Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Incorporating Health into Models of Marriage Choice: Demographic and Sociological Perspectives

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Incorporating Health into Models of Marriage Choice: Demographic and Sociological Perspectives

Article excerpt

This study uses data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth to examine how health-related characteristics and behaviors affect first marriage rates among young American adults. The results emphasize the importance of including health variables in models of marriage choice by demonstrating that persons with unhealthy behaviors (such as high levels of alcohol consumption and the use of hard drugs) and with physical characteristics that are typically associated with poorer past and future health statuses (obesity and short stature) have lower marriage rates than their healthier counterparts.

Studies dating as far back as the late 1800s have established repeatedly that unmarried individuals have less favorable health and survival outcomes than their married counterparts (for recent reviews, see Hu, 1991; Wyke & Ford, 1992). The health advantage of the married is apparently widespread. Married men and women have higher survival probabilities than the unmarried in all age groups and for every country and time period that has been investigated (Hu & Goldman, 1990).

In spite of extensive analysis of mortality differences by marital status, however, researchers have a relatively limited understanding of the extent to which these differences arise from marriage selection or from causal mechanisms often referred to as marriage protection. In other words, are married people healthier than single, divorced, and widowed individuals because mentally and physically healthier persons are more likely to get married in the first place and to remain married (marriage selection) or because of the presumed psychological, social, economic, and environmental benefits associated with having a spouse (marriage protection)? Although there seems to be a consensus that both processes are operating concurrently, the relative importance of these two processes never has been satisfactorily investigated (Goldman, 1993a).

The experimental possibilities in this area of research are severely limited. Random assignment of persons to different marital states is unethical, impractical, and probably not informative (Goldman, 1994). Thus, existing research relies entirely on observational studies that are potentially confounded by the selection of certain individuals and not of others into and out of marriage. Existing studies are further hampered by the widespread use of aggregate and cross-sectional data that by their very nature do not allow for controlling potentially confounding factors associated with both health and marital status. Although in the past decade there has been an increasing number of studies based on prospective data, most have been carried out in small communities and have focused on the beneficial effects of marriage on health, rather than on the potential selection of healthy people as mates (e.g., Berkman & Breslow, 1983; House, Robbins, & Metzner, 1982). Thus, the frequently drawn conclusion that the association between marriage and well-being is more likely to be due to causal rather than to selection factors (e.g., Hu,1991; Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen,1990) is at best premature.

Another drawback of existing research in this area is the narrow conceptualization of healthrelated selection into marriage. That is, researchers often restrict this type of process to the existence of a specific (typically severe) physical or mental limitation that excludes persons from marriage or at least reduces their chances of marrying (e.g., Goldman, 1993b; Mastekaasa, 1992; Rahman, 1993). However, it is important to recognize that many potential criteria-such as income, education, and physical appearance-involved in the process of mate selection can have both direct and indirect consequences for health. In addition, certain characteristics and behaviors that are fairly common among adolescents and young adults and are known to be related to subsequent health status-such as smoking, drug use, drinking, and emotional instability-also may be related to the likelihood of marriage (Goldman, 1993a; Goldman & Hu, 1993; Gove, 1973). …

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