Is Marriage Good for Your Health?

Is marriage good for your health? In this fascinating New York Times story there's a ton of interesting research on the health consequences of happy marriages, people who remain single, those who divorce -- and even couples who argue (It's how you argue that counts). Here are the highlights:

On the health consequences of divorce or death of a spouse...

Last year, The Journal of Health and Social Behavior published a study tracking the marital history and health of nearly 9,000 men and women in their 50s and 60s. The study, which grew out of work by researchers at the University of Chicago, found that when the married people became single again — either by divorce or because of the death of a spouse — they suffered a decline in physical health from which they never fully recovered. These men and women had 20 percent more chronic health issues, like heart disease and diabetes, than those who were still married to their first husband or wife by middle age. The divorced and widowed also had aged less gracefully, reporting more problems going up and down stairs or walking longer distances.

On those who never married...

Perhaps the most striking finding concerned single people who had never married. For more than 100 years, scientists have speculated that single people, because they generally have fewer resources, lower income and perhaps less logistical and emotional support, have poorer health than the married. But in the Chicago study, people who had divorced or been widowed had worse health problems than men and women who had been single their entire lives. In formerly married individuals, it was as if the marriage advantage had never existed.

On marrying again...

Does marrying again benefit those who divorce, in terms of health? In the Chicago study, remarriage helped only a little. It seemed to heal emotional wounds: the remarried had about the same risk for depression as the continuously married. But a second marriage didn’t seem to be enough to repair the physical damage associated with marital loss.

When you argue, argue nicely...

... There are important differences between men and women when it comes to health and the style of conflict that can jeopardize it. 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 ("Honey, you’re driving me crazy!") 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," Smith told me. "It wasn’t how much nasty talk there was. It was the lack of warmth that predicted risk."

But if you're a man...

For men, on the other hand, hostile and negative marital battles seemed to have no effect on heart risk.

Happy couples and not-so-happy couples...

A number of epidemiological studies suggest that unhappily married couples are at higher risk for heart attacks and cardiovascular disease than happily married couples.

In the end, even the best marriages have stress...

... Research shows that some level of relationship stress is inevitable in even the happiest marriages. The important thing, she said, is to use those moments of stress as an opportunity to repair the relationship rather than to damage it. "It can be so uncomfortable, even in the best marriages, to have an ongoing disagreement," she said. "It’s the pit-in-your-stomach kind of thing. But when your marital relationship is the key relationship in your life, a disagreement is really a signal to try to fix something."

You can read the entire article at The NY Times here.

Preview image via Sgt Gooch / flickr.

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