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Married Americans Thriving at Higher Rates Than Unmarried Adults

Married Americans Thriving at Higher Rates Than Unmarried Adults

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Marital rates in the U.S. have been declining in recent decades. The reasons for this trend have been debated by social scientists and include changes in cultural values and behaviors, like religious participation, in response to rising material prosperity. The General Social Survey documented a decline between 1988 and 2012 in the percentage of U.S. adults who agreed that married people are generally happier than unmarried people.

But Gallup wellbeing data from 2009 to 2023 find that married people are much more likely to be thriving in their wellbeing than adults who have never married, are divorced or are living with a domestic partner.

Gallup classifies Americans as "thriving," "struggling" or "suffering" according to how they rate their current and future lives on a ladder scale with steps numbered from zero to 10, based on the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale. Those who rate their current life a 7 or higher and their anticipated life in five years an 8 or higher are classified as thriving.

From 2009 to 2023, married adults aged 25 to 50 were more likely to be thriving -- by double-digit margins -- than adults who have never married. The 16-percentage-point gap between married adults (61%) and those who have never married (45%) in 2023 is within the range of 10 to 24 points recorded since 2009.

Married adults have also been consistently more likely than those in a domestic partnership to rate their lives highly enough to be considered thriving.


The higher wellbeing of married adults relative to those who have never married can be found for men and women across all major racial/ethnic groups. Statistical models show that the association between marriage and wellbeing is also not explained by educational attainment or age.

One indication of why married people express higher subjective wellbeing is that the quality of their romantic relationship tends to be higher, according to Gallup research conducted via a web survey using Gallup's probability-based panel in June-July 2023.

Family Relationships Are Stronger, Less Fraught When Parents Are Married

Gallup asked adults living with children between the ages of 3 and 19 to rate the relationship with their spouse or romantic partner -- if in an exclusive relationship -- on a zero-to-10 scale, with zero being the weakest and least loving relationship they can imagine and 10 being the strongest and most loving. The same survey also asked those in an exclusive relationship, “In the past 30 days, how many days have you felt like you could not speak to your spouse/partner because you were angry with them or they were angry with you?”

A high proportion of married couples living with children report being in a strong and loving relationship with their spouse (83%), whereas only 69% of those in a domestic partnership and 61% of those in a non-domestic exclusive relationship report the same. Likewise, married couples are nearly half as likely as unmarried couples to report two or more occasions per 30-day period in which they or their partner were too angry to speak. While the data are limited to adults living with children, the results may be more broadly applicable, as other research on relationship quality suggests.


Bottom Line

Within the U.S., it is clear that married adults rate their lives more highly than others and have done so for the past 15 years. This association is not explained by other demographic characteristics -- such as age, race/ethnicity or education -- that are more common among married people than those who are single.

Married people are also more likely to practice a religion, and religious practice is also positively correlated with subjective wellbeing. Still, the positive association between marriage and wellbeing is found among religious adherents and adults who are atheists or agnostic.

Yet, many reasons could be given for why this pattern exists. Married people may possess long-term personality traits and characteristics that tend to make life better for themselves and their intimate relationships. However, this is unlikely to entirely explain the positive association between marriage and wellbeing, since the institution of marriage -- with its cultural, social and legal implications -- likely affects behaviors and attitudes in important ways that enhance wellbeing.

Through its formal and informal commitments, marriage raises the costs of terminating a relationship. Logically, this should encourage greater partner selection, as well as greater investments and effort to develop and maintain a high-quality relationship. The data on relationship quality and marriage are consistent with this prediction.

Even apart from physical attraction, having a strong intimate relationship with another adult is widely regarded as a desirable situation, and marriage makes this more likely. Marriage also increases the likelihood of having children and is associated with better relationships with those children, as previous Gallup research has shown.

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