Unmarried couples are no worse off psychologically
The mental health of Norwegian cohabitants is equal to that of married couples. This contrasts with US research that indicates that such partners tend to be more depressed.
When cohabitation becomes more common in a population the psychological differences between married and unmarried couples are partly eradicated, a new study shows.
Anne Reneflot is a researcher at the Department of Adult Mental Health at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. She and her colleague Svenn-Erik Mamelund have conducted a new study based on Statistics Norway’s quality of life survey.
The data was based on a survey of about 4,000 Norwegians.
Very common in Norway
In Norway cohabitation is very common. One out of four couples is unwed.
Cohabitance can be a lot of different things. It can be a relationship between two young people, which is not yet particularly demanding. Or it can be a partnership just like a marriage.
Most young couples live together before prospectively getting married.
Half of all first births in a partnership are among cohabitants. Cohabitation is also very common among divorced persons.
This is a form of partnership that is common on all socio-economic levels and is socially accepted. Contrary to most countries, in Norway cohabitation is judicially equated with marriage.
Studies from other countries have generally shown that cohabitants have poorer mental health than married couples.
Different from country to country
“Previous research on this is mainly from the USA. Americans have shown a lot of interest in new family types and their correlation with health,” explains Reneflot.
In the American studies, cohabitants more often report being depressed than married couples and they are more inclined to relate problems with alcohol and more partner violence.
With new Norwegian data available researchers wanted to see if comparable results were reported here. They looked at a wide array of mental health indicators, including symptoms of anxiety and depression, earlier histories of depression, alcohol problems, domestic violence and use of legal and illegal drugs.
Cohabitation is different from country to country. While it is common up and down the social ladder in Norway, cohabitation is more common in the lower social classes of the UK and the USA.
So in these countries it is also more connected with social problems.
Burden of divorce
The Norwegian researchers found another difference between the wed and unwed couples. It concerned cohabitants who had previously been married.
Cohabitants who had previously been married were more prone to report having suffered a serious depression at some earlier time.
However, at the time when the survey was conducted, there was no difference between cohabitants and married couples in this respect.
“A divorce is a burden so it’s important to sort the groups according to their previous experiences with partnerships,” says Reneflot.
The Norwegian study did not find any differences between the number who had been subjected to psychological or physical violence in the past year, nor in the shares who had used drugs or psychopharmaca.
Two types of explanations
The explanations for the small differences can be divided into two categories.
First of all there could be systematic differences. For instance people who have an increased risk for one of the problems might be less inclined to get married.
“That would mean that the key factor isn’t the form of partnership, but rather it’s a matter of what kind of persons choose which type of partnership,” explains Reneflot.
Secondly, it can be a matter of differences between the two forms of partnership. Perhaps those who opt for marriage are more inclined to encounter expectations regarding a proper lifestyle.
“Marriage is an old institution. Married people might face more expectations and are subjected to greater social control mechanisms,” she says.
Taking care of one another
Previous studies have shown that having a partner is important with regard to healthy behaviour as it influences people to live healthier, drink less and eat better food. Married people on the average have better mental health than single people.
“Social controls might have a negative connotation, but this is about taking care of one another. That can be stronger in marriage than in cohabitation,” says Reneflot.
She stresses that cohabitants are a highly diversified group. Norwegian researchers can only speculate about the causes of the differences they have found.
“We’ve primarily looked at the correlation between type of partnership and mental health. Our data doesn’t tell us anything about the causes,” she explains.
Most are satisfied
Another survey from 2009 showed that Norwegian and Swedish cohabitants entertaining marriage plans are just as satisfied with their partnership form as those who are already married.
The same study shows that eight out of ten cohabitants consider themselves more than moderately bound to the relationship they live in. The corresponding figure for married couples was nine out of ten.
Among the married persons in the study, 70 percent answered that they were very satisfied with their partnership, as compared to 63 percent of cohabitants.
Translated by: Glenn Ostling
- Reneflot, A., Mamelund, S.-E. (2011): The association between marital status and psychological well-being in Norway, European Sociological Review 2011; doi: 10.1093/esr/jcq069.
- Wiik, K.Aa., Bernhardt, E. and Noack. T. (2009): A study of commitment and relationship quality in Sweden and Norway, Journal of Marriage and Family, 71, 465-477.