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Bella DePaulo

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Get Married, Live Longer? It's a Myth

Posted: 02/10/09 05:17 PM ET

Here's another myth about getting married that just won't die. Recently, the Washington Post teased its Valentine's Day story with this online headline: "Want to live longer? Try marriage."
Well, that's not exactly true. In fact, there is some evidence that people who stay single live as long as anyone, and longer than many. Let me explain.

The money quote in the Post piece came from a research brief from RAND: "Numerous studies covering 140 years have shown that married persons tend to live longer than their unmarried counterparts."

I read that RAND brief and found that it was based on one study of men-only published in 1996. I read that study, too. (The reference to 140 years was alluding to other studies on the topic, including some I'll describe below.)

A book often cited by the Marriage Mafia (Waite and Gallagher's The Case for Marriage) claims that getting married "can literally save your life." In Chapter 2 of Singled Out, I scrutinized each of the studies cited in supposed support of that claim. Here I'll just briefly review some of the tricks the authors used to make the results of getting married look better than they really were.

The most popular cheater method is to pretend that people who are divorced or widowed never did get married. (It is the same method used most often to make the bogus claim that getting married makes you happier or healthier.) Practitioners of this bit of artifice are trying to make an argument that goes something like this: "Divorced people don't live as long as married people, so that shows that getting married expands your life span." But divorced and widowed people DID get married!

Neither the 1996 study based only on men, nor any of the studies cited in The Case for Marriage, compared all of the people who ever got married to the people who stayed single.

So when the authors of The Case claimed that getting married saved men's lives, they did so by acting as if the men who got divorced or widowed did not actually get married. I call that a statistical annulment.

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Here's something else interesting from that book. Even after using the cheater method, the authors ended up admitting that getting married did not matter much to women's longevity. Even the women who got married and stayed married did not seem to live longer than the other women.

Now let me tell you the results of what is probably the longest-running study of longevity ever conducted. It is the Terman Life-Cycle Study, started in 1921. (Continue reading here at the "Living Single" blog at Psychology Today.)