Is MSNBC Really Recommending Marriage as a Treatment for Depression?

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

The headline on MSNBC was catchy: "New treatment for depression - marriage." It was also irresponsible.

I spent years checking out claims like this while working on my book, Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. At the urging of readers who had noticed this latest bit of matrimania, I checked out this pronouncement, too.

The MSNBC article was based on a study that will appear in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. I asked one of the co-authors for an advanced copy. The authors described their work accurately and carefully. MSNBC reported it selectively.

First, here's what MSNBC got right. In the research, adults who started out single were interviewed in the first year of the study and then 5 years later. Both times, depression was measured on an 84-point scale. The people who were married by the time of the second interview scored about 3 points lower on the depression scale (out of the 84 points) than those who stayed single. That's an overall average. Breaking it down, the singles who started out depressed and then got married scored about 8 points lower in depression; those who started out happy scored about 2 points lower.

Now here are a few points from the original report that did not make it into the storyline whereby marriage is touted as a "new treatment for depression."

1. At the very longest, the people in this study were married for 5 years. This is important. Consider, for example, the results of a study in which people reported their happiness every year for 18 years (here and here). Those who got married and stayed married enjoyed just a small increase in happiness (about a quarter of a point on an 11-point scale) around the year of the wedding. Then they went back to being as happy or as unhappy as they were when they were single.

2. MSNBC does not happen to mention that the people who married and then divorced within the 5-year period were excluded from the calculations. Do you think the people who got divorced were becoming less depressed as a result of marrying? Neither do I. The 18-year study of happiness reported some relevant data. On the average, the people who married and later divorced did not even get a small blip in happiness in their newlywed year. Instead, they were already becoming slightly less happy (rather than happier) as their wedding day drew nearer.

3. The people who were classified as depressed were about 20% of the people in the study. The other 80% were the ones who scored just 2 points lower on depression (out of 84) after they married. Here is a comment in the authors' own words: "Those with average levels of marital happiness who were not depressed prior to marrying do not experience significantly better psychological well-being than their continually never-married counterparts."

4. Here's something else from the authors: "In most cases, above-average marital happiness is necessary for conferring the psychological benefits of a transition into marriage." (So, getting married decreases depression as long as you end up in a marriage that is happier than most.)

5. Based on an interview with one of the authors, MSNBC suggests that marriage may provide "the companionship and emotional support needed to help alleviate depression." But if it is companionship and emotional support that is key, then wouldn't a close and caring friendship provide that?

So let's see. If you get married, you may end up less depressed if you start out among the 20% most depressed people to begin with, if you don't get divorced, if you end up in a marriage that is happier than most, and if no one asks how you feel after the first few years, and no one compares the marital relationship to any other relationship that offers companionship and emotional support.

On these grounds, you want to quit therapy, toss your meds, and just get married? I don't think so.

Exaggerated claims such as this MSNBC headline (that shot to the top of the most e-mailed stories) are obviously obnoxious to single people. But they are unfair to married people, too. Teeing up a fortune cookie expectation - Get Married, Be Happy - is setting readers up for disappointment and disillusionment. People have their reasons for marrying, but trying out a "new treatment for depression" is unlikely to be one of the sensible ones.