Feeling stressed? Worried that your blood pressure may be soaring? The media have a solution for you -- get married! You've seen the headlines:
"Marriage may lower blood pressure."
"Walk down the aisle for lower blood pressure, but be happy!"
HERE'S WHAT THE BLOOD PRESSURE STUDY REALLY DID SHOW
For my Living Single blog at Psychology Today, I read the original journal article to see what that study really did say. Here's what I found:
Adults from the Provo, Utah community (mostly white) agreed to wear a blood pressure monitor for 24 hours. The married group was comprised of 204 heterosexuals. The 99 singles included 12 who were divorced and 1 who was widowed; the others had always been single.
From headlines such as "Marriage may lower blood pressure," you might guess that when blood pressure was averaged across the 24 hours of the study, the married people would have lower blood pressure than the singles. You would, however, be wrong. There were NO SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES in blood pressure between the married people and the single people.
Next, the authors looked at people's blood pressure only while they were awake. Maybe those waking hours, when married participants may have actually be interacting with their spouses, are the times when they look healthier than single people. Wrong again. There were NO SIGNIFICANT DIFFERENCES in blood pressure between the married people and the single people during waking hours.
What's left is blood pressure while sleeping. The authors looked at how much each person's blood pressure decreased while sleeping compared to when the person was awake. The married people had a greater reduction in blood pressure (not necessarily the same as a lower level of blood pressure), by about 3 points, than single people.
That is the key finding that you have been hearing all about: Married people look better than single people only if you compare reductions in blood pressure when the participants are unconscious. Even then, you cannot say that the marrieds had lower blood pressure BECAUSE they were married. (Read more here.)
MY LETTER TO TIME MAGAZINE ABOUT THEIR MISLEADING "MARRY ME" STORY
The blood pressure frenzy is just the latest in a long line of media reports that misrepresent the actual research findings (i.e., what you find when you read the original scientific reports).
Here's an example. The cover story of the January 28, 2008 issue of Time magazine was titled, "The Science of Romance." Inside was a story by Lori Oliwenstein called "Marry Me." The teaser added: "Say yes, and you're in for more than love, children and a home. Better health and longer life are part of the deal."
I want to share excerpts from a letter I wrote to one of the editors at Time magazine:
Oliwenstein's story is filled with the conventional wisdom about marriage: get married, and you will become healthier and less depressed, you will smoke and drink less, and you will live longer. I believed these claims myself for some time. But then I looked up the actual research studies upon which these claims were based, and was shocked to find that they are all exaggerated or just plain wrong.
I approached the study of the science of marriage and singlehood from my expertise as a PhD social psychologist (Harvard, 1979) who has taught graduate courses in research methodology for more than 2 decades.
It is easy to conclude, based on a superficial glance at numbers or headlines, that getting married makes people happier, healthier, and so forth. But to print an article in such as prestigious magazine as Time, it is particularly important to go beyond a first glance to see what the science really does say.
Some of the studies upon which Oliwenstein bases her conclusions were published when I wrote Singled Out (hardcover was published in November 2006). In the book, I show why it is easy, on first glance, to come up with the kinds of conclusions that were stated in Time's "Marry Me;" then I show why those conclusions are not actually supported by the data.
For example, in describing health outcomes, Oliwenstein refers to the CDC study. I explain what that study really does show on pages 43-46 of Singled Out.
Oliwenstein also claims that smoking declines when people marry. But as I describe in detail on pages 156-157 of Singled Out, that, too, is untrue. An extraordinary study of more than 5,000 twins shows something very different.
She also claims that drinking declines if you have a wife at your side. Wrong again, as I explain on pages 154-156 of Singled Out.
Some other research was published after Singled Out came out, and so I address those studies elsewhere. For example, here is my explanation of what that study of longevity really does show, and also my overview of the relevant research that Oliwenstein does not mention in her story.
As for claims about depression, I addressed those on the Huffington Post.
There are several ways in which Oliwenstein gets things wrong. First, as I have detailed, her claims about the health and other benefits of getting married are exaggerated or wrong. Second, she never considers the important point that these effects, even if they were accurate, may not be specific to marriage. Perhaps, for example, the benefits of close friendship are as impressive, or even more so, than Oliwenstein claims (inaccurately) that they are for marriage.
An additional concern I have is the caricatured way that Oliwenstein refers to people who are single. Consider, for example: "Marriage means no more drinking at singles' bars until closing, no more eating uncooked ramen noodles out of the bag and calling it a meal."
I ended my letter by requesting that Time set the record straight. That has not happened.
If getting married really did make people healthier, and did so in a way that no other close relationship or set of relationships or meaningful life experiences could approximate, that would be a story worth reporting and reading.
But to make marriage-hyping claims that are exaggerated, misrepresented, or just plain wrong -- well, that's just acting like a matrimaniac.
Obviously, it would be good for singles if there were less singlism (singles-bashing) and matrimania. What may be less obvious is that if reports were more accurate and less caricatured, that would also be good for anyone who is, or wants to be, coupled. When singles are stigmatized, there is a risk that some people will be tempted to couple and marry for the wrong reasons - to escape the cultural muck that comes with being single. When singles are no longer marginalized or demeaned, then people who want to couple can do so from a position of strength. Rather than running away from singlehood to escape the stigma, they can move toward marriage or coupling as something they want to embrace.