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