Happy wife, happy life—many decades of formal and informal research bear this out. Recent studies have found that married people (meaning any two people in a committed partnership, including same-sex couples) are less likely to get pneumonia, have surgery, develop cancer or have heart attacks. They seem to live a little longer too. Why is this? A variety of reasons, mostly related to how two people in a long-term relationship come to regulate each other’s neurological systems.
The first recorded study of married people was in 1858, when a British epidemiologist named William Farr studied the “conjugal condition” of French people. Among married, celibate, and widowed people, the married couples had the longest and healthiest lives. Never-married people (celibate is what he called them) died from disease “in undue proportion” to their married counterparts, while widowed folk did the worst of all. Farr’s conclusion: “Marriage is a healthy estate.”
That study was useful in its time, but it’s somewhat dated now—it didn’t include couples that lived together, gay couples, or divorced people. But its basic results have held up. More recently, Swedish researchers found that being married or cohabiting at midlife is associated with a lower risk for dementia. Another study, in the Netherlands, looked at two dozen causes of death. In almost every category—homicide, cancer, car accidents—unmarried people were at far greater risk than married people.
These kinds of studies have driven public policy and politics; the Healthy Marriage Initiative of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services spent $150 million a year from 2006-2010 on projects like “ divorce reduction.” Interesting that a country that doesn’t offer healthcare to all its citizens is pushing marriage for its “health benefits”.
The health of the marriage matters
Other new studies are discovering a more layered view of marriage and health. One found that being in a stressful marriage is as bad for the heart as smoking regularly. Troubled relationships are worse on the body than perpetual single living. Another major study, released in 2009, suggests that people who never married have better health than those who married and divorced.
It seems that just being married is not enough to keep you healthy—the marriage has to be healthy too. The connection between marriage and health has been the focus of a pair of researchers at Ohio State University College of Medicine, Ronald Glaser and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser—appropriately enough, they’re a married pair.
The Glasers have been conducting research on the effect of psychological stress on the immune system since the early 1980s. They have studied the role that relationships play in health and about the effects of marital stress—these can be a source of non-traumatic, chronic strain. One of their projects recruited 76 women, a split of married and separated or divorced women. They used marital- quality scales to diagnose the health of the married women’s relationships and performed blood tests to measure the women’s immune-system responses, watching their levels of antibody production and other indicators of immunity strength.
The Glasers discovered that the women in unhappy relationships and the women who remained emotionally tied up with their ex-husbands had much weaker immune responses than the women who were in happy relationships (or were happy to be out of one).
In a later study, published in 2005 in The Archives of General Psychiatry, the Glasers put married couples in a hostile situation and measured how this affected the partners’ immune systems—specifically, how they healed from mild inflicted skin wounds. The data was clear: a hostile fight with your husband or wife isn’t just bad for the relationship; it’s bad for your body. The couples that exhibited especially high levels of hostility while fighting took two days longer to heal than the couples that fought with less bitterness.
So how does a good marriage support the health of both people?
A study at the University of Virginia looked into this question, by monitoring brain the responses of women in happy marriages. To simulate stress, the women were mildly shocked by electricity. For the second shock, the women held the hand of a stranger, and for third, the hands of their husbands.
For women with the highest marital-happiness scores, holding their husband’s hands calmed the brain regions associated with pain, similar in effect to a pain-relieving drug. The lead researcher, James Coan, says of the results, “When someone holds your hand or just shows that they are there for you…that becomes a cue that you don’t have to regulate your negative emotion. The other person is essentially regulating your negative emotion but without your prefrontal cortex. It’s much less wear and tear on us if we have someone there to help regulate us.”
This is the crux of the marriage is good for your health argument: being with a person who supports you regulates the negative emotions, keeping you steady—and you regulate them in return.
Looking deeper at your own marriage
If your marriage has lost the ability to ride out disagreements—whether or not it’s taking a toll on your health—but you’re not ready to give it up (or you don’t know what to do about it), you can benefit from seeing a couples’ counsellor. A skilled counsellor will help you and you partner repair the relationship, and teach you techniques to weather stressors and come out stronger. When disagreements are met with respect and curiosity, richer bonds and new energy are born.
A skilled counsellor will help you and you partner repair the relationship, and teach you techniques to weather stressors and come out stronger. When disagreements are met with respect and curiosity, richer bonds and new energy are born.