MONDAY, Dec. 22, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Men and women both benefit emotionally from being together, whether they're married or cohabitating. And they both have problems after a split -- but with some surprising differences.
That's the upshot of a new study from British researchers that appears in the January issue of the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
"One of the most striking findings is that cohabiting seems to be beneficial to men's mental health and less beneficial to women's mental health," says lead researcher Dr. Stephen Stansfeld, a professor of psychiatry at Queen Mary, University of London.
Stansfeld's team based its findings on responses from 4,430 men and women under 65 to a mental health questionnaire. The subjects took part in the annual British Household Panel Survey. This survey, which started in 1991, includes information supplied yearly from 5,000 British households and 10,000 adults.
The researchers also found women who stayed single all their lives seemed to have rather good mental health, while men who stayed single all their lives did not. "Choosing to be single seems to be good for women but not so good for men," Stansfeld notes.
In addition, the breakup of a marriage -- particularly several marriages -- seemed to be more damaging to women's mental health, he says.
The researchers also report that men who broke up with their first partner -- whether married or living together -- had poorer mental health compared with men who stayed with their first partner. But men who cohabited with a new partner after a divorce had better mental health compared men who stayed single or remarried.
Women who stayed with their partners -- whether married or living together -- had better mental health compared with women who did not. However, the more break-ups they had and the more subsequent relationships they had, the more their mental health deteriorated.
Women who go through several relationships may suffer feelings of low self-worth, Stansfeld speculates.
While long-term relationships were better for the mental health of both sexes, men who married did significantly less well emotionally than those who chose just to live with their partner. However, women did better emotionally if they married.
Of all those surveyed, women who remained alone after divorce had the worst mental health, as did women who remained alone after breaking up with a live-in partner. In addition, women took longer to recover from an ended relationship than men, Stansfeld's group found.
The difference between men and women in their reaction to cohabitation may be due to women wanting more security in a relationship, Stansfeld says. "In cohabiting there isn't as much security as implied by marriage."
"On the whole, women are probably better at looking after themselves than single men," he adds. "Men tend to rely on one person, usually their spouse, while women tend to have a wider circle of friends and a broader social network."
Kelly Raley, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas, finds fault with some of the new research's conclusions. "This study does not adjust for the fact that people with better mental health are probably more likely to stay partnered and to re-partner given that they split. These associations cannot be interpreted as proof that marriage or cohabitation causes good mental health."
Raley also says she's "not sure findings established from a British population translate to what people experience in the United States.Cohabitation and marriage patterns in the United States differ substantially from patterns in Europe."
Dr. David Katz, an associate clinical professor of public health at Yale University, thinks the study contains some valid conclusions. "In terms of basic biology, men are clearly more disposed to sequential relationships than women," he says.
"Our social conventions supersede this, of course, but biologically, men do well with a series of female partners over time at the level of propagating their genes," Katz says. "Women do not benefit from this kind of instability biologically, and are best served by long-lasting, stable relationships. This research shows that what biology would predict, psychology and sociology corroborate."
To learn more about marriage and mental health, visit the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy or read this BBC News report.