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The short answer, according to a recent study, is Yes, No, Maybe, and It depends.

“Marriage, Cohabitation and Happiness: A Cross-National Analysis of 27 Countries” is co-authored by Kristen Schultz Lee (University at Buffalo, SUNY) and Hiroshi Ono (Texas A&M University). The subject is complex, delving into the impact on relationships of economic factors, religious context, and societal norms, such as attitudes towards gender roles.

At 34 pages (including appendices) it’s a daunting read (hint: skip to pages 20-23 and read the conclusion). The researchers are to be lauded for their attempt to be comprehensive (27 countries: over 40,000 respondents, age 18-75) and thorough, but they admit to an “underrepresentation of developing countries”. For instance, not a single African nation was represented in the study.

One doesn’t wish to be dismissive, but if that’s not a fatal flaw for a purportedly international study, it comes close to skewing data beyond the point of accuracy (if such can be attained). Populations of many developing countries have views on relationships, gender, religion, and for that matter, what constitutes happiness, that differ substantially from those of western developed nations.

Moreover, weariness from decades of political correctness more or less requires one to have a healthy skepticism when approaching topics of this nature. Truly unbiased research is something of a rarity these days, with increasingly fine lines between preconceived notions and foregone conclusions. The study’s authors occasionally admit to being “surprised”—why, unless they were already approaching a topic with an expectation of a particular outcome?

It’s a challenge to sum up a hefty report in a short post, but here are a few take-aways; make of them what you will—frankly, some of their conclusions seemed to my non-sociologist mind to be self-contradictory.

Economic Factors:

* Happiness is statistically significantly higher in higher GDP countries.

* Happiness for women is not affected by full-time employment. Men, however, report higher happiness with full-time employment. 

Religion:

* The negative association between cohabiting (versus being married) and happiness is even stronger in countries with rigid religious contexts.

* Those who are active in their religious communities [are] more likely to enter a marital, rather than a non-marital union.

* Cross-nationally, differences in the reported happiness of cohabiting and married women are affected by the religious context in which the women are living.

* Religious context is a significant moderator of the happiness of cohabiting and single women, but not men

Societal Norms (Gender roles):

* Traditional gender beliefs in a society are positively associated with happiness and this effect is moderated by gender.

* At the individual-level, we find that traditional gender beliefs are associated with lower levels of happiness.

* Living in a country with traditional gender beliefs is more strongly associated with happiness for men than for women.

* Although women are, overall, happier in more gender-traditional societies, the gap in reported happiness between married and cohabiting women is much greater in gender-traditional societies than in more egalitarian societies.

* Regardless of the gender climate, married men are happier than cohabiting men.

* Women who cohabit are more constrained by social norms and conventions than are their male counterparts.

Children:

* The effect of having children on happiness is found to be negative for women, but there is no relationship between happiness for men and the presence of children.

* The negative effect of children on happiness for women is even greater in societies with traditional gender beliefs. 

This last quotation defies category, and in my view, common sense:

Cohabitation has the potential to improve the quality of life for many persons, especially for women, by liberating and empowering them from the formal constraints of marriage.”

I can only speak for myself (married 26 years), but one of the most positive aspects of marriage is the long-term mutual commitment that enables partners to experience greater security (emotional as well as financial), so I’m not sure why women in particular would want to be ‘liberated’ from that. Cohabitation by its very nature lacks both the formality and permanence of such commitment. Oh well, I don’t have a degree in Sociology or Gender Studies.

I also found this very curious: though the researchers found that the “odds of happiness” (based on their chosen criteria) are the same for married and cohabiting women living in “gender egalitarian” societies, married women were almost twice as likely to perceive and report themselves as happy.

The study sums up:

In order to understand what makes married and cohabiting people happy, we argue that it is necessary to look beyond individual characteristics alone to the interplay of individual characteristics and the social context as defined by the gender climate and religious context.

In short, it matters what you believe personally, and, like it or not, it still matters what the neighbors think; you can’t negate one without negating the other. Progressives might conclude that we need to further deconstruct if not destroy any and all remaining traditional norms; traditionalists will say, ‘Don’t fix what isn’t broken.”

So with apologies to Lee and Ono, I’m not sure we’re really any further ahead. 

Mariette Ulrich is a homemaker and freelance writer. She lives in western Canada with her husband and six of their seven children. Mariette holds an Honours B.A. in English Literature...