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STUDY: When it Comes to Couples Handling Stress, Marriage is Best


Why get married? We ask ourselves this question when faced with the decision and often come up short. In fact, 2011 research reported that marriage is on the decline, with more Americans favoring cohabitation or living alone.

Many Millennials and Generation Xers have lived through their parents’ divorce and now consider marriage to be the essential ingredient to relationship disaster. Between dealing with financial struggle, family drama, or personal tragedy, most of us have learned from experience how damaging stress can be to our relationships—isn’t marriage just one more stressor? Maybe not. A recent study conducted by researcher Jim Coan, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Virginia, suggests that marriage is actually a positive factor in a couple’s ability to manage stress.

Using an fMRI machine, researchers collected brain activity from 54 couples—half of whom were married and half of whom were cohabiting—while holding hands under threat of electric shock. Data showed that married couples showed signs of reduced hypothalamic activity (a potential neurological marker for stress), while cohabiting couples did not. “The most surprising thing about this is that our cohabiting couples are matched for age, relationship duration, and relationship satisfaction,” says Coan.

Coan theorizes that marriage signals dependability and predictability. “I think the take-home implication is that our brains are sensitive to signs that the people we depend on in our lives are predictable and reliable,” explains Coan.

Whatever the reason, cohabitation does not seem to produce the same feelings of emotional security as marriage. Perhaps that’s something to consider before ruling marriage out.

By: Monica Gabriel

Monica is the Relationship Editor for Verily Magazine and Managing Editor for i Believe in Love. Monica surveys cultural trends and shares her thoughts on relationships and womanhood.


  1. Melody says:

    Wow, that’s really interesting. And good to know as I get ready to get married myself!

  2. Jason says:

    The source indicates that cohabiting couples who perceive the relationship as ‘marriage,’ even when they are not officially married, experienced the same effects as officially married couples. This was also consistent with same-sex couples, none of whom were legally married, but comparing those who perceived their relationship as a marriage to those who perceived their relationship as cohabitation.

    This suggests that the phenomenon is more about the perception of security, dependability, and commitment; and that in fact, the effect for ‘solely cohabiting’ couples may be the result of the assertion of their mere cohabitation as a sign of failure/lack of commitment on the part of the individuals involved. This makes sense. Will I gain more comfort from being in contact with someone I am committed to, and who is committed to me; or with someone to whom I am not committed to, and who is not committed to me? In serious danger or stress, who am I more likely to be able to rely on?

    In that way, the results have less to do with marriage and more to do with trust and commitment, which can be achieved with cohabitation, given the correct perception and mindset.

  3. Maritza says:

    It’s interesting that they did a study on this, but I’m not hugely surprised. If you are a person who truly believes in the life-long duration of marriage, then there is something comforting in knowing that the other person will ALWAYS be there. It frees you up to be honest.

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