Dolan is a London School of Economics professor. Dolan confronts fairytale images of marital happiness against scientific data in his latest book, Happy Ever After Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life.
Unfortunately, Dolan accidentally misinterpreted the facts that supported this wise suggestion. He based his judgment on telephone survey findings purportedly demonstrating that women expressed lower levels of satisfaction when their partner was not there, which would presumably result in a more honest response.
In fact, interviewers weren't questioning whether he'd left the kitchen to use the restroom. People who replied "spouse missing" were married but no longer shared a residence with their spouse, which is a far worse circumstance. Separation from their husband was most likely what made the women in the poll unhappy, not their marital status.
Nonetheless, Dolan's book has reignited an essential debate: Is it harmful to women to marry?
No, according to science. Large studies have shown that, on average, married individuals are happier later in life than single persons. Separated and divorced persons are less happy, whereas the never-married and widowed are somewhere in the middle. Studies also show an increase in happiness in the days leading up to and immediately after weddings (the so-called "honeymoon effect"), albeit this advantage to happiness progressively fades to levels somewhat higher than pre-wedding levels over time. Marriage has a favorable influence on happiness for both men and women.
Some argue that married individuals are happy because they were happy before they married. While studies suggest that happy individuals are more likely to marry and remain married, this does not explain the whole connection. Happy people who marry are still happier than happy individuals who do not marry. Marriage and happiness have a bidirectional link, as do most things in psychology. In other words, it is what you do to nurture happiness as a person and as a spouse that matters, not marriage in and of itself. According to Harvard psychology professor and happiness specialist Daniel Gilbert, “marriage does not make you happy.” “Happily married people make you happy.”
Indeed, marital contentment is a significantly greater predictor of happiness than just being married, and being in a toxic relationship is clearly detrimental to happiness. Single individuals who choose not to marry but have significant social support may be happy, and happiness improves when low-quality marriages dissolve—this is true for both men and women. Decades of research in human development, psychology, neuroscience, and medicine all point to the same conclusion: being in a long-term, committed relationship that provides consistent support, opportunities to be supportive, and a social context for meaningful shared experiences over time is unquestionably beneficial to your well-being.
Is this to say that we should ignore Dolan's criticism of marriage out of hand? Again, the answer is no, because he makes a wider point that still holds true: attempting to live up to any rigorous ideal, even getting caught up in the perfect marriage and thinking that this would bring you pleasure, really gets in the way of happiness. Expecting to meet "the one" and live happily ever after is deceptive since it requires work to
1) get to know someone and
2) sustain love.
People who remain in poor relationships to maintain this ideal—for the sake of appearances, children, or basic sustenance—might be married, but it undermines their pleasure. People who limit themselves to conventional but unsuitable marital roles (for example, the breadwinning husband or the obedient, seductive woman) live and interact less genuinely. This reduces pleasure for people as well as between them. Dolan is correct in his warning that most of us will fail in some manner if we strive to live up to the unreachable ideal of seamless, happiness-bestowing marital bliss. He's also correct that this aim may be particularly harmful to women, for whom internalized media standards have linked self-worth to not being a spinster—a story that drives the desire for salvation via marriage and exaggerates the accompanying disappointment when it doesn't work out.
Dolan does a nice job of emphasizing how we all wind up being so unprepared for successful relationships. Is there a major issue? Most civilizations never explicitly instruct individuals in the skills that are most useful for getting to know one other and keeping love alive over time. Skills that help us create, deepen, and maintain long-term social ties, such as empathetic listening, expressing appreciation, or forgiving, are seldom exercised beyond elementary school. We often expect that these talents will emerge with age. Then there are the resources for assisting couples in relationships before or throughout the marriage, or even for maintaining civil conversation after divorce, which are sometimes difficult to obtain and costly. Though wedding officiants, rituals, and ceremonies often appeal to guests as witnesses who may be called upon to give pair support "in sickness and in health," it seems that few make it their business to interfere, and couples seldom seek out before it is too late.
Dolan's remark has sparked a heated debate on marriage's faulty, unequal structure. It has also sparked efforts to recognize marriage as the essential interstitial tissue that binds human civilization together. But, to me (and, I imagine, to Dolan, given his previous works on the components that drive happiness), the crucial point here is that marriage is typically excellent for happiness because it provides a conveniently available, culturally sanctioned container for durable, supporting social interaction.
At the same time, we all know that marriage isn't a magic wand. Getting married will not automatically make you happy. In reality, you may get equal advantages from other types of connections, such as those with friends and family. When it comes to creating a happy life, both men and women have something greater than magic. We have the capacity to master the specialized skills required to build and sustain healthier relationships of all types.