Marital Status, General-Life Satisfaction and the Welfare State: A Cross-National Comparison

Article excerpt

This study examines the relationship between general-life satisfaction and marital status cross-nationally. A common theme in the marriage and family literature is that marriage, especially a happy and stable marriage, is necessary for psychological and social integration in industrialized countries (see, for example, Ogburn, 1938; Burgess and Locke, 1945; Parsons, 1955; Winch, 1970; Hareven, 1977; Laslett, 1978; Doherty and Campbell, 1988; Mastekaasa, 1994). Even as the functions of the family have eroded under the pressures of modernization, it has been suggested that marriage still provides for the affective, emotional and psychological needs of the participants (Veenhoven, 1983).(1) For example, Berger and Kellner (1964) argue that marriage can serve as an arena of personal growth and exploration within a highly mobile, complex and impersonal world.

While there has been some doubt about the ability of the marriage institution to fulfill this function (see, for example, Berger, Hackett and Miller, 1972; Lasch, 1975; Ryan, 1981), a large number of correlational studies (Taube, 1970; Gore, 1972, 1973, 1979; Bachrach, 1973; Andrews and Withey, 1976; Campbell, Converse and Rodgers, 1976; Carter and Glick, 1976; Pearlin and Johnson, 1977; Brocki, 1979; Hughes and Gove, 1981; Gove, Hughes and Style, 1983; Kotler and Omodei, 1988; Doherty, Su and Needle, 1989; Mastekaasa, 1994) have found a relationship between marital status and such variables as life satisfaction, mental well-being, mental health and physical health. In these studies, married individuals, as compared to unmarried individuals, are in better mental and physical health, are happier, are less inclined to suicide or other types of mortality where psychological factors play an important role, and are less likely to be institutionalized for mental illness or other forms of deviant behavior. However, evidence provided by Glenn and Weaver (1988) suggests that the positive effect of marriage, at least as it pertains to reported happiness, may be waning.

If that is true, is it because of social and cultural characteristics particular to the United States or, as suggested by modernization theory, is it part of a dynamic present in other industrialized countries as well? Most studies have focused on North America, particularly the U.S. In one of the few studies to examine the effects of marriage cross-nationally, however, Mastekaasa (1994) found that the relationship between marital status and well-being varied considerably from country to country. After additional investigation, Mastekaasa (1994) concludes that the observed between-country variation is random. The purpose of the present study is to examine further the effect of marital status on general well-being cross-nationally, controlling for variables normally associated with general-life satisfaction. Contrary to Mastekaasa's findings, the pattern that emerges from the data do appear to be systematic, not random, when interpreted from the perspective of modernization theory.

Modernization Theory

According to modernization theory (Goode, 1963), industrialization and changes in marriage and the family parallel each other. Both are influenced by the ideologies of economic progress, the conjugal family, equalitarianism and individualism. In addition to ideological changes, it is argued, industrialization is associated with structural changes that move the family from relatively extended to relatively nuclear, and from a unit of production to a unit of consumption. In doing so, economic and political bonds within marriage and the family are replaced by emotional ones.

Recent evidence seems to suggest that as societies move into the advanced stages of industrialization, further changes are taking place in marriage and the family. Popenoe (1987, 1988) presents data on the Swedish family indicating major structural changes. These changes include low marriage rates, high rates of nonmarital cohabitation and marital dissolution, increased incidence of living alone and declining involvement of the family in child socialization. …