Cohabitation can be just as good as marriage for many. (Getty Images)
Despite conventional wisdom, marriage might not be the golden ticket when it comes to mental health.
New research from Ohio State University found that couples (especially women) get just as much of a mental health boost from moving in together as they do when they get married, but men get a bigger boost from marriage.
For the study, researchers analyzed data from 8,700 people gathered in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, who were interviewed every other year from 2000 to 2010. Study participants were asked about their relationship status at each interview and asked to assess their emotional distress on a scale of one (all the time) to four (none of the time), plus how often they had felt “downhearted and blue” in the last month.
Here’s what they discovered:
Women had a similar decrease in emotional distress when they moved in with a partner and when they got married.
Men and women had a drop in emotional distress when they cohabited with a second partner or remarried.
Men didn’t have a decrease in emotional distress when they cohabited for the first time, but they did experience a decrease when they went directly into marriage.
Study co-author Claire Kamp Dush, an associate professor of human sciences at Ohio State University, tells Yahoo Health that she was surprised by the findings. “We have so much research arguing that marriage is beneficial for mental health,” she says. “We didn’t expect to find that cohabitation could be as beneficial.”
According to Kamp Dush, about two-thirds of couples live together before marriage, making this good news for cohabitators. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also discovered that people are cohabiting for longer periods of time than in the past.
Kamp Dush cites the social support that comes with living with someone — regardless of whether you’re married to the person — for the mental boost, as well as the constant company. “You’re also having more sex when you’re living with someone, which is good for your health,” she notes.
So why don’t men get the same benefits from cohabitation as marriage? It could be because of the difference in the way men tend to view the living situation.
“Women in general like having security in their intimate relationship, and moving in together is a sign of commitment,” Kamp Dush explains. (But, she points out, women don’t like to cohabit for too long.)
Men, on the other hand, tend to view it as a trial run or testing period for marriage. “They might not take this step as seriously as women,” she says.
Kamp Dush says this could “potentially” signal that men get more of an emotional return from marriage but says more research is needed first. However, she notes that men had a decrease in emotional distress when they cohabited for the second time (just not the first), which she says could simply be attributed to better decision-making in finding a serious partner the second time around.
Kamp Dush says the findings are promising for modern relationships. “It’s pretty common to live with someone, break up, and live with someone else,” she says. So, if things don’t go according to plan in your first union, it’s good to know you might get even more of an emotional boost from the next — especially if you’re a man.