Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marriage, Cohabitation, and Happiness: A Cross-National Analysis of 27 Countries

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marriage, Cohabitation, and Happiness: A Cross-National Analysis of 27 Countries

Article excerpt

The authors investigated how the reported happiness of married and cohabiting individuals varies cross-nationally with societal gender beliefs and religious context. They used the 2002 International Social Survey Programme data from 27 countries (N = 36, 889) and specified hierarchical linear models with macro - micro level interactions in order to examine how the social - institutional context affects happiness at the individual level. Consistent with previous research, they found a happiness gap between married and cohabiting persons. In the case of women, this gap was moderated by the gender climate and the religious context in the country. This suggests that, at least for women, this gap is not intractable but is rather an outcome of the social context. For men, the relationship between marital status and happiness was less variable across the different social contexts studied.

Key Words: cohabitation, family diversity, family structure, happiness, non-U.S. families, well-being.

Earlier research on family and marriage has consistently found that marriage improves both physical and subjective well-being. Marriage, it is argued, provides economic and social stability, which is associated with better health and greater happiness than experienced by unmarried persons (Waite & Gallagher, 2000). Although the empirical evidence is seemingly insurmountable, some scholars have questioned whether it is marriage per se or simply the act of union formation that is associated with happiness (Soons & Kalmijn, 2009). Cohabitation has the potential to improve the quality of life for many persons, especially for women, because it is not subject to the same gendered roles and expectations that may be associated with marriage. This stream of inquiry led to empirical research that has examined how happiness varies by marital status, with a particular focus on the happiness gap between married and cohabiting persons. Much of the evidence thus far upholds the benefits of marriage, with married persons reportedly experiencing greater happiness than cohabiting persons (e.g., Stack &Eshleman, 1998).

In this research, we hypothesized that the happiness gap between married and cohabiting persons is not universal across countries but instead depends on the social - institutional context of the countries involved. Our primary areas of interest concerned the institutions of family and religion. How is the happiness gap affected by gender roles and gender norms at the country level? How do the predictions of past research (largely based on U.S. and western European data) hold up in a crossnational comparison of marital status and happiness? Similarly, how is the happiness gap influenced by the society's religious climate? We investigated these questions through a crossnational investigation of general happiness using multilevel models.

BACKGROUND

The happiness gap between married and cohabiting persons is one area of research that clearly demonstrates how macro- and microlevel attributes affect happiness. Stack and Eshleman (1998) and Diener, Gohm, Suh, and Oishi (2000), for example, examined happiness among cohabiters and married couples crossnationally and found that the relationship between marital status and happiness was similar across the countries studied and also between genders. Soons and Kalmijn (2009) specifically examined the role of attitudes toward cohabitation in moderating the happiness gap between married and cohabiting individuals in Europe. They found that, in countries where cohabitation is institutionalized, the happiness gap between married and cohabiting individuals disappears or is even reversed. They did not explore gender differences in the marital status happiness gap. What remains to be investigated, however, is how other social and institutional factors shape happiness by marital status. Is it only attitudes toward cohabitation that matter in shaping the relative happiness of married and cohabiting persons? …

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