How badly do women want to be married? This is a question that has been asked from the Talmud to The New York Times, and the answers can be counterintuitive.
Tav l’metav tan du m’lmetav armelu. “It’s better to lie with another body than to lie as a widow.” (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 7a) This Talmudic dictate, attributed to the sage and former pirate Resh Lakish, implies that women would prefer to be married to anyone at all than to be single — and it is one of the most controversial policy principles in Jewish literature. The idea that women prefer to be married – even to someone who smells bad, who is perpetually unemployed, or who is obnoxious and abusive – has been used to justify many of the rabbinic laws that make it hard for a woman to get divorced.
Over the past decade or two, the relevance of the statement has been the subject of many classes and conferences about Jewish divorce law. I’ll never forget the 1999 Kolech conference in Jerusalem where Sharon Shenhav of the International Council of Jewish Women conducted a survey with questions such as: Would you want to stay married if you discovered that your husband was a drug addict? Physically abusive? A compulsive gambler? Perpetually cheating on you? A rapist? Shenhav was working on proving that tav l’metav was no longer an accurate portrayal of women’s desires. The survey was scandalous.
Nevertheless, the issue is far from resolved, and does not only apply to the Jewish community. According to a fascinating article in this week’s New York Times, “Is Marriage Good for your Health?” there is, in fact, something to conventional wisdom that people are happier being married. This idea that marriage is the most beneficial state of affairs is based on what is considered seminal research from 1858 by epidemiologist William Farr that found, and later confirmed, that single and widowed adults suffered from a disproportionate amount of disease than their married counterparts.
But according to the Times, this research has some newly discovered caveats. First of all, according to the married marriage-research team of Ronald Glaser and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, the so-called marriage benefit only applies to happy relationships. Where marriages are tense or abusive, the benefits disappear. “Women in unhappy relationships and the women who remained emotionally hung up on their ex-husbands had decidedly weaker immune responses than the women who were in happier relationships (or were happily out of them),” the research showed.
Divorced people are, in some ways, worse off than people who have never been married. According to a study published in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, tracking the marital history and health of nearly 9,000 men and women in their 50s and 60s, “when the married people became single again, they suffered a decline in physical health,” and had worse health problems than people who had been single their entire lives, “as if the marriage advantage had never existed.”
Ultimately, the researchers conclude: “It’s the relationship that matters, not the institution.” Meaning, a happy relationship — regardless of marital status or sexuality – is better overall for both men and women than being single. A bad marriage, however, is worst of all.
And incidentally, the marriage benefit is not a “women’s thing.” Already in 1972, researcher Walter Gove found that marriage is better for men than for women, and that single men are more likely to suffer from depression and alcohol abuse than single women. Although the Gove theory has been hotly debated ever since, no researcher has yet been able to argue that women are more desperate to be married than men. The scientific evidence casts some serious doubts on Talmudic wisdom.
So Resh Lakish’s statement should be amended. Rather than saying that a woman would rather sleep with anyone than sleep alone, we should say that both men and women are better off when they’re in happy and healthy relationships than when they are alone; but unhealthy relationships are just bad for everyone.