Academic journal article Family Relations

Marital Status and Depressive Symptoms over Time: Age and Gender Variations

Academic journal article Family Relations

Marital Status and Depressive Symptoms over Time: Age and Gender Variations

Article excerpt

Guided by a life course perspective, this study investigated the contemporaneous and longitudinal relationships between marital status and depressive symptoms for men and women, and examined if age moderates these relationships. Data came from 9,507 individuals who responded to the first two waves of the National Survey of Families and Households. Men and women in first marriages are better off than most other marital status categories with regard to depressive symptoms, and for some groups, this advantage becomes more pronounced over time. Noteworthy age related differences in these relationships were observed for women, but not for men.

Key Words: age, depression, gender differences, life course, marital status.

The relationship between the social institution of marriage and adult well-being continues to be a key line of inquiry for family and health researchers (Marks & Lambert, 1998). Families provide the social context through which the influence of the larger social structure is filtered (Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990) and are the primary context in which individuals' experience physical and mental illness (Campbell, 2000). Marital status is a critical characteristic of families that reflects the "structural arrangements in which individuals are embedded" (Pearlin, 1989, p. 241) and shapes access to resources and exposure to stresses and strains (Corten, 1999). This study focuses on the relationship between marital status and depressive symptoms, as depressive symptoms are a fundamental indicator of mental health and general well-being.

Marital status differences in depressive symptoms are widely documented in empirical research (Barrett, 2000; Brown, 2000; Marks & Lambert, 1998; Ross et al., 1990; Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Most studies find that married individuals experience fewer depressive symptoms than the previously married (including the remarried), the never married, and cohabiters. Despite an extensive body of research, several issues remain poorly understood and a number of questions remain unanswered. We know from previous empirical studies that aggregate differences in depressive symptoms exist by gender and marital status (Simon, 2002). Some of these differences may be attributable to selection effects or temporary changes in psychological distress, however. What is less clear is what the impact of marital status is on depressive symptoms over time. Specifically, do marital status differences in depressive symptoms diminish, remain constant, or increase over time?

Uniformity in the mental health benefit of marriage across the adult life course is another issue that has been neglected. Age is typically included as a control variable in most studies investigating the relationship between marital status and depressive symptoms because of known associations between age and depressive symptoms (Mirowsky & Ross, 1992) and age related patterns of marital status. With few exceptions, however, age as a potential moderator of effects is virtually ignored, resulting in the implicit assumption that the relationship between marital status and depressive symptoms is consistent across age groups.

This assumption of consistent benefits of marriage across age groups is both theoretically and practically problematic. The investigation of age related differences in the effects of marital status on depressive symptoms advances our understanding of families by examining the potential for age to increase, decrease, eliminate, or even reverse the relationship between marital status and depressive symptoms. Understanding this structural amplification (Ross et al., 1990), in which age modifies the relationship between marital status and depressive symptoms will help identify at what life stage marriage is most beneficial for health (Williams & Umberson, 2004) and determine if the social context of marriage is an important determinant of wellbeing across the life course. …

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