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.