Study co-authors Kelly Musick of Cornell University's College of Human Ecology and Larry Bumpass of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said earlier research compared marriage to being single, or compared marriages and cohabitation at a single point in time. This study focused on what changes occur when single men and women move into marriage or cohabitation, and the extent to which any effects of marriage and cohabitation persist over time.
The researchers used data from the National Survey of Families and Households, involving 2,737 single men and women, 896 of whom married or moved in with a partner during the course of six years.
The study focused on key areas of well-being, including happiness, levels of depression, health and social ties.
"We found that differences between marriage and cohabitation tend to be small and dissipate after a honeymoon period. Also while married couples experienced health gains -- likely linked to the formal benefits of marriage such as shared healthcare plans -- cohabiting couples experienced greater gains in happiness and self-esteem," Musick and Bumpass said in a statement. "For some, cohabitation may come with fewer unwanted obligations than marriage and allow for more flexibility, autonomy and personal growth."
The study, scheduled to be published in the February issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family, said marriage is by no means unique in promoting well-being and that other forms of romantic relationships can provide many of the same benefits.