Marital Status

September 16, 2011

Sociologists refer to marital status as an achieved characteristic, in the sense that marital behavior is socially defined and influenced, rather than having any biological properties. Children are typically assumed to be single (never married), whereas adults are generally classified as being single, married, separated, divorced, or widowed, although of course people may change categories at various times in their lives. Virtually every human society assumes that most people will marry when they become adults, and social and biological reproduction tend to take place in the family unit formed by married people.

Data from the 2000 Census in the United States show that 24% of females aged 15 and older had never been married, a slight increase from 23% in the 1990 census. Almost half of women (49%) were currently married with a spouse present in 2000, while 16% were separated or divorced, and 10% were widowed. These figures vary by age, of course, with divorce and especially widowhood increasing with age. Globally, the average age at marriage for women is a key determinant of their social status, and even in the United States, the Current Population Survey in 2000 found that women were marrying 4 years later in life than they had in 1970. In 2000, the median age at first marriage was 25.1 years for women and 26.8 years for men, while in 1970, the corresponding figures were 20.8 and 23.2.

The postponement of marriage has led to a substantial increase in the proportion of young, nevermarried adults. For example, between 1970 and 2000, the proportion of those who had never married doubled for women ages 20-24, from 36% to 73%, and more than tripled for women ages 30-34, from 6% to 22%. Among existing marriages, the divorce rate has stabilized since the 1980s, with about 40% of marriages likely to end in divorce in the United States.

Marital status is an important factor (along with education, race, and age) influencing labor force participation and differences in economic well-being of households. Single women without children spend a far larger proportion of time over their life cycle in labor market activity, increasing economic inequality among women. However, families headed by females, especially those with children, are among the poorest households in the United States. The obvious disadvantage is that a household with only one earner (e.g., a single mother) will have fewer resources than a household with two or more earners. However, the impact may go beyond that. Research has also demonstrated that family and other social networks can help people find employment and meet basic needs. Many types of resources flow to individuals who have strong network attachments, including childcare, help in emergencies, and resources that allow people to undertake new endeavors such as school enrollment or the purchase of a new home. Married people, who have greater material resources, also have larger support networks, both in the number and the variety of sources of support. Those who have never married and have lower human capital are most likely to reside with relatives or friends. Resources from family and others outside the household are an important income source for low-income single mothers.

The relationship between marital status and health has been a topic of interest for some time. It has been shown in the United States as well as in several other countries that married persons have lower rates of mortality, morbidity, and mental disorders than the unmarried. Among the unmarried, there are several patterns of health differentials. When self-reported health status and health conditions are used, the divorced and separated have the highest rates of poor health, followed by the widowed. Rates of mental illness are lowest for the married and never married, followed by the divorced, widowed, and, finally, the separated.

There are two widely accepted explanations about the relationship between marital status and health: (a) marriage selection and (b) marriage protection. Marriage selection refers to the differential selection into and out of marriage. Generally, spouses may be selected into marriage based on the absence of physical and mental disability, as well as on a range of health-related characteristics such as emotional stability, risk-taking personality, income, and physical appearance. On the other hand, marriage may protect against poor health in several ways. Marriage may strengthen social integration; provide a source of instrumental support for tasks like household work; increase economic resources; contribute to the pool of knowledge and important information processing; and may provide practical assistance and care, especially when a member of the family gets sick. The presence of a spouse may also discourage risky behaviors such as heavy drinking and substance abuse and encourage healthy behaviors like adherence to medical regimens. It is often found that smoking and alcohol abuse are more common among the unmarried, and in particular, the divorced.

Married people may also benefit from emotional rewards from family relationships. However, changes in marital status, such as the death of a spouse, may also be harmful. Such psychological factors may well influence various important lifestyle factors, and thus contribute to a weakening of the patient’s physical health. Marital disruption, a particularly stressful life event, elevates the risk of psychological distress thereby contributing over the longer run to poor physical health outcomes. In that case, widowhood, divorce, and separation elevate the risk of poor health compared with marriage (and being never married).

Some researchers have found that marriage tends to be more beneficial to the health of men than of women, whereas others conclude that both sexes benefit equally from marriage, but perhaps for different reasons. Women’s marital status is an important predictor of some categories of health problems; however, their influences vary for women of different age. It is observed that divorce and poor female health status are highly correlated in those societies where divorce is uncommon and discouraged, because the divorce decision is usually taken after many difficult years, which can be damaging to health. It has also been suggested by several studies that differences in economic wellbeing account for much of the difference in marital status and health for women, because with high economic status, women can afford to buy health insurance, housing, and nutrition.

Unmarried men engage in well-established risky health behaviors, including heavy drinking, drinking and driving, substance abuse, and marijuana use, and consequently are more likely to have physiological markers of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure and worse cholesterol levels, than married men. However, the association between marital status and these risk factors is weaker and less consistent for women. The health advantages of marital status probably vary by race and ethnicity. Several researchers suggest, for example, that divorce impacts the mental health of black women less than for white women because divorced black women experience less stigmatization and more support from family and friends than divorced white women.

SEE ALSO: Ethnicity, Morbidity, Mortality, Socioeconomic status

Suggested Reading

  • Beckett, M. K., & Elliott, M. N. (2002). Does the association between marital status and health vary by sex, race, and ethnicity?
  • Hibbard, J. H., & Pope, C. R. (1993). Health effects of discontinuities in female employment and marital status. Social Science and Medicine, 36, 1099-1104.
  • Jacobsen, J. P., & Levin, L. M. (2000). The effects of internal migration on the relative economic status of women and men. Journal of Socio-Economics, 29, 291-304.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), Maternal and Child Health Bureau, Women’s Health 2002 USA.
  • Zandvakili, S. (2000). Dynamics of earnings inequality among femaleheaded households in the United States. Journal of SocioEconomics, 29, 73-89.

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