Does monogamy really produce better health outcomes?

Does monogamy really produce better health outcomes?

Dr. Miriam Grossman, author of the book Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student, describes the “safe sex” model as delusional:

The only people who are completely safe are those who, along with their spouses, waited for marriage, and once married, remain faithful. The ones who are ‘safer’ delay sexual behavior, discriminate carefully in their choice, and understand the weight of their decisions.

Does monogamy really produce better health outcomes?

In theory and perfect practice, a monogamous marriage should produce increased health and better medical outcomes, or at the very least, serve as a protective factor against STI’s. However, new research calls into question whether monogamy is effective in actual practice. For example, a 2015 study found that monogamy rates among couples surveyed, much like abstinence before marriage, was low, and therefore, the vast majority of couples ended up being unfaithful to each other at some point.

Conversely, the study found that for couples who engaged in an “open relationship” – meaning, they agreed to have sex with partners outside of their marriage – were more likely to use contraception that protected them from STI’s. The study concluded that people who label themselves as monogamous (but aren’t necessarily faithful in their marriage) are less likely to employ safer sex practices when they commit adultery.

The perspective these researchers take is not one that I agree with, because it argues, based on its sample’s data, that most couples will not be faithful, and therefore, the best solution to achieve optimal medical health is to agree to be unfaithful and always use contraception. While this data is intriguing, there is, however, a major problem with the premise of this study in that it uses circular reasoning to achieve its conclusion.

Circular reasoning is a logical fallacy wherein the person reasoning begins with what they are trying to end with. For example, let’s revisit the premise of the study: Monogamy doesn’t work because all couples are not monogamous. Therefore, those who engage in an “open relationship” are more likely to avoid STI’s because they communicate more with their primary partners about their agreement to avoid monogamy, compared to those who intend to stay monogamous, but do not live up to that standard because of some failure on their part.

Therefore, “open relationships” are superior to monogamous relationships, because after all, many of those who label themselves “monogamous” actually do not live up to that standard. Can you see the bad logic in this argument? It’s essentially stating that monogamy doesn’t work at protecting against STI’s because very few people practice monogamy. But the truth is that the absence of monogamy is not really the problem, it’s merely the symptom of the problem in marriages that do achieve fidelity.

In reality, the difficulty lies in the character, commitment level, and communication between the partners in the relationship, or a mix of all of these. To make a sound comparison on monogamous couples versus those in an open relationship, one would have to dig a bit deeper and analyze more thoroughly why these couples are not remaining faithful.

For example, perhaps the unsuccessful monogamous couples are bad communicators or have a difficulty working through conflict. Maybe these couples have higher stress levels, more children that compete for their time, or work longer hours at the job that cause them to be away from their spouses, which may have a deleterious affect on their relationships.

While I disagree with the premise and methods of this study, we can learn a great deal from this data that helps us strengthen our understanding of God’s ideal for sexuality. But let’s not commit the same fallacy as the study does by assuming, because the Bible tells us, that monogamy is medically and scientifically superior to the alternatives.

If a large amount of monogamous couples are not successful in remaining faithful to one another, there has to be legitimate reasons why this is occurring; and if we study bad marriages, we can surely find those reasons. But what would happen if we looked in the scientific peer-reviewed literature for the characteristics of good marriages and the positive outcomes that result?

What I would wager to say, and what research confirms, is that good marriages contribute to a better overall sense of well-being for each spouse.

Marriage contributes to overall well-being and better mental health

So what makes a marriage good? That question would take a long time to dissect, and may vary from couple to couple. However, research does tell us that individuals who are married, especially men, rely heavily on the emotional and psychological support that a spouse provides for their well-being.

In fact, one study found that divorced men and women are more than twice as likely to commit suicide as those who keep their wedding vows. According to research by sociologist Paul Amato:

Divorce has the potential to create considerable turmoil in a person’s life; while marital dissolution benefits some individuals, it leads others to experience temporary decrements in well-being, and forces others on a downward trajectory from which they might never recover fully.

Research also shows that widowers, especially men, are much more likely to take their own lives than married persons. One study found that widowed white men aged 20 ‑ 44 were 14 times more likely to commit suicide than married men. The rate for a widowed African-American man is about eight times higher, while white women whose husbands have died were about four times more likely to take their own life in this study.

In another study on marriage and well-being, married persons were found to have the highest level of well-being, followed by, in order: those who were cohabiting, dating someone steadily, dating multiple partners, and not dating. Even after controlling for relationship happiness, married individuals continued to have the highest level of subjective well-being.

When it comes to more specific mental health outcomes found in marriage, such as increased happiness and decreased depression, let’s revisit Waite and Gallagher’s analysis of four decades of social science research, as their summary provides a pretty convincing argument.

One rather obvious component of marriage that contributes to better mental health is the emotional stability that a long-term relationship offers. When spouses are married for ten, twenty, or even thirty-plus years, the relationship produces a sense of familiarity, that in turn, leads to emotional intimacy that is both comforting and reassuring in hard times.

In fact, a 2005 study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that:

Spouses can help in these times of crisis in a way that friend or lover cannot, precisely because of what marriage means: someone who will be there for you, in sickness or in health. Living with someone ‘until death do us part’ provides a particular kind of intimacy – a spouse comforts partly because he or she has the knowledge that comes from long, emotional acquaintance but also because only a spouse can offer the peculiar reassurance that whatever life tosses at you.

But it’s not just the emotional support that a spouse offers in times of crisis that contributes to a better psychological condition. Longitudinal research following married couples for many years has found that when individuals marry, their mental health improves over multiple dimensions, including general happiness and self-esteem, as well as a lack of hostility and improved relationships with others outside of their marital relationship (among other variables).

When researchers in this study surveyed those couples that separated and divorced, their mental health declined in the form of increased depression and decreased happiness – and this remained significant even when controlling for the subject’s mental health before the study began, ruling out selection effects that may otherwise account for these differences.

Although increased psychological and emotional health is a worthwhile endeavor, there also seems to be another dynamic within marriage that creates an interesting phenomenon: a sense of meaning or purpose. While our individual lives contain validity and worth, a marriage seems to change an individual’s perspective into a more collective outlook that broadens one’s horizons.

Sociologists who study individuals who have multiple social roles have noticed that married men who held jobs and had families with children experienced less distress than those who did not – in fact, one study even found that men who were husbands and fathers but were not employed still fared better than their counterparts without marriages and families. Similarly, women that were employed, married, and bore children experienced less distress than those who were single, childless, and unemployed – and much like the men, even if they did not hold a job, they still experienced more meaning and purpose in their lives.

The accountability of a marriage and family comes with a deep sense of importance, responsibility, and duty – and out of that sense of accountability comes sanctification and transformation, not only for parents, but also, for their children and future generations to come. Dr. Rob Rienow, author of Visionary Parenting, sums it up very nicely:

The greatest earthly influence in people’s lives is what they experience in the homes       where they are raised. Stop and consider for a moment something that your parents did (or do not do) that shaped and influenced your life for the better. This may be more difficult, but now think back to the home where you were raised to an experience that shaped your heart for the worse. No one can compete with the power of a parent to shape the heart of a child! We all still bear the blessings and the curses of the homes were raised in. God has given parents and grandparents incomparable power and influence over the hearts of their children and grandchildren.

This is an excerpt from chapter 3 of The Meaning of Sex: A New Christian Ethos (January, 2018). For more information on how to obtain a copy, please contact our office at IHFINFO@InstituteforHealthyFamilies.org. Christopher Doyle, MA, LPC, LCPC is a licensed clinical professional counselor and the Executive Director of the Institute for Healthy Families. 

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