Health Effects of Marriage

There are wide-ran­ging health bene­fits to be gained from being hap­pily mar­ried, the research sug­gests, but just how extens­ive this effect is (and its intric­a­cies) is hugely sur­pris­ing.

In Tara Park­er-Pope’s com­pre­hens­ive look at the physiolo­gic­al effects of mar­riage, we are told how just by get­ting couples to dis­cuss a mar­it­al dis­agree­ment their heal­ing of wounds can be delayed by days; that those in unhappy rela­tion­ships have weakened immune sys­tems; and most sur­pris­ingly that when women were sub­jec­ted to mild elec­tric shocks (to sim­u­late stress) hold­ing the hand of their hus­bands “res­ul­ted in a calm­ing of the brain regions asso­ci­ated with pain sim­il­ar to the effect brought about by use of a pain-reliev­ing drug”.

[Stud­ies] have shown that mar­ried people are less likely to get pneu­mo­nia, have sur­gery, devel­op can­cer or have heart attacks. A group of Swedish research­ers has found that being mar­ried or cohab­it­ing at mid­life is asso­ci­ated with a lower risk for demen­tia. A study of two dozen causes of death in the Neth­er­lands found that in vir­tu­ally every cat­egory, ran­ging from viol­ent deaths like hom­icide and car acci­dents to cer­tain forms of can­cer, the unmar­ried were at far high­er risk than the mar­ried.

What if you get divorced or are wid­owed? Remar­riage won’t help and you will suf­fer “a decline in phys­ic­al health from which [you will] nev­er fully recov­er”. In these cases even the singletons fared bet­ter (tra­di­tion­ally con­sidered to be worse-off due to hav­ing few­er resources and less emo­tion­al and logist­ic­al sup­port).

How dif­fer­ent styles of con­flict (and con­flict res­ol­u­tion) affected the sexes dif­fer­ently was fas­cin­at­ing, too:

The women in his study who were at highest risk for signs of heart dis­ease were those whose mar­it­al battles lacked any signs of warmth, not even a stray term of endear­ment dur­ing a hos­tile dis­cus­sion […] or a minor pat on the back or squeeze of the hand, all of which can sig­nal affec­tion in the midst of anger. “Most of the lit­er­at­ure assumes that it’s how bad the argu­ments get that drives the effect, but it’s actu­ally the lack of affec­tion that does it […] It was­n’t how much nasty talk there was. It was the lack of warmth that pre­dicted risk.”

For men, on the oth­er hand, hos­tile and neg­at­ive mar­it­al battles seemed to have no effect on heart risk. Men were at risk […] when their mar­it­al spats turned into battles for con­trol. It did­n’t mat­ter wheth­er it was the hus­band or wife who was try­ing to gain con­trol of the mat­ter; it was merely any appear­ance of con­trolling lan­guage that put men on the path of heart dis­ease.

In both cases, the emo­tion­al tone of a mar­it­al fight turned out to be just as pre­dict­ive of poor heart health as wheth­er the indi­vidu­al smoked or had high cho­les­ter­ol. […] The solu­tion, Smith noted, isn’t to stop fight­ing. It’s to fight more thought­fully.

via Mind Hacks