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What Makes Married Men Behave Better?

December 7, 2010

According to a new study, men tend to behave better once they get married, for at least a few possible reasons: for one, marriage likely helps improve their behavior, and two, nicer men are more likely to be married in the first place.

The researchers found that men with fewer bad behavioral qualities were more likely to eventually become married. But among men who did marry, some showed signs that indicated their bad behavior decreased after they tied the knot.

The findings address a long-running debate among researchers, concerning why married men display fewer qualities associated with antisocial personality disorder, such as lying, aggression, lack of remorse, and even criminal behavior.

The question: Is it because marriage reforms them, or because men with more of these nasty traits are not as likely to get married in the first place?

The answer: Some of both, study author Dr. S. Alexandra Burt at Michigan State University told Reuters Health. Married men are usually “not as antisocial to begin with,” she said. “And when they get married, they get even less antisocial. So both things are going on.”

For the study, Burt and her colleagues followed 289 pairs of male twins for 12 years, between the ages of 17 and 29, and were assessed four times: at ages 17, 20, 24 and 29. More than half of the twins were identical, meaning they shared all of their genes, and also, for the most part, their childhood environment.

The team found that men who eventually married during the study period — roughly 60 percent of them — showed less antisocial behavior at ages 17 and 20, suggesting that men with more of these traits are less likely to get married in the first place.

They found that by the age of 29, unmarried men had an average of 1.3 antisocial behaviors, compared with 0.8 percent of married men.

And in the identical twins, in which one was married and one was not, the married twin had fewer antisocial behaviors after marriage than the unmarried twin. Given that identical twins are likely to have the same antisocial behavioral traits, the findings indicate that marriage helped weed out those bad behaviors.

“Not everyone is equally likely to enter the institution of marriage,” Dr. Ryan King at the University at Albany, SUNY, who was not involved in the study, told Reuters. “But those that do enter into it get some benefit from it.”

It is not really clear why men’s behaviors might improve after marriage, King noted. Married men may spend more time with their wives than with their friends, he said, and many bad behaviors, such as delinquency and binge drinking tend to be group activities. Also, married men “have more to lose” if they are caught doing illegal activities, and may worry what their spouses would think.

It is also unclear why men with more bad behaviors may not marry in the first place, Burt said. They probably do not make the most eligible bachelors, she noted. “You may not be looking to settle down with someone who’s prone to aggression, theft, and other things.” And for men with these tendencies, marriage may not be so appealing to women, she added.

The findings help to explain the consistent findings from other studies that men who are married commit fewer crimes. Another recent study showed marriage was associated with a 35 percent reduction in crime.

Other studies have also found that married people as a group tend to be healthier than singles — though more recent research suggests such health advantages of marriage may be fading. Still, people with spouses tend to live longer, be less depressed, and suffer less from heart disease and stroke.

The results of the study were presented in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Burt’s co-researchers for the study were M. Brent Donnellan and Mikhila Humbad from MSU; Brian Hicks from the University of Michigan; and Matt McGue and William Iacono from the University of Minnesota.

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