Article by Caroline Zielinski /
The Sydney Morning Herald /
November 24, 2018 /
Click here to view original /
Two years ago, I stood on the balcony of Palatine Hill in Rome, overlooking the Colosseum on a sunny, late-autumn afternoon.
Behind me, my boyfriend was pacing madly, wringing his hands. Then out came the small diamond ring we had chosen together at a nondescript jeweller in Prague the week before. He asked me to marry him, and I said yes. But ever since, I’ve been wondering: is formalising our relationship with marriage really worth it? It’s expensive and seems outdated, yet so many people continue to embrace it.
What is there, exactly, that marriage offers that de facto status falls short on? And is marriage actually better for us in terms of overall wellbeing and health?
Will getting married make me and us as a couple happier?
According to the data and experts, the answer leans towards “yes”.
Studies show, overwhelmingly, that people in couples, whether married or de facto, are happier than their single counterparts. Married people in particular, however, tend to say they’re happiest.
Marriage provides companionship, intimacy and social support. It also connects spouses with each other’s social networks, expanding the number of people who can help in times of need.
Experts say married people – much more so than de facto and single people – have access to so-called “marital resources”, that is, the economic, social and psychological advantages that come with being married, as well as relationship stability.
The deputy director of the Melbourne Institute and the HILDA Survey program, Professor Roger Wilkins, says men benefit the most from marriage. “Men seem to obtain their happiness, health and have higher rates of wellbeing when they are married,” he says.
The research shows married men tend to have much better social supports than single counterparts. Poor social supports have been strongly linked to higher rates of depression, loneliness and isolation, which are associated with poorer health outcomes (although it could just be that happier people tend to get married, and sadder, sicker ones don’t, something Professor Wilkins refers to as the selection bias).
So will getting married make me healthier, then?
One study, which examined the difference marital status makes to perceived social wellbeing, found that de facto couples reported lower social wellbeing than their married counterparts. One reason is de facto relationships represent an “incomplete institution”, an informal arrangement that exposes couples to social stigma.
Another reason is that despite the perception that de factos have the same rights as married couples, the reality is quite different: de facto couples are often forced to jump through many legal hoops (at significant financial expense) just to prove what a single piece of paper (aka, marriage certificate) symbolises: love and commitment.
This constant need to reaffirm love and commitment to gain social approval can undermine happiness and health, causing undue stress – both health-wise and financially – for unwed couples.
Jessica*, 33, who married her husband almost eight years ago, says most people respond to boundaries and rules. “Marriage puts commitment out there formally in a way that would be more difficult for people who are not married,” she says. “On the other hand, being in a [de facto relationship] means you have to create your own mental rules, different from society’s, that say you’re committed to that person for life. You will also probably have to keep explaining – at least to other people – why you aren’t married. Not many people are good at that.”
Will getting married make my relationship stronger?
Data shows that de facto couples are three to five times more likely to split up within five years than married couples. Moreover, for most de facto couples, marriage is the end goal.
Professor Wilkins says 80 per cent of married couples tend to still be together after 10 years. The number drops to 60 per cent for those in de facto relationships.
“Part of this is that it’s easier to get out of a de facto relationship than a marriage; it’s less messy legally,” he says. “While it’s true that not having a marriage certificate doesn’t necessarily mean you’re less likely to last, the very public nature of a marriage, which requires making a public statement of commitment, can be harder to go back on.”
In her eight years of marriage, Jessica and her husband have had ups and downs. “During that period, I think being married actually helped us get through,” she says. “It’s the idea that there is something bigger than the two of you that you’re accountable to. And, yes, that could also be mortgage and kids, but that intangible emotional idea that you love someone so much that you stood up and told all the people to know about it while wearing the most expensive dress you’ll ever own has a lasting impact. It’s a bit cliched, but sometimes you just need a bit of hope to get you through a dark time.”
De facto: a better option for women?
While marriage is still the preferred relationship choice, Professor Wilkins says de facto relationships are growing.
“In 2001, there were only 9 per cent of couples in de facto partnerships; now we have nearly 12 per cent. While marriage rates have been declining, it’s very slowly; it’s still very fashionable,” he says.
Some studies suggest de facto partnerships benefit women in particular. They seem to be more progressive and have a more equal distribution of gender roles, especially when it comes to household labour.
However, University of Melbourne social scientist and feminist lecturer Dr Lauren Rosewarne says there is not enough research to definitely show whether women are better or worse off as de facto versus married.
“The only difference I can see is in terms of cognition, so the perception that de facto is different to marriage, somehow less binding, less symbolically problematic,” she tells me. “However, in reality, and legally speaking, there is not a huge amount of difference between the two. I suspect, and certainly have seen it from my own friendship group, that a lot of people who are in long-term de facto relationships consider themselves married anyway.”
Dr Rosewarne says that it’s probably the cohabitation factor, rather than the marriage certificate, that makes the difference. “If you’re living in the same house, your relationship becomes marriage-like, and traditional gender roles become more important.”
Interestingly, Dr Rosewarne says it’s actually single women who score the highest on happiness and psychological health. “All metrics indicate that it’s the single woman who is happiest. The only area they fare worse in is financially,” she says.
However, this can also be attributed to the selection effect, which says that more progressive people tend to live in de facto partnerships and more traditional people tend to marry.
Sarah*, who has been with her partner Greg* for nine years, says feminism, as well as the irrelevance of marriage today are the main reasons she doesn’t plan to marry. “Why do I need to confess my love and commitment in front of everyone? We’ve lived together for six years; we’ve moved countries three times; we have a dog. What more confirmation do people need?’
People continue to get married, with the latest ABS statistic showing marriage rates on the rise. Whether for social, cultural or financial reasons or all of the above, people seem to want to pair up.
As for me, I think I’ll sit on my de facto status a while longer. At least it’ll save me some money.