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Unhappy marriages detrimental to self-esteem and health


Long-term, low-quality marriages have significant effects on overall well-being, according to a recent study by Penn State researchers.

Daniel Hawkins, graduate student, and Alan Booth, distinguished professor of sociology, human development and family studies, and demography, said that people who remain unhappily married suffer from lower levels of self-esteem, overall health, overall happiness, and life satisfaction along with elevated levels of psychological distress, in contrast to those in long-term happy marriages.

Booth states, "Unhappily married people may have greater odds of improving their well-being by dissolving their low-quality unions as there is no evidence that they are better off in any aspect of overall well-being than those who divorce."

Until now, the impact of remaining in an unhappy marriage for a number of years has received little attention. Social scientists have consistently found that married individuals have better psychological and physical well-being than those who are single or divorced. Similarly, research has demonstrated the detrimental impact of divorce on the well-being of individuals. However, Hawkins and Booth expected that in long-term, low-quality marriages, the negative impact of marital unhappiness would outweigh the potential benefits that marriage would otherwise confer.

People in unhappy marriages were tracked over a 12-year period in a national study of married individuals who are representative of the U.S. population. During the 12-year study, 1,150 participants were interviewed at four separate time points.

To assess individual’s marital happiness, specific aspects of marriage such as agreement, faithfulness, overall happiness, helping around the house, and whether the marriage was getting better or worse were measured. In order to be classified as unhappily married, individuals had to consistently score below the average marital happiness of everyone in the study.

"Given the findings of this study, unhappily married individuals do not reap benefits related to overall happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, and health, typically associated with marriage," the researchers said. "The social and emotional support available to individuals from marriage is not being obtained by those who are unhappily married."

In fact, despite the negative consequences of divorce that lower people’s psychological well-being, there is some evidence that remaining unhappily married is more detrimental than divorcing. Individuals who divorce and remain unmarried have greater life satisfaction and higher levels of self-esteem and overall health than unhappily married individuals, according to the study. Hawkins and Booth published their findings in the paper, "Unhappily Ever After: Effects of Long-Term, Low Quality Marriages on Well-Being," which appeared in a recent (September) issue of the journal, Social Forces.

Vicki Fong | EurekAlert!
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