Does Marriage Make You Healthy?

Does Marriage Make You Healthy? April 19, 2010

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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