Cynics say marriage is a sentence, not a word, and a study claims they may be right.
Research among 4,500 men and women in Britain finds that women who stay single are among the happiest of those questioned — and at least as happy as those who stay married for life. They also experience much better mental health than women who separate from husbands or long-term partners.
Men, on the other hand, are better off co-habiting with a long-term partner and worse if they get married, possibly because they are uncomfortable with the commitment of wedlock.
The study, in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, also suggests that men who stay single are most likely to suffer depression.
The findings about single women contradict the Bridget Jones approach to life, which presupposes women can only be happy if they get their man. Researchers say women can be perfectly happy if they stay single, and certainly much happier alone than if they lose their man or experience several break-ups.
Women who have never been in a relationship are much less likely to report a mental health problem than those who co-habit with a man, they say. This may be to do with the fact that co-habiting women do not enjoy the legal rights of their married counterparts.
“The lack of financial protection, and lack of property rights, and hence insecurity of co-habiting couples may explain why women who co-habit have poorer mental health than women who marry,” the researchers wrote.
Paula Hall, a relationship counsellor, said the study may reflect the different needs of men and women. “For women, security is more important. “They are the ones who have babies and very strong nurturing and protective instincts. That may be the reason why marriage is more important to them.For men, it is less of an issue. Feeling trapped is a bigger problem for them; they may fare better if they co-habit, rather than marry,” she said.
“However, that’s all just a hypothesis. Another study published last year said men and women were happier if they married.”
Researchers at the University of London based their findings on the responses to a mental health questionnaire of adults under 65 taking part in the British Household Panel Survey.
The team, led by Michaela Benzeval, finds serial relationships are good for men’s mental health. Break-ups are painful for both sexes, but more so for women, who generally take longer to recover. Women’s mental health becomes progressively worse the more break-ups they have, and the more new relationships they start.