to see my kids again if I was declared unfit because I was insane. These letters did not result in my release; if anything, they prolonged my stay. I got my phone back — it would soon be revoked again, wisely — but in that brief interim, I sent out a newsletter to my hundreds of subscribers declaring that I was getting a divorce and asking them to Venmo me money for the custody battle I foresaw. In this newsletter, I also referenced Shakespeare. The drugs clearly had not kicked in yet. I cycled through three different roommates, all of whom were lovely, though I preferred the depressed one to the borderline ones. We amused ourselves during the day by going to art therapy, music therapy, and meetings with our psychiatrists. I made a lot of beaded bracelets.

In the meetings with the shrinks, I steadfastly maintained that I was sane and that my main problem was the ending of my marriage. I put Keith, and my mother, on a list of people who weren’t allowed to visit me. Undaunted, Keith brought me gluten-free egg sandwiches in the morning, which I grudgingly ate — anything for a break from the hospital food. My parents came up from D.C. and helped Keith take care of our children. I was in the hospital for a little more than three weeks, almost the entire month of October, longer than I’d ever been away from my kids before in their lives. I celebrated my 41st birthday in the hospital and received a lot of very creative cards that my fellow crazies had decorated during art therapy. Eventually, the drugs began to work: I could tell they were working because instead of feeling energetic, I suddenly couldn’t stop crying. The tears came involuntarily, like vomit. I cried continuously for hours and had to be given gabapentin in order to sleep.

research paper on marriage

On the day I was released, I didn’t let anyone pick me up. I expected the superhuman strength I’d felt for months to carry me, but it was gone, lithiumed away. Instead, I felt almost paralyzed as I carried my bags to a cab. When I arrived at my apartment, I couldn’t figure out where I should sleep. It didn’t feel like my home anymore. We couldn’t afford to live separately, even temporarily, but the one thing that our somewhat decrepit, inconveniently located new apartment had in its favor was two small attic bedrooms and one larger bedroom downstairs. I claimed this downstairs room for myself and began to live there alone, coming into contact with Keith only when we had to be together with our children.

You might assume that my fixation on divorce would have subsided now that my mental health had stabilized and I was on strong antipsychotic medication. But I still did not want to stay in my marriage. If anything, I felt a newfound clarity: Keith and I had fundamentally incompatible selves. Our marriage had been built on a flaw. My husband was older, more established and successful in his career. These were the facts, so it had to be my job to do more of the work at home. Unless, of course, I decided to take myself and my work as seriously as he took his. But that was unappealing; I had managed to publish three books before turning 40, but I didn’t want to work all the time, like he does.

I wondered if my marriage would always feel like a competition and if the only way to call the competition a draw would be to end it.

We picked the kids up from school and dropped them off, or really mostly Keith did. I appeared at meals and tried to act normal. I was at a loss for what to do much of the time. I attended AA meetings and the DBT meetings required by the hospital outpatient program, and I read. I read books about insanity: Darkness Visible, The Bell Jar, An Unquiet Mind, Postcards From the Edge. I tried to understand what was happening to me, but nothing seemed to resonate until I began to read books about divorce. I felt I was preparing myself for what was coming. The first book I read was Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath, which has become the go-to literary divorce bible since its 2012 publication. In it, Cusk describes the way her life shattered and recomposed after the dissolution of her marriage, when her daughters were still very young. She makes the case for the untenability of her relationship by explaining that men and women are fundamentally unequal. She posits that men and women who marry and have children are perpetually fighting separate battles, lost to each other: “The baby can seem like something her husband has given her as a substitute for himself, a kind of transitional object, like a doll, for her to hold so that he can return to the world. And he does, he leaves her, returning to work, setting sail for Troy. He is free, for in the baby the romance of man and woman has been concluded: each can now do without the other.”

At our relationship’s lowest moments, this metaphor had barely been a metaphor. I remembered, the previous winter, Keith going off on a reporting trip to Ukraine at the very beginning of the war, leaving me and the kids with very little assurance of his safety. I had felt okay for the first couple of days until I heard on the news of bombing very close to where he was staying. After that, I went and bummed a cigarette from a neighbor, leaving the kids sleeping in their beds in order to do so. It was my first cigarette in 15 years. Though that had been the winter before my mania began, I believe the first seeds of it were sown then: leaving the children, smoking the cigarette, resenting Keith for putting himself in harm’s way and going out into the greater world while I tended to lunches, homework, and laundry as though everything were normal.

In Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, as in Aftermath, I found an airtight case for divorce. The husband was the villain and the wife the wronged party, and the inevitable result was splitting up. I felt an echo of this later on when I read Lyz Lenz’s polemic This American Ex-Wife, out this month, marketed as “a deeply validating manifesto on the gender politics of marriage (bad) and divorce (actually pretty good!).” The book begins by detailing how Lenz’s husband rarely did household chores and hid belongings of hers that he didn’t like — e.g., a mug that said WRITE LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER — in a box in the basement. “I didn’t want to waste my one wild and precious life telling a grown man where to find the ketchup,” Lenz writes. “What was compelling about my marriage wasn’t its evils or its villains, but its commonplace horror.”

This was not quite the way I felt. Even though I could not stand to see my husband’s face or hear his voice, even though I still felt the same simmering resentment I had since I entered the hospital, I also found myself feeling pangs of sympathy for him. After all, he was going through this too. When we were inevitably together, at mealtimes that were silent unless the children spoke, I could see how wounded he was, how he was barely keeping it together. His clothes hung off his gaunt frame. And at night, when we passed in the kitchen making cups of tea that we would take to our respective rooms, he sometimes asked me for a hug, just a hug. One time I gave in and felt his ribs through his T-shirt. He must have lost at least 15 pounds.

It began to seem like I only ever talked to friends who had been through divorces or were contemplating them. One friend who didn’t know whether to split up with her husband thought opening their marriage might be the answer. Another friend described the ease of sharing custody of his young daughter, then admitted that he and his ex-wife still had sex most weekends. In my chronically undecided state, I admired both of these friends who had found, or might have found, a way to split the difference. Maybe it was possible to break up and remain friends with an ex, something that had never happened to me before in my entire life. Maybe it was possible to be married and not married at the same time. Then I went a little further in my imagination, and the idea of someone else having sex with my husband made me want to gag with jealousy. Maybe that meant something. I was so confused, and the confusion seemed to have no end.

I read more books about divorce. I received an early copy of Sarah Manguso’s Liars, marketed as “a searing novel about being a wife, a mother, and an artist, and how marriage makes liars out of us all.” In it, John, a creative dilettante, and Jane, a writer, meet and soon decide to marry. Liars describes their marriage from beginning to end, a span of almost 15 years, and is narrated by Jane. The beginning of their relationship is delirious: “I tried to explain that first ferocious hunger and couldn’t. It came from somewhere beyond reason.” But the opening of that book also contains a warning. “Then I married a man, as women do. My life became archetypal, a drag show of nuclear familyhood. I got enmeshed in a story that had already been told ten billion times.” I felt perversely reassured that I was merely adding another story to the 10 billion. It made it seem less like it was my fault.

The beginning of my relationship with my husband wasn’t that dramatic or definitive. I thought I was getting into something casual with someone I didn’t even know if I particularly liked, much less loved, but was still oddly fascinated by. I wanted to see the way he lived, to see if I could emulate it and become more like him. He lived with roommates in his 30s — well, that was the price you paid if you wanted to do nothing but write. I wanted what he had, his seriousness about his work. We went on dates where we both sat with our laptops in a café, writing, and this was somehow the most romantic thing I’d ever experienced. On our third date, we went to his father’s home on Cape Cod to dog-sit for a weekend, and it was awkward in the car until we realized we were both thinking about the same Mary Gaitskill story, “A Romantic Weekend,” in which a couple with dramatically mismatched needs learn the truth about each other through painful trial and error. Our weekend was awkward, too, but not nearly as awkward as the one in the story. On the way home, I remember admiring Keith’s driving, effortless yet masterful. I trusted him in the car completely. A whisper of a thought: He would make a good father.

In Liars, cracks begin to form almost immediately, even before John and Jane get engaged; she is accepted to a prestigious fellowship and he isn’t, and he is forthright about his fear that she will become more successful than he is: “A moment later he said he didn’t want to be the unsuccessful partner of the successful person. Then he apologized and said that he’d just wanted to be honest. I said, It was brave and considerate to tell me. ”

Through the next few years, so gradually that it’s almost imperceptible, John makes it impossible for Jane to succeed. He launches tech companies that require cross-country moves, forcing Jane to bounce between adjunct-teaching gigs. And then, of course, they have a baby. The problem with the baby is that Jane wants everything to be perfect for him and throws herself into creating a tidy home and an ideal child-development scenario, whereas John works more and more, moving the family again as one start-up fails and another flourishes. Jane begins to wonder whether she has created a prison for herself but pacifies herself with the thought that her situation is normal: “No married woman I knew was better off, so I determined to carry on. After all, I was a control freak, a neat freak, a crazy person.” The story John tells her about herself becomes her own story for a while. For a while, it’s impossible to know whose story is the truth.

I thought about Keith’s side of the story when I read Liars. Maybe it was the lack of alcohol’s blur that enabled me to see this clearly for the first time — I began to see how burdened he had been, had always been, with a partner who refused to plan for the future and who took on, without being asked, household chores that could just as easily have been distributed evenly. Our situation had never been as clear-cut as it was for Lyz Lenz; Keith had never refused to take out the trash or hidden my favorite mug. But he worked more and later hours, and my intermittent book advances and freelance income could not be counted on to pay our rent. As soon as we’d had a child, he had been shunted into the role of breadwinner without choosing it or claiming it. At first, I did all the cooking because I liked cooking and then, when I stopped liking cooking, I did it anyway out of habit. For our marriage to change, we would have needed to consciously decide to change it, insofar as our essential natures and our financial situation would allow. But when were we supposed to have found the time to do that? It was maddening that the root of our fracture was so commonplace and clichéd — and that even though the problem was ordinary, I still couldn’t think my way out of it.

Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story, by Leslie Jamison , is in some ways the successor to Aftermath — the latest divorce book by a literary superstar. It is mostly an account of Jamison’s passionate marriage to a fellow writer, C., and the way that marriage fell apart after her career accelerated and they had a child together. It then details her first months of life as a single mother and her forays into dating. In it, she is strenuously fair to C., taking much of the blame for the dissolution of their marriage. But she can’t avoid describing his anger that her book merits an extensive tour, while his novel — based on his relationship with his first wife, who had died of leukemia — fails commercially. “It didn’t get the reception he had hoped for,” Jamison writes, and now, “I could feel him struggling. He wanted to support me, but there was a thorn in every interview.” C. grows distant, refusing to publicly perform the charming self that Jamison fell in love with. “I wished there was a way to say, Your work matters, that didn’t involve muting my own,” Jamison writes.

For all my marriage’s faults, we never fought in public. Friends encouraged us to reconcile, saying, “You always seemed so good together.” (As if there were another way to seem! Standing next to each other at a party, it had always been easy to relax because we couldn’t fight.) And we never did anything but praise each other’s work. Until this last book of my husband’s, that is. I had read Raising Raffi for the first time six months before it was published, while I was out of town for the weekend. I had, at that time, enjoyed reading it — it was refreshing, in a way, to see someone else’s perspective on a part of my own life. I even felt a certain relief that my child’s early years, in all their specificity and cuteness, had been recorded. This work had been accomplished, and I hadn’t had to do it! There had been only a slight pang in the background of that feeling that I hadn’t been the one to do it. But as publication drew nearer, the pang turned into outright anger . The opening chapter described my giving birth to our first son, and I didn’t realize how violated I felt by that until it was vetted by The New Yorker ’s fact-checker after that section was selected as an excerpt for its website. Had a geyser of blood shot out of my vagina? I didn’t actually know. I had been busy at the time. I hung up on the fact-checker who called me, asking her to please call my husband instead. (In case you’re wondering, Keith has read this essay and suggested minimal changes.)

I related to the writers in Splinters trying to love each other despite the underlying thrum of competing ambitions. But most of all, Jamison’s book made me even more terrified about sharing custody. “There was only one time I got on my knees and begged. It happened in our living room, where I knelt beside the wooden coffee table and pleaded not to be away from her for two nights each week,” she writes. Envisioning a future in which we shared custody of our children made me cringe with horror. It seemed like absolute hell. At the time we separated, our younger son was only 4 years old and required stories and cuddles to get to bed. Missing a night of those stories seemed like a punishment neither of us deserved, and yet we would have to sacrifice time with our kids if we were going to escape each other, which seemed like the only possible solution to our problem. Thanksgiving rolled around, and I cooked a festive meal that we ate without looking at each other. Whenever I looked at Keith, I started to cry.

We decided to enter divorce mediation at the beginning of December. On Sixth Avenue, heading to the therapist’s office, we passed the hospital where I’d once been rushed for an emergency fetal EKG when I was pregnant with our first son. His heart had turned out to be fine. But as we passed that spot, I sensed correctly that we were both thinking of that moment, of a time when we had felt so connected in our panic and desperate hope, and now the invisible cord that had bound us had been, if not severed, shredded and torn. For a moment on the sidewalk there, we allowed ourselves to hold hands, remembering.

The therapist was a small older woman with short curly reddish hair. She seemed wise, like she’d seen it all and seen worse. I was the one who talked the most in that session, blaming Keith for making me go crazy, even though I knew this wasn’t technically true or possible: I had gone crazy from a combination of sky-high stress and a too-high SSRI prescription and a latent crazy that had been in me, part of me, since long before Keith married me, since I was born. Still, I blamed his job, his book, his ambition and workaholism, which always surpassed my own efforts. I cried throughout the session; I think we both did. I confessed that I was not the primary wronged person in these negotiations, and to be fair I have to talk about why. Sometime post–Last Fight and pre-hospitalization, I had managed to cheat on my husband. I had been so sure we were basically already divorced that I justified the act to myself; I couldn’t have done it any other way. I had thought I might panic at the last minute or even throw up or faint, but I had gone through with it thanks to the delusional state I was in. There aren’t many more details anyone needs to know. It was just one time, and it was like a drug I used to keep myself from feeling sad about what was really happening. Anyway, there’s a yoga retreat center I’ll never be able to go to again in my life.

At the end of the session, we decided to continue with the therapist but in couples therapy instead of divorce mediation. It was a service she also provided, and as a bonus, it was $100 cheaper per session. She didn’t say why she made this recommendation, but maybe it was our palpable shared grief that convinced her that our marriage was salvageable. Or maybe it was that, despite everything I had told her in that session, she could see that, even in my profound sadness and anger, I looked toward Keith to complete my sentences when I was searching for the right word and that he did the same thing with me. As broken as we were, we were still pieces of one once-whole thing.

My husband would have to forgive me for cheating and wasting our money. I would have to forgive him for treading on my literary territory: our family’s life, my own life. My husband would have to forgive me for having a mental breakdown, leaving him to take care of our family on his own for a month, costing us thousands of uninsured dollars in hospital bills. I would have to forgive him for taking for granted, for years, that I would be available on a sick day or to do an early pickup or to watch the baby while he wrote about our elder son. I would have to forgive him for taking for granted that there would always be dinner on the table without his having to think about how it got there. He would have to forgive me for never taking out the recycling and never learning how to drive so that I could move the car during alternate-side parking. I would have to forgive him for usurping the time and energy and brain space with which I might have written a better book than his. Could the therapist help us overcome what I knew to be true: that we’d gone into marriage already aware that we were destined for constant conflict just because of who we are? The therapist couldn’t help me ask him to do more if I didn’t feel like I deserved it, if I couldn’t bring myself to ask him myself. I had to learn how to ask.

No one asked anything or forgave anything that day in the couples therapist’s office. After what felt like months but was probably only a few days, I was watching Ramy on my laptop in my downstairs-bedroom cave after the kids’ bedtime when some moment struck me as something Keith would love. Acting purely on impulse, I left my room and found him sitting on the couch, drinking tea. I told him I’d been watching this show I thought was funny and that he would really like it. Soon, we were sitting side by side on the couch, watching Ramy together. We went back to our respective rooms afterward, but still, we’d made progress.

After a few more weeks and a season’s worth of shared episodes of Ramy, I ventured for the first time upstairs to Keith’s attic room. It smelled alien to me, and I recognized that this was the pure smell of Keith, not the shared smell of the bedrooms in every apartment we’d lived in together. I lay down next to him in the mess of his bed. He made room for me. We didn’t touch, not yet. But we slept, that night, together. The next night, we went back to sleeping alone.

Pickups and drop-offs became evenly divided among me and Keith and a sitter. Keith learned to make spaghetti with meat sauce. He could even improvise other dishes, with somewhat less success, but he was improving. I made a conscious effort not to tidy the house after the children left for school. I made myself focus on my work even when there was chaos around me. Slowly, I began to be able to make eye contact with Keith again. At couples therapy, we still clutched tissue boxes in our hands, but we used them less. Our separate chairs inched closer together in the room.

That Christmas, we rented a tiny Airbnb near his dad’s house in Falmouth. It had only two bedrooms, one with bunk beds for the kids and one with a king-size bed that took up almost the entirety of the small room. We would have to share a bed for the duration of the trip. The decision I made to reach across the giant bed toward Keith on one of the last nights of the trip felt, again, impulsive. But there were years of information and habit guiding my impulse. Sex felt, paradoxically, completely comfortable and completely new, like losing my virginity. It felt like sleeping with a different person and also like sleeping with the same person, which made sense, in a way. We had become different people while somehow staying the same people we’d always been.

Slowly, over the course of the next months, I moved most of my things upstairs to his room, now our room. We still see the therapist twice a month. We talk about how to make things more equal in our marriage, how not to revert to old patterns. I have, for instance, mostly given up on making dinner, doing it only when it makes more sense in the schedule of our shared day or when I actually want to cook. It turns out that pretty much anyone can throw some spaghetti sauce on some pasta; it also turns out that the kids won’t eat dinner no matter who cooks it, and now we get to experience that frustration equally. Keith’s work is still more stable and prestigious than mine, but we conspire to pretend that this isn’t the case, making sure to leave space for my potential and my leisure. We check in to make sure we’re not bowing to the overwhelming pressure to cede our whole lives to the physical and financial demands, not to mention the fervently expressed wants, of our children. It’s the work that we’d never found time to do before, and it is work. The difference is that we now understand what can happen when we don’t do it. I’m always surprised by how much I initially don’t want to go to therapy and then by how much lighter I feel afterward. For now, those sessions are a convenient container for our marriage’s intractable defects so that we get to spend the rest of our time together focusing on what’s not wrong with us.

The downstairs bedroom is now dormant, a place for occasional guests to stay or for our elder son to lie in bed as he plays video games. Some of my clothes from a year earlier still fill the drawers, but none of it seems like mine. I never go into that room if I can help it. It was the room of my exile from my marriage, from my family. If I could magically disappear it from our apartment, I would do it in a heartbeat. And in the attic bedroom, we are together, not as we were before but as we are now.

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Open Access


Research Article

Perceived psychosocial impacts of legalized same-sex marriage: A scoping review of sexual minority adults’ experiences

Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Funding acquisition, Investigation, Methodology, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

* E-mail: [email protected]

Affiliation College of Health and Human Sciences, San José State University, San José, California, United States of America

ORCID logo

Roles Data curation, Formal analysis, Methodology, Validation, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation School of Social Welfare, University of California, Berkeley, California, United States of America

Roles Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Methodology, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation School of Nursing, Columbia University, New York, New York, United States of America

Roles Formal analysis, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation Department of Political Science and Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, United States of America

Affiliation Educational, Counseling and School Psychology, University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky, United States of America

Affiliation Center for Human Sexuality Studies, Widener University, Chester, Pennsylvania, United States of America

Affiliation Department of Psychology, Palo Alto University, Palo Alto, California, United States of America

Roles Conceptualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing

Affiliation School of Nursing & Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, New York, New York, United States of America

  • Laurie A. Drabble, 
  • Angie R. Wootton, 
  • Cindy B. Veldhuis, 
  • Ellen D. B. Riggle, 
  • Sharon S. Rostosky, 
  • Pamela J. Lannutti, 
  • Kimberly F. Balsam, 
  • Tonda L. Hughes


  • Published: May 6, 2021
  • https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249125
  • Reader Comments

Fig 1

A growing body of literature provides important insights into the meaning and impact of the right to marry a same-sex partner among sexual minority people. We conducted a scoping review to 1) identify and describe the psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights among sexual minority adults, and 2) explore sexual minority women (SMW) perceptions of equal marriage rights and whether psychosocial impacts differ by sex. Using Arksey and O’Malley’s framework we reviewed peer-reviewed English-language publications from 2000 through 2019. We searched six databases (PubMed, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Web of Science, JSTOR, and Sociological Abstracts) to identify English language, peer-reviewed journal articles reporting findings from empirical studies with an explicit focus on the experiences and perceived impact of equal marriage rights among sexual minority adults. We found 59 studies that met our inclusion criteria. Studies identified positive psychosocial impacts of same-sex marriage (e.g., increased social acceptance, reduced stigma) across individual, interpersonal (dyad, family), community (sexual minority), and broader societal levels. Studies also found that, despite equal marriage rights, sexual minority stigma persists across these levels. Only a few studies examined differences by sex, and findings were mixed. Research to date has several limitations; for example, it disproportionately represents samples from the U.S. and White populations, and rarely examines differences by sexual or gender identity or other demographic characteristics. There is a need for additional research on the impact of equal marriage rights and same-sex marriage on the health and well-being of diverse sexual minorities across the globe.

Citation: Drabble LA, Wootton AR, Veldhuis CB, Riggle EDB, Rostosky SS, Lannutti PJ, et al. (2021) Perceived psychosocial impacts of legalized same-sex marriage: A scoping review of sexual minority adults’ experiences. PLoS ONE 16(5): e0249125. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249125

Editor: Peter A. Newman, University of Toronto, CANADA

Received: September 9, 2020; Accepted: March 11, 2021; Published: May 6, 2021

Copyright: © 2021 Drabble et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License , which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

Data Availability: All relevant data are within the manuscript and its Supporting Information files.

Funding: Dr. Drabble and Dr. Trocki are supported by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R03MD011481 ( https://www.nimhd.nih.gov/ ). Dr. Veldhuis’ participation in this research was made possible through an NIH/NIAAA Ruth Kirschstein Postdoctoral Research Fellowship (F32AA025816; PI C. Veldhuis). Dr. Hughes is funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (R01 AA0013328, https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/ ). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Legalization of same-sex marriage represents one important step toward advancing equal rights for sexual and gender minorities. Over the past two decades same-sex marriage has become legally recognized in multiple countries around the world. Between 2003 and mid-2015, same-sex couples in the United States (U.S.) gained the right to marry in 37 of 50 states. This right was extended to all 50 states in June 2015, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples in all U.S. states had equal marriage rights. As of October 2019, same-sex couples had the right to marry in 30 countries and territories around the world [ 1 ].

National laws or policies that extend equal marriage rights to same-sex couples signal a reduction in structural stigma and have the potential to positively impact the health and well-being of sexual minorities. Structural stigma refers to norms and policies on societal, institutional and cultural levels that negatively impact the opportunities, access, and well-being of a particular group [ 2 ]. Forms of structural stigma that affect sexual minorities—such as restrictions on same-sex marriage—reflect and reinforce the social stigma against non-heterosexual people that occurs at individual, interpersonal, and community levels [ 3 ]. According to Hatzenbuehler and colleagues, structural stigma is an under-recognized contributor to health disparities among stigmatized populations [ 4 – 6 ], and reductions in structural stigma can improve health outcomes among sexual minorities [ 7 , 8 ].

Marriage is a fundamental institution across societies and access to the right to marry can reduce sexual-minority stigma by integrating sexual minority people more fully into society [ 9 ]. Same-sex marriage also provides access to a wide range of tangible benefits and social opportunities associated with marriage [ 9 , 10 ]. Despite the benefits of marriage rights, sexual minorities continue to experience stigma-related stressors, such as rejection from family or community, and discrimination in employment and other life spheres [ 11 ]. In addition, reactions to same-sex marriage appear to differ among sexual minorities and range from positive to ambivalent [ 11 – 13 ]. Extending marriage rights to same-sex couples remedies only one form of structural stigma. Although legalization of same-sex marriage represents a positive shift in the social and political landscape, the negative impact of social stigma may persist over time. For example, a recent Dutch study found that despite 20 years of equal marriage rights, sexual minority adolescents continue to show higher rates of substance use and lower levels of well-being than their heterosexual peers [ 14 ]. This study underscores the importance of understanding the complex impact of stigma at the structural, community, interpersonal, and individual levels.

Impact on sexual minority health

A growing body of literature, using different methods from diverse countries where same-sex marriage has been debated or adopted, provides important insights into the impact of equal marriage rights on the health and well-being of sexual minority individuals. Research to date has consistently found that legal recognition of same-sex marriage has a positive impact on health outcomes among sexual and gender minority populations [ 15 – 20 ]. Studies in the U.S. have found evidence of reduced psychological distress and improved self-reported health among sexual minorities living in states with equal marriage rights compared to those living in states without such rights [ 5 , 21 – 23 ]. One state-specific study also found improved health outcomes for sexual minority men after legalization of same-sex marriage [ 24 ]. Furthermore, sexual minorities living in states that adopted, or were voting on, legislation restricting marriage recognition to different-sex couples reported higher rates of alcohol use disorders and psychological distress compared to those living in states without such restrictions [ 5 , 25 – 31 ]. Consistent with research in the U.S., findings from research in Australia on marriage restriction voting, found that sexual minorities living in jurisdictions where a majority of residents voted in support of same-sex marriage reported better overall health, mental health, and life satisfaction than sexual minorities in locales that did not support same-sex marriage rights [ 32 ].

Although existing literature reviews have documented positive impacts of equal marriage rights on physical and mental health outcomes among sexual minority individuals [ 15 – 20 ], to our knowledge no reviews have conducted a nuanced exploration of the individual, interpersonal, and community impacts of legalized same-sex marriage. An emerging body of quantitative and qualitative literature affords a timely opportunity to examine a wide range of psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights. Understanding these impacts is important to guide and interpret future research about the potential protective health effects of same-sex marriage.

Potential differences between SMW and SMM

Given the dearth of research focusing on the health and well-being of sexual minority women (SMW), especially compared to the sizable body of research on sexual minority men (SMM) [ 33 , 34 ], there is a need to explore whether the emerging literature on same-sex marriage provides insights about potential differences in psychosocial impacts between SMW and SMM. Recent research underscores the importance of considering SMW’s perspectives and experiences related to same-sex marriage. For example, gendered social norms play out differently for women and men in same-sex and different-sex marriages, and interpersonal dynamics and behaviors, including those related to coping with stress, are influenced by gender socialization [ 35 ]. However, there is little research about how societal-level gender norms and gendered social constructions of marriage may be reflected in SMW’s perceptions of same-sex marriage. Structural sexism (e.g., gendered power and resource inequality at societal and institutional levels) differentially impacts women’s and men’s health [ 36 ], and may also contribute to sex differences in experiences and impacts of same-sex marriage. For example, research from the U.S. suggests that same-sex marriage rights may improve health outcomes and access to healthcare for SMM, but evidence is less robust for SMW [ 37 – 39 ]. Differences in health outcomes appear to be at least partially explained by lower socioeconomic status (income, employment status, perceived financial strain) among SMW compared to SMM [ 40 ]. Further, other psychosocial factors may contribute to differential experiences of legalized same-sex marriage. For example, a study of older sexual minority adults in states with equal marriage rights found that married SMW experienced more LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) microaggressions than single SMW, but no differences by relationship status were noted among SMM [ 41 ]. Mean number of microaggressions experienced by SMW in partnered unmarried relationships fell between, but were not significantly different from, that of married and single SMW.

Theoretical framework

Social-ecological and stigma theoretical perspectives were used as the framework for organizing literature in this review (See Fig 1 ). Stigma occurs and is experienced by sexual minorities at individual, interpersonal, and structural levels, which mirror the levels of focus within the social-ecological framework [ 6 , 42 ]. Consequently, changes such as extending equal marriage rights to same-sex couples may influence sexual minorities’ experiences of stigma across all of these levels [ 43 ]. Gaining access to the institution of marriage is distinct from marital status (or being married) and likely impacts sexual minority adults across individual, interpersonal, and community contexts [ 44 ], regardless of relationship status.


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From a social-ecological perspective, individual and interpersonal processes can amplify or weaken the impact of structural level policies, such as equal marriage rights, on sexual minority individuals’ health and well-being [ 43 , 45 , 46 ]. For example, on an individual level, experiences and perceptions of equal marriage rights may influence stigma-related processes such as internalized heterosexism, comfort with disclosure, and centrality of sexual identity [ 47 ]. Interpersonal and community level interactions may trigger stigma-related processes such as prejudice concerns, vigilance, or mistrust. Such processes may in turn, influence the impact of social policy change on sexual minority stress and well-being [ 48 – 50 ].

The impact of equal marriage rights among sexual minority individuals may also be influenced by other social and political factors such as state- or regional-level social climate [ 50 – 52 ], or inconsistency among other policy protections against discrimination (e.g., in housing or public accommodations) [ 11 , 50 ]. Sociopolitical uncertainty may continue long after the right to marry is extended to same-sex couples [ 53 , 54 ]. Monk and Ogolsky [ 44 ] define political uncertainty as a state of “having doubts about legal recognition bestowed on individuals and families by outside systems; being unsure about social acceptance of marginalized relationships; being unsure about how ‘traditional’ social norms and roles pertain to marginalized relationships or how alternative scripts might unfold” (p. 2).

Current study

The overall aim of this scoping review was to identify and summarize existing literature on psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights among sexual minority adults. Specific objectives were to: 1) identify and describe the psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights on sexual minority adults; and 2) explore SMW-specific perceptions of equal marriage rights and whether psychosocial impacts differ for SMM and SMW.

Study design

We used a scoping review approach, as it is well-suited for aims designed to provide a descriptive overview of a large and diverse body of literature [ 55 ]. Scoping reviews have become a widely used approach for synthesizing research evidence, particularly in health-related fields [ 55 ]. Scoping reviews summarize the range of research, identify key characteristics or factors related to concepts, and identify knowledge gaps in particular areas of study [ 56 , 57 ]. By contrast, systematic reviews are more narrowly focused on creating a critically appraised synthesized answer to a particular question pertinent to clinical practice or policy making [ 57 ]. We aimed to characterize and summarize research related to psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights and same-sex marriage, including potential gaps in research specific to SMW. Following Arksey and O’Malley [ 56 ], the review was conducted using the following steps: 1) identifying the research question, 2) identifying relevant studies, 3) selecting studies, 4) charting the data, and 5) collating, summarizing and reporting results. Because this is a scoping review, it was not registered with PROSPERO, an international registry for systematic reviews.

Selection method

The authors used standard procedures for conducting scoping reviews, including following PRISMA guidelines [ 58 ]. Articles that report findings from empirical studies with an explicit focus on the psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights and same-sex marriage on sexual minority adults are included in this review. All database searches were limited to studies in English language journals published from 2000 through 2019 (our most recent search was executed in June 2020). This time frame reflects the two decades since laws regarding same-sex marriage began to change in various countries or jurisdictions within countries. Literature review articles and commentaries were excluded. To ensure that sources had been vetted for scientific quality by experts, only articles in peer-reviewed journals were included; books and research in the grey literature (e.g., theses, dissertations, and reports) were excluded. There was no restriction on study location. A librarian searched PubMed, PsycINFO, CINAHL (Cumulative Index to Nursing and Allied Health Literature), Web of Science, JSTOR, and Sociological Abstracts databases using combinations of key search terms. Following is an example of the search terms used in CINAHL database searches: ((TI "marriage recognition" OR AB "marriage recognition") OR (TI marriage OR AB marriage) OR (TI same-sex OR AB same-sex) OR (TI "same sex" OR AB "same sex")) AND ((TI LGBT OR AB LGBT) OR (TI gay OR AB gay) OR (TI lesbian OR AB lesbian) OR (TI bisexual OR AB bisexual) OR (TI transgender OR AB transgender) OR (TI Obergefell OR AB Obergefell) OR (TI "sexual minorities" OR AB "sexual minorities))

Articles were selected in two stages of review. In stage one, the first author and librarian independently screened titles and abstracts for inclusion or exclusion using eligibility criteria. We excluded articles focused solely on the impact of relationship status on health outcomes, satisfaction or dynamics within marriage relationships, or the process of getting married (e.g., choices of who to invite, type of ceremony), or other topics that did not pertain directly to the research aims. For example, a study about the impact of getting married that also included themes pertaining to the impact or meaning of equal marriage rights was included in the full review. The first author and a librarian met to review and resolve differences and, in cases where relevance was ambiguous, articles underwent a full-text review (in stage 2). Table 1 summarizes exclusion categories used in the title and abstract reviews.



In stage two, articles not excluded in stage one were retrieved for full-text review. Each article was independently reviewed by two authors to assess study relevance. Discrepancies related to inclusion were few (less than 10%) and resolved through discussion and consensus-building among the first four authors. This process resulted in an analytic sample of 59 articles (see Fig 2 ).



Table 2 provides an overview of characteristics of the studies included in this scoping review. Most were qualitative and most aggregated SMW and SMM in analyses. Only 14 studies explored differences in impact for SMW and SMM, or separately examined the specific perceptions and experiences of SMW. Although search terms were inclusive of transgender individuals, samples in the studies we reviewed rarely included or focused explicitly on experiences of transgender or gender nonbinary identified individuals. In studies that explicitly included transgender and nonbinary individuals, sample sizes were rarely large enough to permit examination of differences based on gender identity (e.g., survey samples with 2–3% representation of nonbinary or transgender individuals) [ 44 , 59 – 63 ]. Other studies recruiting sexual minorities may have included transgender and nonbinary individuals (who also identified as sexual minorities), but did not assess gender identity. Among studies in which participant race/ethnicity was reported, most included samples that were majority White.



Studies of the impact of legalized marriage on physical health were not excluded in the original search parameters; however, physical health has been addressed in prior reviews [ 15 – 20 ]. Further, because our research questions focused on psychosocial factors, we excluded studies on physical health unless they also addressed individual, interpersonal, or community psychosocial impacts of same-sex marriage legalization. Studies that focused on physical health impacts or access to health insurance were used only in the introduction.

Civil union was not explicitly included as a search parameter, but articles focusing on civil unions were captured in our search. Although civil unions are not equivalent to marriage, they often confer similar substantive legal rights. We included articles about civil union that explicitly pertained to our research question, such as a study that examined perceived stigma and discrimination before and after implementation of civil union legislation in one U.S. state [ 64 ], and excluded articles that did not (e.g., a study of relationship quality or longevity among same-sex couples in civil unions) [ 65 ].

A majority of the studies were conducted in the U.S. Of the 43 U.S. studies, 20 sampled from a single state, 10 included participants from multiple states, 12 used a national sample, and one had no human subjects (secondary analysis of legal cases). Of those sampling a single state, all focused on the impact of changes (or proposed changes) in same-sex marriage policy: 10 focused on Massachusetts (the first state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage), two focused on Iowa, two on Vermont, and two on California. One article each included study participants from Nebraska, Oregon, Illinois, and a small (unnamed) non-metropolitan town in the Midwest.

Analysis method

We created a data extraction form to ensure consistency across team members in extracting key study information and characteristics including study design (e.g., quantitative, qualitative, or mixed method), location (e.g., country and/or region), sample (e.g., whether the study included or excluded SMW or SMM, assessed and reported race/ethnicity), and key results. Articles were also classified based on findings related to level of impact (e.g., individual, couple, family, community, or broader social attitudes toward LGBTQ+ individuals; see S1 Table ). A final category on significance/implications allowed reviewers to further identify and comment on major themes and relevance to the current review. Themes were then identified and organized using stigma and social-ecological frameworks.

Aim 1: Psychosocial impacts of same-sex marriage rights

Individual level impacts..

Although most studies about the impact of equal marriage rights have been conducted with couples or individuals in committed or married relationships, 15 studies in this review included sexual minority adults across relationship statuses. In general, studies examining the impact of equal marriage rights among sexual minorities suggest that equal access to marriage has a positive impact on perceptions of social acceptance and social inclusion regardless of relationship status [ 47 , 63 , 66 , 67 ]. For example, Riggle and colleagues [ 47 ] examined perceptions of sexual minority individuals in the U.S. during the period in which same-sex couples had equal marriage rights in some, but not all, U.S. states. Sexual minorities who resided in states with equal marriage rights reported less identity concealment, vigilance, and isolation than their peers in states without equal marriage rights. Similarly, using data from the longitudinal Nurses’ Health Study in the U.S., Charlton and colleagues [ 68 ] examined potential positive impacts of equal marriage rights on sexual identity disclosure. They found that participants living in states with any form of legal recognition of same-sex relationships (inclusive of marriage, civil unions, or domestic partnerships) were 30% more likely than those is states without legal recognition to consistently disclose a sexual minority identity across survey waves [ 68 ].

Researchers have documented ambivalence among sexual minority adults regarding the institution of marriage and whether same-sex marriage would impact other forms of structural or interpersonal stigma. Sexual minority participants in several studies expressed concern about continued interpersonal stigma based on sexual or gender identity, the limitations of marriage as a vehicle for providing benefits and protections for economically marginalized LGBTQ+ individuals, and the possibility that an increased focus on marriage would contribute to devaluing unmarried same-sex relationships [ 12 , 13 , 62 , 69 , 70 ]. Studies also documented concerns about marriage being inherently linked to heteronormative expectations and about assimilation to heterosexist cultural norms [ 60 , 69 , 71 ]. These concerns were summarized by Hull [ 69 ]: “The fact that LGBTQ respondents favor marriage more in principle (as a right) than in practice (as an actual social institution) suggests that marriage holds multiple meanings for them” (p. 1360).

Five studies explicitly examined racial/ethnic minority identities as a factor in individuals’ perceptions of same-sex marriage; one qualitative study focused exclusively on Black individuals in the U.S. [ 72 ] and the other four examined differences by race/ethnicity [ 64 , 66 , 67 , 73 ]. McGuffy [ 72 ] conducted in-depth interviews with 102 Black LGBT individuals about their perceptions of marriage as a civil rights issue before and after same-sex marriage was recognized nationally in the U.S. The study found that intersecting identities and experiences of discrimination related to racism, homophobia, and transphobia influenced personal views of marriage. For example, although most participants were supportive of equal marriage rights as a public good, many felt that the emphasis on marriage in social movement efforts overlooked other important issues, such as racism, economic injustice, and transgender marginalization.

The four other studies examining racial/ethnic differences in perceptions about whether equal marriage rights facilitated inclusion or reduced interpersonal stigma yielded mixed results. One found that residing in states with equal marriage rights was associated with greater feelings of acceptance among sexual minorities; however, White sexual minorities reported greater feelings of inclusion than participants of color [ 66 ]. By contrast, in a quasi-experiment in which SMW in a midwestern state were interviewed pre- or post- passage of civil union legislation, those interviewed after the legislation reported lower levels of stigma consciousness and perceived discrimination than those interviewed before the legislation; however, effects were stronger among SMW of color than among White SMW [ 64 ]. In a study of unmarried men in same-sex male couples, Hispanic/Latino men were more likely than non-Latino White participants to report perceived gains in social inclusion after equal marriage rights were extended to all U.S. states [ 67 ]. However, men who reported higher levels of minority stress (enacted and anticipated stigma as well as internalized homophobia) were less likely to show improvement in perceptions of social inclusion. Lee [ 73 ], using data from a national Social Justice Sexuality Project survey, found no statistical differences in Black, White and Latinx sexual minorities’ perceptions that equal marriage rights for same-sex couples had a moderate to major impact on their lives. In analyses restricted to Black participants, individuals with higher level of sexual minority identity salience reported significantly higher importance of equal marriage rights. Lee suggests that same-sex marriage was perceived by many study participants as a tool to gain greater acceptance in the Black community because being married is a valued social status.

Couple level impacts.

We identified 15 studies that focused on couples as the unit of analysis. Findings from studies of the extension of equal marriage rights in U.S. states suggest positive impacts among same-sex couples, including access to financial and legal benefits as well as interpersonal validation, such as perceptions of being viewed as a “real” couple and increased social inclusion [ 12 , 59 , 63 , 74 , 75 ]. Furthermore, couples in several studies described the potential positive impacts of legal recognition of their relationship on their ability to make joint decisions about life issues, such as having children and medical care [ 75 ]. Couples also described having a greater sense of security associated with financial (e.g., taxes, healthcare) and legal (e.g., hospital visitation) benefits and reduced stress in areas such as travel and immigration [ 75 ]. Collectively, these findings suggest that marriage rights were perceived to imbue individuals in same-sex relationships with a sense of greater security, stability, and safety due to the legal recognition and social legitimization of same-sex couples. Although equal marriage rights were perceived as an important milestone in obtaining civil rights and reducing institutional discrimination, concerns about and experiences of interpersonal stigma persisted [ 76 – 78 ]. The social context of legal same-sex marriage may create stress for couples who elect to not marry. For example, in a study of 27 committed, unmarried same-sex couples interviewed after the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Obergefell, couples who chose not to marry described feeling that their relationships were less supported and perceived as less committed [ 79 ].

Reports from the CUPPLES study, a national longitudinal study of same-sex couples in the U.S. from 2001 to 2014, provided a unique opportunity to examine the impact of different forms of legal recognition of same-sex relationships. In wave three of the study during 2013–2014, open-ended qualitative questions were added to explore how individuals in long-term committed partnerships perceived the extension of equal marriage rights in many U.S. states. Themes included awe about the historic achievement of a long-awaited civil rights goal, celebration and elation, and affirmation of minority sexual identity and relationships, but also fears of backlash against sexual minority rights [ 80 ]. Some individuals who divorced after institutionalization of the right to same-sex marriage reported shame, guilt, and disappointment—given that they and others had fought so hard for equal marriage rights [ 81 ].

Studies outside the U.S. have also found evidence of positive impacts of legal recognition of same-sex couple relationships (e.g., increased social recognition and social support), as well as potential concerns [ 82 – 86 ]. For example, in a study of couples from the first cohort of same-sex couples to legally marry in Canada, participants described marriage as providing them with language to describe their partner that was more socially understood and helping to decrease homophobic attitudes among the people around them [ 83 ]. Some couples said they could fully participate in society and that marriage normalized their lives and allowed them to “live more publicly.” Couples also discussed the safety, security, and increased commitment that came from marriage, and some felt that marriage opened up previously unavailable or unimagined opportunities, such as becoming parents. However, some participants noted that their marriage caused disjuncture in relationships with their family of origin, as marriage made the relationship feel too real to family members and made their sexual identities more publicly visible.

Family level impacts.

Seventeen studies examined the impact of equal marriage rights on sexual minority individuals’ or couples’ relationships with their families of origin. Although these studies predominately used cross-sectional survey designs, one longitudinal study included individuals in both different-sex and same-sex relationships before and after the U.S. Supreme Court decision that extended marriage rights to all states [ 44 ]. This study found that support from family members increased following national legalization of same-sex marriage [ 44 ]. A cross-sectional online survey of 556 individuals with same-sex partners in Massachusetts (the first U.S. state to extend equal marriage rights to same-sex couples), found that greater family support and acceptance of same-sex couples who married was associated with a stronger overall sense of social acceptance [ 66 ].

Other cross-sectional surveys found mixed perceptions of family support and feelings of social acceptance. For example, a study of 357 participants in long-term same-sex relationships found that perceived social support from family did not vary by state-level marriage rights or marital status [ 47 ]. However, living in a state with same-sex marriage rights was associated with feeling less isolated. The finding of no differences in perceived support might be partly explained by the fact that the sample included only couples in long-term relationships; older, long-term couples may rely less on support from their family of origin than younger couples [ 12 ].

In studies (n = 6) that included dyadic interviews with same-sex married couples [ 74 , 79 , 85 , 87 – 89 ], participants described a wide range of family members’ reactions to their marriage. These reactions, which emerged after same-sex marriage legalization, were typically described by couples as profoundly impactful. Couples who perceived increased family support and acceptance described these changes as triumphant [ 85 ], transformative [ 88 ], and validating [ 74 , 87 ]. Conversely, some same-sex couples reported feeling hurt and betrayed when familial reactions were negative or when reactions among family members were divided [ 85 , 87 , 89 ]. Findings from these and other studies suggest that if certain family members were accepting or rejecting prior to marriage, they tended to remain so after equal marriage rights and/or the couple’s marriage [ 61 , 74 , 90 , 91 ]. In some cases, family members were perceived as tolerating the same-sex relationship but disapproving of same-sex marriage [ 85 , 90 ].

Findings from studies of married sexual minority people suggest that family (especially parental) disapproval was a challenge in the decision to get married [ 92 ], possibly because disclosure of marriage plans by same-sex couples frequently disrupted family “privacy rules” and long-time patterns of sexual identity concealment within families or social networks [ 87 ]. In a few studies, same-sex partners perceived that their marriage gave their relationship more legitimacy in the eyes of some family members, leading to increased support and inclusion [ 61 , 66 , 89 – 91 ]. Further, findings from two studies suggested that participating in same-sex weddings gave family members the opportunity to demonstrate support and solidarity [ 87 , 93 ].

Two qualitative studies collected data from family members of same-sex couples. In one, heterosexual siblings (all of whom were in different-sex marriages) described a range of reactions to marriage equality—from support for equal marriage rights to disapproval [ 80 ]. The other study interviewed sexual minority migrants to sexual minority friendly countries in Europe who were married and/or raising children with a same-sex partner, and these migrant’s parents who lived in Central and Eastern European countries that prohibited same-sex marriage. Parents found it difficult to accept their adult child’s same-sex marriage, but the presence of grandchildren helped to facilitate acceptance [ 94 ].

Community level impacts.

Twelve studies in this review examined the community-level impacts of same-sex marriage. These studies focused on community level impacts from two perspectives: impacts of equal marriage rights on LGBTQ+ communities, and the impacts of equal marriage rights on LGBTQ+ individuals’ interactions with their local communities or extended social networks.

LGBTQ+ communities . A prominent theme among these studies was that marriage is beneficial to LGBTQ+ communities because it provides greater protection, recognition, and acceptance of sexual minorities, their families, and their relationships—even beyond the immediate impact on any individual and their relationship or marriage [ 12 , 62 , 89 , 95 ]. Despite these perceived benefits, studies have found that some sexual minority adults view marriage as potentially harmful to LGBTQ+ communities because of concerns about increased assimilation and mainstreaming of LGBTQ+ identities [ 12 , 50 , 62 ], stigmatizing unmarried relationships [ 62 ], and weakening of unique and valued strengths of LGBTQ+ culture [ 12 ]. For example, Bernstein, Harvey, and Naples [ 96 ] interviewed 52 Australian LGBTQ+ activists and legislators who worked alongside activists for equal marriage rights. These authors described the “assimilationist dilemma” faced by activists: a concern that gaining acceptance into the mainstream societal institution of marriage would lessen the salience of LGBTQ+ identity and ultimately diminish the richness and strength of LGBTQ+ communities. Another downside of the focus on marriage as a social movement goal was the concern about reinforcing negative heteronormative aspects of marriage rather than challenging them [ 95 ].

Four studies explicitly examined possible community level impacts of same-sex marriage. In a mixed-methods study with 115 LGBTQ+ individuals in Massachusetts, participants reported believing that increased acceptance and social inclusion as a result of equal marriage rights might lessen reliance on LGBTQ+-specific activism, events, activities, and venues for social support [ 13 ]. However, a majority of study participants (60%) reported participating in LGBTQ+-specific events, activities, or venues “regularly.” A few studies found evidence of concerns that the right to marry could result in marriage being more valued than other relationship configurations [ 12 , 62 , 79 ].

Local community contexts and extended social networks . Studies examining the impact of same-sex marriage on sexual minority individuals’ interactions with their extended social networks and in local community contexts yielded mixed results. In an interview study with 19 same-sex couples living in the Netherlands, Badgett [ 66 ] found that LGBTQ+ people experienced both direct and indirect increases in social inclusion in their communities and extended social networks as a result of equal marriage rights. For example, direct increases in social inclusion included people making supportive comments to the couple and attending their marriage ceremonies; examples of indirect increases included same-sex spouses being incorporated into family networks [ 66 ]. Other studies found mixed or no change in support for LGBTQ+ people and their relationships. Kennedy, Dalla, and Dreesman [ 61 ] collected survey data from 210 married LGBTQ+ individuals in midwestern U.S. states, half of whom were living in states with equal marriage rights at the time of data collection. Most participants did not perceive any change in support from their community/social network following legalization of same-sex marriage; other participants reported an increase or mixed support from friends and co-workers. Similarly, Wootton and colleagues interviewed 20 SMW from 15 U.S. states and found positive, neutral, and negative impacts of same-sex marriage on their interactions in work and community contexts [ 50 ]. Participants perceived increased positivity about LGBTQ+ issues and more accepting attitudes within their extended social networks and local communities, but also reported hearing negative comments about sexual minority people more frequently and experiencing continued sexual orientation-based discrimination and stigma [ 50 ]. Many SMW reported feeling safer and having more positive conversations after Obergefell, but also continued to have concerns about being out at work as a sexual minority person [ 50 ].

Two studies examined the experiences of LGBTQ+ people in U.S. states in which same-sex marriage restrictions were decided by voters through ballot measures. These studies documented mixed impacts on participants’ interactions with extended social networks and community. Maisel and Fingerhut [ 28 ] surveyed 354 sexual minority adults in California immediately before the vote to restrict recognition of marriage to one man and one woman in the state (Proposition 8) and found that about one-third experienced interactions with social network members that were positive, whereas just under one-third were negative, and the rest were either mixed or neutral. Overall, sexual minority people reported more support than conflict with extended social network members and heterosexual community members over the ballot measure, with friends providing the most support [ 28 ]. Social support and solidarity from extended social network members in the face of ballot measures to restrict marriage recognition were also reported in an interview study of 57 same-sex couples residing in one of seven U.S. states that had passed marriage restriction amendments in 2006 [ 97 ]. However, some LGBTQ+ people also experienced condemnation and avoidance in their extended social networks [ 97 ].

Societal level impacts.

Sixteen studies examined ways that same-sex marriage influenced societal attitudes about sexual minority individuals or contributed to additional shifts in policies protecting the rights of sexual minority individuals. Findings suggested that the right of same-sex couples to marry had a positive influence on the political and socio-cultural context of sexual minorities’ lives. For example, changes in laws may influence social attitudes or result in LGBTQ positive policy diffusion across states (jurisdictions). There is debate over whether legal changes, such as equal marriage rights, create or are simply reflective of changes in social attitudes toward a group or a social issue [ 98 ]. Flores and Barclay [ 98 ] theorize four different socio-political responses to changes in marriage laws: backlash, legitimacy, polarization, and consensus. Some scholars argue that changes in law are unlikely to impact social attitudes (consensus), while others argue that legal changes influence the political and social environment that shapes social attitudes. Possible effects range from decreased support for sexual minorities and attempts to rescind rights (backlash) to greater support for the rights of sexual minorities and possible future expansion of rights and protections (legitimacy).

Findings from research generally suggest a positive relationship between same-sex marriage and public support for the overall rights of sexual minorities (legitimacy), and mixed results related to changes in mass attitudes (consensus) [ 98 – 106 ]. For example, in a panel study in Iowa before and after a state Supreme Court ruling in favor of equal marriage rights, Kreitzer and colleagues found that the change in law modified registered voters’ views of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage and that some respondents felt “pressure” to modify or increase their expressed support [ 102 ]. Similarly, Flores and Barclay [ 98 ] found that people in a state with equal marriage rights showed a greater reduction in anti-gay attitudes than people in a state without equal marriage rights. Studies based on data from European countries also found that more positive attitudes toward sexual minorities were associated with equal marriage rights; improvements in attitudes were not evident in countries without equal marriage rights [ 9 , 105 , 106 ].

There is some evidence to support the third possible socio-political response to changes in marriage laws in Flores and Barclay’s model: increased polarization of the general public’s attitudes toward sexual minorities. Perrin, Smith, and colleagues [ 107 ], using successive-independent samples study of conservatives, moderates, and progressives across the U.S. found no overall changes in opinions attitudes about sexual minorities immediately after the Supreme Court decision extending equal marriage rights to all same-sex couples in the U.S. However, analyses by subgroup found that those who were conservative expressed more prejudice toward gay men and lesbians, less support for same-sex marriage, and less support for LGB civil rights immediately after the decision. Similarly, drawing on data from approximately one million respondents in the U.S. who completed implicit and explicit measures of bias against gay men and lesbian women (Project Implicit), Ofosu and colleagues [ 100 ] found that implicit bias decreased sharply following Obergefell. However, changes in attitudes were moderated by state laws; respondents in states that already had equal marriage rights for same-sex couples demonstrated decreased bias whereas respondents in states that did not yet have equal marriage rights evidenced increased bias [ 100 ]. Using data from the World Values Survey (1989–2014) in European countries, Redman [ 103 ] found that equal marriage rights were associated with increases in positive opinions about sexual minorities, but that the increase was driven largely by those who already held positive views.

Little support has been found for the hypothesis that the extension of equal marriage rights would be followed by a backlash of sharp negative shifts in mass attitudes and public policy [ 98 , 108 , 109 ]. For example, a general population survey in one relatively conservative U.S. state (Nebraska) found public support for same-sex marriage was higher after the Supreme Court ruling than before, suggesting no backlash in public opinion [ 108 ]. Similarly, Bishin and colleagues [ 109 ], using both an online survey experiment and analysis of data from a U.S. public opinion poll (National Annenberg Election Studies) before and after three relevant policy events, found little change in public opinion in response to simulated or actual policy changes.

Although equal marriage rights confer parental recognition rights, there are still legal challenges and disparate rulings and interpretations about some family law issues [ 77 , 110 , 111 ]. For example, some states in the U.S. have treated the parental rights of same-sex couples differently than those of different-sex (presumed heterosexual) couples. Both members of a same-sex couple have traditionally not been automatically recognized as parents of a child born or adopted within the relationship. However, the presumptions of parenthood after same-sex marriage was legalized have forced states to treat both members of same-sex couples as parents irrespective of method of conception or adoption status [ 112 ]. Still, results from a cross-national study of laws, policies, and legal recognition of same-sex relationships suggests that parental rights are recognized in some jurisdictions but not others [ 111 ].

Aim 2: SMW-specific findings and differences by gender

A total of 13 studies included in this review conducted SMW-specific analyses or compared SMW and SMM’s perceptions and experiences of same-sex marriage and equal marriage rights. In studies that included only SMW [ 50 , 64 , 68 , 77 , 81 , 86 , 89 , 91 ], findings emphasized the importance of relational and interpersonal impacts of same-sex marriage. Examples include creating safety for sexual identity disclosure and visibility [ 68 , 81 ], providing legal protections in relation to partners and/or children [ 77 , 81 ], offering social validation [ 86 , 89 ], and reducing stigma in larger community contexts [ 50 , 64 ]. Relational themes centered on concerns and distress when experiencing rejection or absence of support from family members or extended social networks [ 50 , 81 , 86 , 89 , 91 ].

Two of the studies of SMW documented sexual identity and gender identity differences in interpersonal experiences associated with same-sex marriage [ 86 , 89 ]. Lannutti’s interview study of the experiences of 26 married or engaged SMW couples with different sexual identities (bisexual-lesbian couples) revealed how the right to marry made them feel more connected to LGBTQ+ communities through activism and being “counted” as a same-sex married couple. However, same-sex marriage made some bisexual women feel more invisible within LGBTQ+ communities [ 89 ]. Scott and Theron [ 86 ] found that married lesbian women and cisgender women partners of transmasculine individuals (i.e., masculine-identifying transgender individuals) faced different challenges as they navigated through gendered social expectations and made choices about conforming or rejecting heteronormativity.

Only five of the studies focusing on psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights explicitly examined potential differences by sex [ 28 , 66 , 73 , 76 , 95 ]. Some studies found perceptions of greater social inclusion [ 66 ], or feelings of ambivalence (simultaneously holding positive, negative, and critical perspectives about marriage as an institution) [ 95 ] that were similar among SMW and SMM. Maisel and Fingerhut’s study of consequences of a state-level campaign to restrict marriage rights [ 28 ] showed that SMW and SMM experienced similar negative impacts on personal well-being and interactions with extended social networks. However, Lee found that, compared with Black SMM, Black SMW perceived same-sex marriage to have a larger impact on their lives [ 73 ]. Other studies found that SMW were more likely than SMM to report positive perceptions of same-sex marriage, possibly because they are more likely than SMM to have children and to be concerned about parental protections [ 73 , 95 ]. SMW and SMM may be differentially impacted by interpersonal stigma despite equal marriage rights. For example, one study found that SMW experienced higher levels of distress than SMM when their relationships were not treated as equal to heterosexuals’ [ 76 ].

Overall, findings from this scoping review suggest that psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights among sexual minorities are apparent at all levels of our social-ecological and stigma framework. Sexual minority-specific stigma occurs on multiple levels (e.g., individual, interpersonal, and structural simultaneously and changes in social policies have cascading effects on sexual minority individuals’ experiences at each level. Generally, equal marriage rights had a positive impact on perceptions of social acceptance and social inclusion for sexual minority individuals, couples, and the LGBTQ+ community as a whole. However, many studies described mixed, ambivalent, or complicated perceptions of same-sex marriage, as well as stigmatizing interactions that were unaffected or exacerbated by equal marriage rights.

Although research does not unequivocally suggest the presence of a backlash in public opinion after equal marriage rights, there has been an increase in laws and policies at the U.S. state and federal levels that explicitly allow for religious-belief-based denial of services to sexual minority individuals and same-sex couples. For example, by 2017, 12 states in the U.S. enacted laws permitting the denial of services (e.g., allowing government officials to refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses, allowing magistrates to refuse to perform same-sex marriages, and permitting adoption and child welfare agencies to refuse same-sex couples’ adoption or fostering children) based on religious beliefs [ 113 ]. Research has documented negative health and psychological outcomes among sexual minorities living in U.S. states with policies that permit denial of services to sexual or gender minorities [ 114 , 115 ] and in states that do not have legal protections against discrimination [ 38 , 116 , 117 ]. Additional research is needed to examine how changes in local or national laws impact the health and well-being of sexual and gender minorities—particularly over the long term.

Gaps & future research needs

Research is limited in terms of examining how same-sex marriage may differentially impact sexual minority individuals based on sex, gender identity, or race/ethnicity. Only 14 studies included in this review addressed the psychosocial impacts of same-sex marriage among SMW. More research is needed to understand the unique experiences and psychosocial impact of same-sex marriage for SMW and SMM. Further, many study samples were largely homogenous and included an overwhelming majority of White participants. The few studies with substantial sample sizes of people of color, and that compared people of color to White people, found differences by race in perceived impact of same-sex marriage [ 64 , 67 , 73 ], demonstrating the need for additional work in this area.

There were also very few studies in this review that explored differences by sexual identity (e.g., monosexual vs. plurisexual), gender identity (e.g., transgender vs. cisgender), gender expression (e.g., masculine vs. feminine presentation), or differences based on sex/gender of participants’ partners. Although transgender and nonbinary individuals were included in eight studies, five provided only descriptive information and only three described any unique findings from transgender study participants. For example, McGuffey [ 72 ] found that transgender individuals who identified as heterosexual described same-sex marriage rights as less relevant than issues of gender identity and expression and Hull found that cisgender sexual minority men generally expressed more enthusiasm about marriage than both cisgender women and transgender individuals [ 69 ]. Transgender and nonbinary individuals who perceive positive impacts of equal marriage rights may still experience challenges in navigating heteronormative and cisnormative expectations [ 72 , 86 ]. Other qualitative studies documented concerns that LGBTQ+ advocacy efforts, once marriage rights were secured, might fail to address rights and protections for transgender and nonbinary individuals [ 62 , 69 ]. Future studies that include the voices of transgender and nonbinary individuals are needed to better understand perceptions across both sexual and gender identities [ 118 ].

There is limited research on immediate and extended family members’ perceptions of equal marriage rights. There is also a need for prospective studies that examine whether familial acceptance increases over time. Many studies did not account for differences in LGBTQ+ identity salience and connection to LGBTQ+ and other communities, which may influence differences in perceptions and reactions to same-sex marriage.

The majority of studies (43 of 59) we reviewed were conducted in the U.S. Eleven of these collected data after Obergefell (June 25, 2015). Only two used longitudinal research designs that included data collection before and after national same-sex marriage legalization [ 44 , 107 ]. The legal and social landscapes have changed since this time and there is a need for re-assessment of the impact of same-sex marriage over multiple future timepoints.


Although this scoping review used a systematic approach and, to our knowledge, is novel in its focus on impact of equal marriage rights on sexual minorities’ personal lives, interpersonal relationships, and social/community contexts, we acknowledge several limitations. We did not conduct a search of grey literature (e.g., reports, policy literature, working papers) or books and, consequently, likely excluded some scholarly work aligned with our focus. Our inclusion criteria of only peer-reviewed studies may have led us to exclude dissertations that focus on emerging areas of research, such as differences by gender identity, sexual identity, or race and ethnicity. As with all scoping reviews, studies may have been missed because of the search strategy. For example, it is possible that relevant studies were indexed in databases not used in our review. We also restricted our review to English language literature, excluding potentially relevant studies published in other languages. Studies in other languages may provide useful insights from other countries where English is not widely used. Although we focused exclusively on empirical studies, we did not assess the quality of the studies. Findings of the review are also limited by the collective body of research questions, designs, and analyses that have been pursued. For example, as noted above, few studies explored psychosocial impacts of same-sex marriage among SMW or explored differences by sex; consequently we were limited in our ability to address our second research aim.

This scoping review identified and described psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights among sexual minority adults and explored potential SMW-specific experiences and differences by sex. Our results highlight four points. First, equal marriage rights are associated with a wide range of positive impacts on the psychological and social well-being of sexual minority adults. Second, the potential positive impacts of equal marriage rights are amplified or weakened by the presence or absence of stigma in interpersonal interactions and in the larger political and social environment. Third, although there is a growing body of global research on the impact of same-sex marriage, most studies have been conducted in the U.S. Cross-cultural studies can improve understanding of individual, interpersonal, and community level impacts of same-sex marriage in different cultural contexts. Fourth, given indications of differences between SMW and SMM in perceived impact of same-sex marriage, there is a need for research that examines the specific perspectives of SMW and that explores possible differences in perspectives and experiences by sex. Research is also needed to understand differences based on race/ethnicity, gender identity, and age. The right of same-sex couples to marry does not merely address the concerns of sexual minorities, it aims to right a far bigger wrong: the exclusion of some individuals from one of the most important institutions in social life.

Supporting information

S1 table. articles included in scoping review on the psychosocial impact of equal marriage rights among sexual minority adults..


S1 Checklist. Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses extension for scoping reviews (PRISMA-ScR) checklist.


S1 Text. Definitions.



The authors thank Karen F. Trocki for providing input during the initial conceptualization of this project. Our thanks to Carol A. Pearce, MLIS, who helped with finding records, removing duplicates, title and abstract review, and data management.

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Guest Essay

The Key to a Happy, Stable Marriage

A close-up of the clasped hands of a man and a woman.

By Rhaina Cohen

Ms. Cohen is the author of “The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life With Friendship at the Center.”

When Bert Ellison experienced intense mood swings, the first person he turned to was usually not his wife but Dan Driscoll, his close friend of more than two decades. During the first year of his Ph.D. program, Mr. Ellison was an emotional yo-yo, one day telling his wife that he wanted to quit, the next that all was well. Mr. Driscoll suggested that Mr. Ellison take the concerns to him first, easing the stress on their marriage.

“I didn’t make a vow to Dan on my wedding day,” Mr. Ellison told me, “but I’m able to uphold my vows, I think, more fully because I can process some stuff with my best friend before I bring a more polished version to my wife.”

Research has affirmed Mr. Ellison and Mr. Driscoll’s approach. A study measuring the stress hormone cortisol in married people found that spouses who felt satisfied with the social support they had outside marriage showed less physiological stress from day-to-day marital conflicts than those who weren’t as satisfied. Just as in finance, in our social life, it’s wise to diversify our portfolio .

I’ve reaped these rewards from my own living situation: I share a home with my husband, two close friends and their two children. Our friends’ perspectives, passions and social communities have made my and my husband’s lives fuller and more dynamic. Sharing a space with friends has also created opportunities for me to discover different dimensions of my husband. One afternoon, I noticed him happily engrossed on the living room floor with our housemates’ toddler, who was repeatedly uncapping and recapping markers. My husband was fascinated, he said, by how the toddler had developed, and in that moment, I admired his exquisite patience and attentiveness.

Through our setup, I’ve arrived at a clearer sense of what an ideal marriage looks like to me: not one in which my husband and I are cocooned, gazing into each other’s eyes — as lovers are so often depicted — but looking outward, anchored in a circle of people we love.

This is something the ancient Romans would have understood. Some classicists argue that friendship played the central role in ancient Roman society that marriages do today. A Roman might refer to a friend in terms that people now use only for a spouse, such as “half of my soul” or “the greater part of my soul.” In the Byzantine Empire, pairs of male friends (who, in some cases, may have also been lovers) would enter Christian churches to be ritually turned into brothers, united for life. Some were buried together.

But as mores shifted, a spouse took on the role once played by a friend. During the Victorian era, an increased emphasis on romantic love encouraged young people to expect more from marriage, not just pragmatic benefits but also deep connection and companionship.

Since then, expectations of marriage have continued to balloon. Now movies, songs and books tell us that a spouse should be not just your greatest love but your “ everything ,” as the Michael Bublé song goes — your confidant, soul mate and best friend.

It’s only in recent years that we’ve come to understand just how harmful this kind of approach can be. Sociologists have found that married people have weaker relationships with neighbors, relatives and friends than single people do. We end up undermining romantic relationships by expecting too much and weakening friendships by expecting too little.

But there’s a way to fix this. Start by trying a simple drawing exercise: Get a piece of paper, write your name in the middle and draw circles that represent the most important people in your life. Closer relationships — like a dear friend or romantic partner — should sit closer to your name, and relationships that take up more space in your life should have a bigger circle. If you’re left with one enormous circle for a romantic partner and small bubbles in the distance, it’s a sign that the romantic relationship may be taking on too much significance.

Consider establishing a routine to ensure you see your friends regularly. A close friend and I have a standing date every other week to hang out at her house after her baby goes to sleep. A pair of best friends I know dedicate Friday mornings to coffee and conversation together, a ritual they now consider sacred.

Friendships enrich romantic relationships. But of course, they’re also an end in themselves, providing deep meaning and connection — far deeper than most of us have been told is possible. By opening up space to prioritize our friends, both types of relationships become more satisfying.

So if you have plans with a romantic partner this Valentine’s Day, savor the time together. Then make your next date night with a friend.

Rhaina Cohen ( @rhainacohen ) is a producer and editor for NPR’s “Embedded” podcast and the author of “The Other Significant Others: Reimagining Life With Friendship at the Center.”

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  • Devorah Baum on Marriage, Love, and Divorce

February 14, 2024 | ceb95 | European History , Humanities , Interviews , Philosophy

Devorah Baum, author of On Marriage , talks with us about the proposal that sparked her writing on marriage, the woes of modern dating, and the important role divorce plays in our imaginative life.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, transcribed from an episode of the Yale University Press Podcast. Some questions have been omitted—listen to the full conversation here.

This book has been described as “a fascinating exploration” by The Guardian , and you as “an erudite and entertaining guide through the landscape of marriage, bringing a lively intellectual rigor to changing attitudes on matters of religion, feminism, parenting and sexuality.” Can you tell us how you came to write about marriage?

DB: I think the first line of my book is something like writing a book about marriage wasn’t my idea. Someone else someone eligible proposed it to me. And I said, “yes.”. . . .The moment I have a proposal, ideas and images and ways of thinking, begin to just coalesce. And, I’m inspired. I thought to write this book on marriage only when it was proposed. But once it was proposed, I understood the logic of the proposal. I understood that the person who proposed it to me had seen something in me that I haven’t particularly noticed. And what he had seen is that I’m clearly obsessed with marriage.

You talk about the veil, both metaphorically and literally. Why is the veil important to understanding how humans have conceptualized the usefulness of marriage?

DB: So fascinating, because actually, the word nuptial comes from Latin term, nūbere , to veil. In a way, marriage has always been associated with the idea of creating a private life. A space within the world that requires the sanction of the world, because one of the main things about marriage institutionally is that the world has to sanction this relationship between two people. There’s a permission there for the couple, to have a private life that the world does not bestow on anybody else, including single people. That strangeness about it taking the world, the public world to sanction this hiddenness of marriage interests me.

You write extensively about language and marriage, conversation, gossip, vows, and everything having to do with talking or not talking about such a union. How has the invention of social media complicated language and marriage?

DB: It has this sort of propensity to make even more emphatic these aspects of identity of relationship status as though you’re required constantly, no matter who you are, to update the world. I say this as somebody with absolutely no experience of social media myself—I’ve never been on it. But, you know, I’ve heard about it. One of the things it seems to do is demand a constant curation of your identity in the world. If you’ve got any updates to make, you must go online and immediately make them. To that extent, it’s the very opposite of what in its best iteration marriage offers behind its veil, which is the possibility to be indecisive, non-determinate, changing, to be constantly exchanging roles. Being one person one day, somebody else the next.

In the book, you observe that the rise of streaming has changed how couples watch TV, because each person can choose what they want to watch and do it on their own. But you do argue that co-watching is still important for couples. Can you talk about these kinds of joyful benefits of co-watching?

DB: Well, joyful and traumatic. There’s a chapter called co-watching. In a way it’s a sort of code for middle age. Basically, we’re tired. We’ve got jobs and we’ve got children and we’re mostly just mostly our married life, mostly our interactions are just one big management meeting. We do comms with each other. Did you organize this? We need to book that, so on so forth. With our jobs and our children and so on. There is a risk, of course, particularly when in that period of life and marriage that intimacy goes away. And all kinds of hell can break loose when you let that happen. It can happen very easily and by accident, but then it is something to watch out for. I suppose one of the things a lot of couples I know, including my own couple, do in lieu of other forms of intimacy very often when we’re so tired is we just we watch box sets together. And that’s my favorite bit of every day.

In a moment where divorce rates are common and rising, what does divorce reveal about the entanglement or interconnections of marriage?

DB: Divorce, in its fullest sense is very rarely seriously entertained in our imaginative life. Can one ever really be outside wedlock? Can one ever really be unmarried because the world we’re in is so wed locked in all of its interlinked interlinking institutions, in so many different ways. I wind up in this book, I make a quite radical statement or provocation in relationship to divorce. I’m partly reading this through other thinkers, including the Great American philosopher Stanley Cavell. I wind up, I think, more or less saying that you should divorce if you can. . . .we should look at divorce in the way that Milton saw it as a really fundamental story about human freedom, and a really important part of our imaginative life.

Devorah Baum is a writer, a film director, and an associate professor in English literature at the University of Southampton. She is the author of Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone) and The Jewish Joke: An Essay with Examples (Less Essay, More Examples). With Josh Appignanesi, her spouse, she is both codirector and performer in the documentaries The New Man and Husband. She lives in London, UK.

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Same-sex marriage, across asia, views of same-sex marriage vary widely.

A median of 49% of people in 12 places in Asia say they at least somewhat favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally.

How people around the world view same-sex marriage

Among the 32 places surveyed, support for legal same-sex marriage is highest in Sweden, where 92% of adults favor it, and lowest in Nigeria, where only 2% back it.

Public Has Mixed Views on the Modern American Family

Americans are more pessimistic than optimistic about the institution of marriage and the family. At the same time, the public is fairly accepting of diverse family arrangements, though some are seen as more acceptable than others.

The Modern American Family

Key trends in marriage and family life in the United States.

In places where same-sex marriages are legal, how many married same-sex couples are there?

In 24 places where detailed statistics are available, same-sex marriages in recent years have ranged from less than 1% to 3.4% of all marriages.

About six-in-ten Americans say legalization of same-sex marriage is good for society

37% of Americans have a negative view of the impact of same-sex marriage being legal, with 19% saying it is very bad for society.

On some demographic measures, people in same-sex marriages differ from those in opposite-sex marriages

Adults – particularly men – who are in same-sex marriages have a somewhat different demographic profile from adults in opposite-sex marriages.

How Catholics around the world see same-sex marriage, homosexuality

Pope Francis made news recently by voicing his support for same-sex civil unions. The statement struck observers as a shift for the Vatican.

The Global Divide on Homosexuality Persists

Despite major changes in laws and norms surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage and the rights of LGBT people around the world, public opinion on the acceptance of homosexuality in society remains sharply divided by country, region and economic development.

In Changing U.S. Electorate, Race and Education Remain Stark Dividing Lines

The gender gap in party identification remains the widest in a quarter century.

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research paper on marriage

250 Outstanding Marriage and Family Research Topics

Marriage and Family Research Topics

Looking for the best marriage and family research topics for your sociology paper? With the changing dynamics of family and marriage, there is always scope for more research. This leaves you with endless options for a suitable title for your paper. To make the process simpler, here is a list of the best topics on marriage and family to help you narrow down the choices. It is good to remember that some of these topics may evoke conflicting emotions and opinions. therefore, they are best handled with sensitivity and objectivity. They present ample scope for classroom discussion and debates. However, pick a topic that also presents sufficient scope for research to showcase your understanding of the subject and writing skills as well. 

Trending Marriage and Family Research Topics

Here is a list of some of the most commonly used topics on marriage and family that will help you get ample supporting data and content.

  • The evolution of the concept of marriage
  • The changing role of spouses in a modern marriage
  • Changes in the values around marriage and family over the last decade.
  • The effect of social media on marriages
  • Types of marriages in Nigeria
  • Cultural differences and its effect on the sociology of marriages
  • The influence of media on marriage and family
  • Change in marriages in your country
  • Does gen X think that marriage is an outdated concept
  • The sociology of inter-racial marriages
  • A traditional role that men could perform better than women and vice versa.
  • The social benefits of a marriage
  • The financial benefits of a marriage
  • How does mental health affect marriages?
  • The important role of stress in modern marriages.
  • Getting married but not choosing to have children. The benefits and risks.
  • How long should a couple know each other before getting married?
  • Should gender roles within a marriage be maintained strictly? What are the benefits and risks?
  • Does society benefit from prioritizing marriage
  • Living with an unmarried partner or marriage. Which has a higher level of relationship satisfaction?
  • Your thoughts on an egalitarian marriage
  • Marriage is a public performance in the age of social media. Your understanding of this statement.
  • Is financial instability one of the most common reasons for not getting married.
  • The steady decline in marriage among individuals without a college degree.
  • Marriage rate for women with good education is higher.
  • People who want children should get married. Your thoughts on this.
  • The common causes for decline in marriage rate in modern society
  • The concept of arranged marriages across the world.
  • The role of matrimonial sites in modern marriages.
  • Are dating apps a reliable option to meet a suitable partner for marriage?
  • Is marriage rate affected by ethnicity?
  • The effect of substance abuse on a marriage
  • Physical acts of aggression in a marriage. When does one go too far?
  • Financial independence of women and its effects on marriage.
  • Increasing rate of infidelity in marriages. What are the common causes?

Best Research Topics on Family

Here is a list of some of the best family research topics that explore the changing dynamics on family structures in the recent times.

  • How can you define the term ‘family’?
  • Family background determines your rate of success in career and life. Comment.
  • What are the consequences of divorce on children?
  • Overcoming trauma of a dysfunctional family
  • Is it possible to always live up to family expectations?
  • The effects of parental neglect on children.
  • How to minimize negative effect of divorce on a family
  • War veterans and their families. Do they really need help?
  • Family and its impact on teenage delinquency
  • Stages of grief in children after the loss of a family member
  • Stages of grief in an adult after the loss of a family member
  • How should families cope with the loss of a family member?
  • The increasing problem of work-life balance and its impact on families
  • Joint family versus a nuclear family
  • Family members who should have a say in the upbringing of a child
  • Fostering children and the issues that arise
  • Substance abuse within a family. How to save yourself and the rest of your family?
  • Sexual abuse within a family. Strategies to escape it.
  • Family violence in the last decade. Has it increased?
  • The effect of setting very high expectations for members of the family.
  • Family values: Should they be strict or flexible?
  • Different types of relationships within a family.
  • Putting life together after a natural disaster.
  • Accepting children from a previous marriage into your family.
  • How to meet a crisis as a family
  • The issue of gender discrimination within a family.
  • Gender roles and expectations of the family
  • Coping with unpleasant secrets of your family
  • The pressure of inheriting a family business and the impact on children and younger members of the family.
  • Balancing between family support and allowing young adults to live their lives on their own.
  • How involved should the family be in one’s career?
  • The absence of love within a family
  • Helping a family member in distress.
  • Unwanted activities that modern families engage in
  • Accepting the transition of children into adult lives.

Family Life Education Topics for Research

Among the many family and marriage topics for discussion, family life education is an important concept that presents a huge scope for research.

  • The objectives of family life education
  • The importance of family life education
  • The primary principles of family life education
  • The practices of family life education and their importance in effective outreach.
  • How family life education can improve moral codes in young adults
  • The importance of family life education in developing a good personality in adolescents
  • Complementing parent education with family life education.
  • How family life education can fill the gap when parents abdicate responsibilities.
  • The three behavioural needs for family planning.
  • Importance of setting priorities when planning a family.
  • Resources that teen parents need for effective parenting.
  • Tools to build resilience in teen parents
  • Family life education and psychology
  • Family life education and social work.
  • The 10 contents of family life education.
  • Family life education is one of the most flexible fields of sociology. Your comments.
  • Family life education to help problem teens cope in college or school.
  • The role of family life education in decision making among family members.
  • Write in detail about a decision making model that youth can benefit from when it comes to family planning decisions.
  • Skill application in family planning.
  • Parenting classes: A modern trend or a necessity for new parents?
  • Identifying personal attitude and belief in teen parenting.
  • How family life education contributes to overall well being and growth of a family.
  • Assessing knowledge levels of adolescent girls with respect to issues in family life education.
  • The key areas of study of family life education.
  • Differences in rural and urban approach to family life education.
  • How to set up an effective intervention plan when dealing with family life education crisis
  • The challenges of parents with adolescent parents.
  • Using family life education to teach teens about balancing between responsibility and freedom.
  • Critical interests of preschool children
  • Stimulating growth and development of preschool children.
  • The right time to plan for a second child.
  • Adjusting to the ‘Empty Nest Syndrome’.
  • Importance of family life education in reproductive health.
  • Population education versus family life education.

Sociology of Family Research Topics

Family structures are an important part of studying sociology. Here are trending sociology research topics on family to help you ace your papers.

  • Unconventional family structures in the modern world.
  • Child behaviour and the impact of parents on it.
  • Child abuse and its long term effects
  • The impact of cross-racial adoption
  • The challenges of cross-racial adoption
  • Differences in family structures across ethnic groups and races
  • How single parenting impacts the life of children.
  • The impact on children when couples live apart.
  • The impact on family structure when couples live apart.
  • Family and its involvement in community
  • The role of the community in changing family structures.
  • Different household structures within families
  • The earner-carer family model
  • The need for dual earner couples
  • The evolution of household structures within families
  • The importance of dividing household labour within a family.
  • What is family demography?
  • Effective ways of dealing with family conflicts
  • What is maternalism?
  • The changing approach to filial responsibility
  • Effective family migration planning
  • The challenges faced by immigrant families.
  • Examples of matriarchal family structures across the globe.
  • The changing roles of a woman in a family.
  • The changing roles of a man in a family.
  • Effective ways to manage money within a family
  • The important parental roles in deciding the outcomes for children.
  • Sibling relationships at different ages.
  • Dealing with stepfamilies.
  • Challenges faced by stepmothers and how to overcome them?
  • Challenges faced by stepfathers and how to overcome them?
  • The concept of sibling ties.
  • Causes for increase in female householders
  • Deteriorating economic circumstances of men and the impact on family structures.
  • Cohabitation and a decline in marriage.

Popular Research Topics on Gay Marriage

With the legalization of same sex marriage in many countries while some still remain in conflict, there are several gay marriage topics that you can write about.

  • Should the government have a say in marital decisions?
  • Why is gay marriage illegal in some countries?
  • The importance of legalizing same sex marriages.
  • The social challenges faced by same sex couples.
  • How to help a member of the family who has come out of the closet.
  • Accepting same sex marriage with a family.
  • How to support family members who belong the LGBTQ community?
  • The effect of same gender parents on the social life of a child.
  • Challenges faced by gay couples with adoption.
  • Can gay couples provide the same parenting structure as straight couples?
  • Common marriage and family issues for gay people.
  • Differences between a heterosexual marriage and same sex marriage.
  • Do same gender couples make fit partners? The common consensus.
  • The limitations imposed by the law on same sex couples.
  • The importance of marriage for gay couples
  • Divorce among gay couples. Is it harder to get professional assistance?
  • Legalising same sex marriage and the impact on psychological well-being.
  • Impact of same sex marriage on the society.
  • Are changing contours of family making it easier to accept gay and lesbian marriages?
  • Legal decisions affecting children of same sex parents.
  • Anticipatory minority as a stressor among same sex couples.
  • Civil Union versus same sex marriage.
  • Defining household structures in same sex homes.
  • Potential differences in the political attitude between heterosexual and homosexual couples.
  • Child development and homosexual parenthood.
  • The differences in social challenges of a gay marriage and lesbian marriage.
  • Emotion work in gay, lesbian and heterosexual relationships.
  • Same sex civil partnership and its impact of health.
  • How same sex marriage impacts the understanding of same sex relationship.
  • A sociological perspective on the legal recognition of same sex marriages.
  • Perspectives of gay and lesbian marriages across the globe.
  • Czech lesbian activism. Explain some of the significant events.
  • Safety concerns for same sex couples in the society.
  • The psychology of children of same sex couples.
  • Domestic violence in same sex marriages.

Marriage and Family Therapy Research Topics

Whether it is research paper on relationships, marriage or family structure, therapy and counselling plays an important role in today’s world. Here are some topics that are trending and relevant.

  • Stress and its impact on family or marriage counselling.
  • Qualities of a good family therapist.
  • The role of pre-marriage counselling in strengthening relationships.
  • Techniques of family therapy
  • The key concepts of family therapy
  • Objectives of marriage and family therapy
  • Living with a family member who has mental health issues
  • Providing family support to members with mental health issues.
  • Importance of family therapy in the sociology of family.
  • The emergence of family therapy as an identifiable field of psychology.
  • Family therapy and its importance in social work.
  • Child guidance and mental health
  • Family systems model of therapy.
  • Improving communication patterns within family through counselling.
  • The concept of function and purpose of symptoms.
  • The circular causation model of family therapy.
  • Recognizing structural characteristics of families through therapy
  • The increasing need for family and marriage therapy.
  • How family therapy can help cope with members who are addicted to substances.
  • Family therapy and child sexual abuse.
  • Family therapy versus marriage counselling.
  • Non systemic postmodernist models of family therapy.
  • The challenges faced by family therapists.
  • Factors that limit the scope of family therapy.
  • History of professional marriage and family therapy.
  • The evolving treatment of gender in family therapy.
  • The evolving treatment of sexual orientation in family therapy.
  • The perspective of family and marriage therapy among various ethnic groups.
  • The need for counselling for children of divorce.
  • Family therapy to help deal with loss of family members.
  • Family therapy to cope with terminally ill family members.
  • Significant models of family therapy in the modern world.
  • Important research papers on family therapy.
  • The pioneers of family and marriage counselling.
  • Changes in psychiatry and its role in the development of family therapy.
  • The contributions of Harry Stack Sullivan to family therapy.
  • Factors that contribute the positive mental health among family members.
  • The impact of cultural systems on the understanding of family dynamics.
  • Family therapy and its integration into family medicine.
  • Common treatment protocols in family therapy.

Divorce Topics For Research Paper

Because of the social and emotional impact that it has, divorce is among the most important marriage topics for discussion.

  • Study of abusive and toxic relationships within a family.
  • The causes for increasing divorce rates.
  • Perception of divorce among different ethnicities.
  • The impact of culture on the perception of divorce.
  • Marriage counselling as an effective way of preventing divorce
  • The trauma of child custody battles
  • The impact of child custody battles on the child.
  • The social perspective of divorced couples.
  • Raising children as a divorced couple.
  • A study on family violence
  • The changing perspective of marriage among children of divorce.
  • The impact of divorce on the social lives of children.
  • Sociological consequences of divorce.
  • Changing patterns and trends of divorce
  • Is divorce a social problem?
  • The negative consequences of divorce
  • The positive consequences of divorce
  • The economical consequences of divorce
  • How divorce impacts your social circle.
  • The impact of increasing divorce rates on society.
  • Ideological considerations of divorce
  • The process of marital breakdown.

Family Law Topics for Research

Here is a list of family law topics that have a good scope for data collection so that you can present an impressive paper.

  • Shared residence orders versus single residence orders.
  • The need for reform and alteration in family laws in your country.
  • Relationships, family and the law
  • Reform in the cohabitation law.
  • The Children Act of 1989 and its importance in Family Law.
  • Extending civil marriage availability to same sex couples. Write your views for and against this topic.
  • Laws regarding non-conjugal relationships.
  • The role of family law in determining the boundaries of marriage.
  • Child relocation and the laws associated with it
  • Divorce decisions based on the Principles of Fairness
  • The matrimonial cause act of 1973. Discuss its importance and the evolution.
  • Discuss three family laws that may be irrelevant in the modern world.
  • Why is it necessary to establish family laws?
  • The Piglowska versus Piglowski case of 1999 and its impact on divorce law decisions.
  • The role of religion on divorce laws.
  • Providing legal support to make victims of domestic abuse.
  • Why are child protection laws important?
  • The legal aspects of family welfare and social work.
  • Intervention of the State or authorities in families where children are abused or neglected.
  • Termination of parental rights in case of neglect or abuse. Is it the right approach?
  • Family laws about inheritance.
  • The changing laws of adoption.
  • A comparison of family laws in the West and the East.
  • Are family laws more liberal in the West?
  • Is the concept of alimony redundant in today’s world?
  • The need for legal validation of relationships.
  • Should women receive child support even if they are financially stable?
  • Is it correct for one parent to withhold visitation rights of the other?
  • Challenges faced by family lawyers.

Family Bible Study Topics of Research

Religion is a primary construct in the family structure. Here are some best rated family bible study topics that you can choose from:

  • Family bible study and its role in establishing values with a family.
  • How to use family bible study to improve the personality of adolescents.
  • The role of family bible study in increasing bonding between family members.
  • Is family bible study necessary in the modern world?
  • How the church positively influences the family structure.
  • Some family theories and concepts from the bible that are relevant even today?
  • Some outdated concepts of family that are mentioned in the bible that do not fit into modern society.
  • How family bible study impacts marriages and relationships.
  • Family bible study and why it is important for children to start young.
  • Family bible study and its role in improving behaviour of family members.
  • Interesting ideas to make family bible study relevant and interesting.

It is common for students to often get busy with other subjects and not find ample time to either shortlist the topics or write the research paper . In such scenarios it is best to take help from a reliable writing service like ours. Whether it is topic selection or writing help with the essay, we can offer it all. Don’t be afraid to get research paper help from our professional writers! Our team is experienced in handling an array of writing works for students of different educational backgrounds. We offer plagiarism free and well written submissions that suit every budget. For any help with a research paper about marriage and family, get in touch with our professional writers today. Contact us with a “ do my research paper for me ” request for quality assistance. Get high quality and affordable papers written by experts in the field to increase your grades and present an informative and interesting paper on the subject.  

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There have been several debates regarding same-sex marriages. In many states, same sex marriage has elicited a lot if reactions with the some supporting same-sex marriages and other opposing it. But recent times have seen a rise in the number of same-sex marriages and also a considerable number of legal approval or disapproval. Some countries and states have legalized same-sex marriages. There have been arguments that support same-sex marriages. In the below research, I have used secondary sources majorly written materials to support my thesis those same-sex marriages are good for the society.

Reasons same-sex marriages should be allowed

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Marriage is an agreement and contract between a man and a woman. Can one call a union between two men or two women marriage? Just calling a relation by the name marriage doesn’t make it marriage. After all there are biological, physiological, and psychological distinctions between men and women that make them complement each other in marriage. The purpose of this essay is to look into same-sex “marriage” and how can it be harmful to the society?

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Domestic partner benefits are entitlements to unmarried partners of employees that an employer may choose to offer as an added benefit to the traditional benefits enjoyed by employees. The partners can either be of the opposite-sex or same-sex as the employee. In offering the domestic partner benefits, the employer has a responsibility to determine whether the program will cover partners of the same-sex only or of the opposite-sex as well. Implementation of the domestic partner benefits offers invaluable benefits to the employer and the business as a tool to attract and maintain the best talents within the industry (Equality Maryland, 2005).

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Similar to other contexts all around the world, marriage in Korea is regarded a rite of passage; hence regarded highly by every societal member. In Korea, marriage between woman and man is not only regarded as a union between the two of them. Instead, marriage represent a union of two families. In celebrating marriage Koreans often hold events known as Taerye (Bumpass 16). Worth noting is the fact that Koreans have a fascinating admiration for these marriage events whereby they participate in high numbers.

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    This research focused directly on the quality of marriage. The quality of marriage that was studied was the good marriage. Although qualitative studies of marriage are still considered a relatively new area of research, they are increasing rapidly. The participants in this study were selected randomly and asked if they would like to participate.

  13. Marriage Research Paper

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  14. Full article: An economic approach to marriage

    The purpose of this paper is to outline an economic approach to marriage. The first part contains an introduction to the economics of a family. The second part analyses the marriage market. The third part discusses the division of household chores in a household. The fourth part examines marriage as a cooperative or non-cooperative game.

  15. Understanding Arranged Marriage: An Unbiased Analysis of a Traditional

    Journal Article Understanding Arranged Marriage: An Unbiased Analysis of a Traditional Marital Institution Naema N Tahir International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, Volume 35, Issue 1, 2021, ebab005, https://doi.org/10.1093/lawfam/ebab005 Published: 07 August 2021 PDF Split View Cite Permissions Share Abstract

  16. Working Through Marriage: Effects of Marital Inequalities on

    We characterise marital inequality through differences in age and education between spouses and marriage type as well as through the distribution of power in household decision-making and the freedom of mobility outside the house enjoyed by women. Overall, we note that these markers tend to have the strongest effects on questions that ...

  17. Should I Leave My Husband? The Lure of Divorce

    Seven years into my marriage, I hit a breaking point. Since then, I've had to decide whether life would be better without my husband in it. Emily Gould writes about the lure of divorce. Seven years into my marriage, I hit a breaking point. Since then, I've had to decide whether life would be better without my husband in it.

  18. Perceived psychosocial impacts of legalized same-sex marriage: A ...

    A growing body of literature provides important insights into the meaning and impact of the right to marry a same-sex partner among sexual minority people. We conducted a scoping review to 1) identify and describe the psychosocial impacts of equal marriage rights among sexual minority adults, and 2) explore sexual minority women (SMW) perceptions of equal marriage rights and whether ...

  19. Opinion

    During the first year of his Ph.D. program, Mr. Ellison was an emotional yo-yo, one day telling his wife that he wanted to quit, the next that all was well. Mr. Driscoll suggested that Mr. Ellison ...

  20. Devorah Baum on Marriage, Love, and Divorce

    Devorah Baum is a writer, a film director, and an associate professor in English literature at the University of Southampton.She is the author of Feeling Jewish (a Book for Just About Anyone) and The Jewish Joke: An Essay with Examples (Less Essay, More Examples).With Josh Appignanesi, her spouse, she is both codirector and performer in the documentaries The New Man and Husband.


    marriage, and intimate relationships, 3) there will be a relationship between gender of the adult child, and degree of distress in the above stated areas. Research has suggested that a relationship does exist between parental infidelity and an adult child's perceptions of love, marriage, and intimate relationships. There has been

  22. Same-Sex Marriage

    How people around the world view same-sex marriage. Among the 32 places surveyed, support for legal same-sex marriage is highest in Sweden, where 92% of adults favor it, and lowest in Nigeria, where only 2% back it. report | Sep 14, 2023.

  23. 250 Marriage and Family Research Topics From Profs

    250 Outstanding Marriage and Family Research Topics Looking for the best marriage and family research topics for your sociology paper? With the changing dynamics of family and marriage, there is always scope for more research. This leaves you with endless options for a suitable title for your paper.

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  25. SANDEEP Self-Love

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