Does Marriage Make You Healthy?

There’s a fascinating article from yesterday’s New York Times about recent studies that give nuances to the long-held generalization that marriage tends to make people healthier.

The article looks at a few different experiments and studies. The most interesting one to me measured short term effects of marital conflict on the body’s ability to heal:

The experiment had two phases. Each married couple, after their forearms were subjected to [a] blistering procedure, were asked to talk together for a half-hour: on one occasion they discussed topics chosen to elicit the couples’ supportive behaviors; on another day, after undergoing the blistering procedures again, they discussed topics selected to evoke conflict and tension and tried to resolve them….

The results were remarkable. After the blistering sessions in which couples argued, their wounds took, on average, a full day longer to heal than after the sessions in which the couples discussed something pleasant. Among couples who exhibited especially high levels of hostility while bickering, the wounds took a full two days longer to heal than those of couples who had showed less animosity while fighting.

I was surprised to read how much effect the amount of acrimony had on the body’s ability to heal.  I would have expected the stress of constant fighting to have negative effects on long-term health, but I wouldn’t have guessed that getting into a vicious fight would drastically lengthen the amount of time it took a blister to heal.

The studies seem to show that if a couple gets into a lot of fights that involve hostility and derision, the long-term health effect of being in that marriage seem to be worse than if you stayed single.

If staying married means living amid constant acrimony, from the point of view of your health, “you’re better off out of it,” [one of the researchers] says.

As a New Church person I don’t believe that that even “constant acrimony” is grounds for divorce – but it may very well be grounds for separation.  I think that separation is probably under-used in the church.  There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is that apparently it’s a pain to get a legal separation. For example, in Pennsylvania there’s no such thing as legal separation.  It is possible for two people to live separately and remain married, but if the reason for the separation is constant fighting, it seems unlikely that they’d be able to come to amicable agreements about things like child custody.  I wish there were some way to reform the laws on this.

The article actually does point to getting out of the marriage as being only a last resort.  The second half of the article describes recent studies that show that people who have been divorced or lost a spouse are actually less healthy than people who never married (although as a Facebook friend pointed out does not necessarily imply causation – some of this is probably do to the fact that some people get divorced because of the stress of dealing with a serious medical problem).  I would love to see a study that separates out the differences between the health of those who divorced and those whose partner died – as well as the health effect of a legal separation.  Here’s the summary of their basic findings:

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.

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.”

The same study found that remarriage, although it can help emotionally, does not negate the negative health effects of divorce:

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. Compared with the continuously married, people in second marriages still had 12 percent more chronic health problems and 19 percent more mobility problems. “I don’t think anyone would encourage people to stay in a marriage that is really making them miserable,” says Linda J. Waite, a University of Chicago sociologist and an author of the study. “But try harder to make it better.” Even if marital problems seem small, Waite says, the data suggest it’s wise to intervene early and try to resolve them. “If you learn to how to manage disagreement early,” she says, “then you can avoid the decline in marital happiness that follows from the drip, drip of negative interactions.”

Again, I’d love to see similar research on what happens with people who legally separate and later get back together again.

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  • http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com Alaina

    Ouch! I wouldn’t volunteer for the blistering study…I think that, in general, people should work harder on their marriages than they do. Marriage is romanticized far too much: people should also think MUCH harder about what marriage actually is before they tie the knot. I’m blessed with a smart, kind, upstanding spouse who I knew for a long time before our marriage, and we still have plenty of issues (none of which will derail our marriage if we keep working on them).

    On the other hand, few things irk me more than the New Church’s traditional edict on staying married even in an emotionally abysmal situation: “constant acrimony”, as you say. Sorry, but this sounds a little glib, a practiced doctrinal line. Have you really thought about the reality of living with 24/7 nastiness? Pictured what that would be like in your own life before you pronounce rules for all couples? Of course everyone is allowed to have their opinion. As for me, I don’t understand why the Lord would demand that you remain legally, emotionally and even sexually partnered for life to a spouse who abuses or demeans you physically, emotionally or verbally – but if that spouse has intercourse with someone else, then the Lord is suddenly ok with your divorce. Even the concept of separation as a last resort, instead of divorce, irks me. Perhaps your marriage was a poor decision. I think many marriages are. And many divorce(e)s could probably have worked harder on salvaging the marriage. But if your spouse is a really corrosive person, you shall live out the rest of your life celibate and without another earthly chance at the most important partnership of all? Perhaps I impugn Swedenborg himself, but it sounds to me like a lot of traditional human and sexual dogma has gotten mixed up with a supposed doctrinal truth. I think it’s a mistake for any outside person to make a statement about whether a given marriage should or should not continue. This is an intensely personal issue which lies between the couple and their God – it’s not for their congregation or their counselors to decide.

  • Coleman Glenn

    Alaina,

    You wrote, “Have you really thought about the reality of living with 24/7 nastiness? Pictured what that would be like in your own life before you pronounce rules for all couples?”

    I know that would be miserable. I think someone in that situation SHOULD separate from their spouse. But I still don’t think it’s grounds for divorce. And that does make sense to me. Say your partner is verbally and physically abusive, and yet does not commit adultery. Why isn’t he or she committing adultery? There’s some kind of dedication to the marriage there. It’s buried under all sorts of dysfunctional / evil ways of behaving. But there’s still a commitment to the marriage that means there is still something there.

    You wrote, “But if your spouse is a really corrosive person, you shall live out the rest of your life celibate and without another earthly chance at the most important partnership of all?” Here’s the thing – I’m sure marriage is really, really great. But it’s not the only thing, and being condemned to a life of earthly celibacy does NOT mean that your life becomes meaningless. I’m single now. I’m looking forward to getting married – but if I don’t get married on this earth, it’s not the end of the world. Now, there’s nothing stopping me from getting married now, so it’s not exactly the same situation. And if I ever find myself in a situation where I’m legally separated from my wife and it seems we have irreconcilable differences, I’ll be devastated – but I think the hope of marriage love after death, and the fact that I can still have a productive and useful life in this world without much hope of a happy marriage, would help me get through it. I hope that doesn’t sound glib again. I realize that it would not be easy at all. But life would still be worth living.

  • http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com Alaina Mabaso

    Puh-lease, I did not say that life would be meaningless if one were celibate and single! Not my point at all. You’ve read my work at length and you know that’s the last thing I would believe. Probably I can say more about this, but I’ll have to come back to it later.

  • Coleman Glenn

    Alaina,

    Yes, I know that’s the last thing you would think. Sorry, I was getting a little defensive. My point is just this: I believe there ARE things that prevent people from the possibility of a happy marriage on this earth – but that this does not imply that they are condemned, or eternally marked as “bad,” or anything like this – and the fact that some people feel obligated by their own moral convictions to stay in a bad marriage does not mean that God’s rules are unfair, or that they’re mistaken about what God’s rules are. I know you weren’t saying that, but that’s a sense I sometimes get from people, and that’s what I was getting defensive about.

    That said, I agree with your point about not being able to tell another person what they are obligated to do. I would rather have someone follow something that I believe is mistaken out of their personal understanding that it is right, than to feel like they have to do what the minister tells them. I still might think they’re making an unwise choice, but I would never want to make that decision for them.

  • http://alainamabaso.wordpress.com Alaina Mabaso

    Ok. I like to stew about interesting things so I stewed about this, asking myself just what irks me so much about the traditional New Church view of the importance of staying married, even if partners are in what you yourself describe as a physically or verbally abusive marriage. And I think I’ve figured it out.

    I meant to make absolutely zero allegations that I felt a single or separated person is in any way “bad” or “condemned”, as you know. What I’m getting at instead is something which confuses me. Contrary to all other moral and spiritual journeys of life, where we’re allowed to stumble and recover, is the Lord saying to us that marriage is SO important that He’s going to give each person only ONE chance? A celibate/single lifestyle can have nothing to do with how worthwhile, fulfilled or useful you are. But I do think lifelong celibacy is a pretty tall order for a human being who has survived an abusive marriage and may hope for more worthwhile companionship, a valid spiritual and human desire, whatever your past.

    I am fascinated by your analysis of this hypothetical corrosive marriage: “Say your partner is verbally and physically abusive, and yet does not commit adultery…there’s still a commitment to the marriage that means there is still something there.” So being physically and verbally cruel to your spouse doesn’t matter as much as having sex with someone else? For argument’s sake: which is worse, at-home nastiness and sexual fidelity? Or at-home kindness and sexual infidelity? Do you think it would be easier for a marriage to recover from physical and verbal abuse than from adultery? Your argument seems to carry out the traditional New Church view that sexual infidelity is the ultimate, unforgivable wound. In other words, even if your daily behavior to your spouse is deplorable, “abusive” on multiple levels, there is still goodness and devotion to your marriage in your heart because you haven’t had sex with anyone else. If this is what you mean, is it then fair to say you think that monogamy trumps all other practical and emotional dealings – that it even mitigates abuse?

    Wait a minute, I thought. I have seen this and refuted it before, and that’s why it annoys me so much! In my book, I quote a prominent New Church minister who writes that women (contrary to their male counterparts who are responsible for civil virtues) can be rude, dissembling and irrational as long as they are chaste. As long as they’re sexually pure, their bad civil and social behavior doesn’t matter – they’re still good candidates for wives.

    This, at heart, is the same concept we’ve been discussing, in the context of what can legitimately dissolve a marriage. In both scenarios, deplorable moral and personal behavior is overlooked or downplayed in favor of sexual virtue, even to the point that outright physical and verbal abuse is judged livable, compared to infidelity. I’m sure you would not agree with Hugo Odhner in “The Moral Life”, in that women can be uncivil, flaky, lying citizens as long as they’re virgins until marriage (I paraphrase but that’s the gist). So why would you condone spousal abuse (by saying that abuse is not grounds for divorce) as long as the marriage is still sexually monogamous? To me, it’s the same dogma of overlooking spite in favor of simple sexual chastity.

    I don’t like this idea of sexual behavior being the absolute bottom line of morality. Various religious groups have appropriated this idea particularly strongly (especially when it comes to women), but I don’t think this perspective originates with religious groups – it’s dominant in the general culture: see any political candidate or office holder ousted or disgraced by personally directed allegations of marital infidelity, despite their professional prowess and accomplishments. To me, the idea of morality having sexual purity as its bedrock (evidenced here by all kinds of depravity being tolerated in marriage as long as the marriage is sexually pure) is very ironic. It’s as if the basest, most natural part of our human selves (“love of the sex”, sexual urges, whatever you want to call it) is being held up as the ultimate determiner of our moral and spiritual and marital good. I think flawed human traditions have become mixed up in a painful, flawed human version of God’s will.

    I don’t have 1/10th the scriptural knowledge you do, so it’s hard to argue with me in a doctrinal New Church context, since I’m ignorant of many Swedenborgian excerpts on the matter you could no doubt advance. If the New Church, in its doctrinal entirety, indeed gets the prize for being the world’s truest version of God’s will, then I may be in for a bumpier spiritual ride than you and your colleagues in the clergy, and the folks who accept your spiritual perspective without arguments on the internet, because you’ve got a special calling and a special education. On the other hand, the Lord Himself did create me as an opinionated little miss. So either He made a mistake and He’d rather I kept quiet, or He doesn’t mind a little debate.

    As for the end of your last reply, “I would rather have someone follow something that I believe is mistaken out of their personal understanding that it is right, than to feel like they have to do what the minister tells them”, BRAVO!! It is hard, hard, hard to sit back and watch people do the things you think are wrongheaded. But it’s absolutely true that we should never try to control another person. Even if we could force them to do our version of the right thing, it wouldn’t be coming from their own heart, so, in the long run, what would be the point?


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