Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Long-Term Consequences of Relationship Formation for Subjective Well-Being

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Long-Term Consequences of Relationship Formation for Subjective Well-Being

Article excerpt

This study examines how relationship transitions affect subjective well-being (SWB) and how this effect changes over time. We used prospective data containing information about 18 years of young adults' lives (PSIN, N = 5,514). SWB was measured with the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Within-person multilevel regression analyses showed that dating, unmarried cohabitation, and marriage had additional well-being enhancing effects. After entry into a union, well-being slowly decreased. A large SWB decrease was found after union dissolution, but through adaptation or repartnering well-being increased again. Well-being of never-married and nevercohabiting young adults decreased slowly over time. These effects were independent of parenthood and employment. Our results confirm expectations from the resources theory but contradict some assumptions of the set-point theory.

Key Words: adjustment, cohabitation, dating, fixed effects models, union formation, well-being.

The consequences of intimate relationships for well-being have kept scientists busy for centuries. For instance, the Greek author Euripides voiced strong reservations about the positive effects of relationships when he wrote "never say that marriage has more of joy than pain" (Alcestis, 438 B.C.). On the other hand, numerous empirical studies have shown that - at least in contemporary societies - marriage and other romantic relationships do contribute to well-being (Waite & Gallagher, 2000; Wilson & Oswald, 2005). Apparently the joy of a relationship usually outweighs the pain. Most existing studies, however, examined static differences in well-being between people in different relationships rather than dynamic changes in well-being resulting from transitions in the relationship domain.

In this paper we further our understanding of this latter issue by examining (a) whether the transitions of entering and ending different types of relationships differentially influences individuals' level of subjective well-being (SWB), (b) whether individuals' level of SWB changes as their relationship develops over time, and (c) whether the potential effect of relationship transitions on individuals' SWB depends on transitions in other life domains. In doing so, our focus is on subjective wellbeing, that is, a general notion that refers to the affective and cognitive evaluation of life (Diener, Suh, Lucas, & Smith, 1999).

First, much previous research compared the married to the never married, divorced, and widowed. The never-married group is, however, rather heterogeneous and includes people without a partner, people who are steady dating, and unmarried cohabitants. Unmarried cohabitation has become an important prelude to marriage and, for some, an alternative to marriage (Manning, Longmore, & Giordano, 2007), but existing studies on unmarried cohabitation and SWB show inconsistent results (Brown, 2000; Horwitz & White, 1998). Because there is no consensus about this issue, this study takes cohabitation into account when determining the effect of relationships on subjective well-being in young adulthood. Steady dating, a relationship type in which the partners are romantically involved but are not living together, is examined as well. It is an important relationship type, especially for young people (Collins, 2003). People who are dating might benefit from having a partner, even though they are not residing with this partner. By studying how individuals' SWB changes in response to the transition in and out of a steady dating relationship, unmarried cohabitation, or marriage, we can shed light on the question of which relational aspects enhance well-being. In the remainder of this study, the term cohabitation is used to refer to unmarried cohabitation, whereas the terms union and living together are used to refer to people who share a household with a partner, irrespective of whether they are legally married or not.

Second, it is important to assess whether gains in well-being after entry into a relationship are or stable. …

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