If your heart is urging you to take that marital leap of faith “for better or for worse, in sickness and in health,” it may be right. Recent research suggests that marriage lowers blood pressure, protects the heart and promotes long life. And having a good marriage is even better for both body and soul.
Read on as we take a closer look at how the marriage bond can add years to your life, as well as life to your years, and a few practical pointers for making it work.
Marriage Lengthens Life
“Marriage seems to increase longevity without regard to the quality of the marriage, however defined,” says John E. Murray, Ph.D., a professor of economics at the University of Toledo in Ohio.
While skeptics might suggest that this just reflects survival of the fittest, with healthy people more attractive to the opposite sex and therefore more likely to wed, Murray disagrees. In his study of nearly 2,000 college graduates followed from age 18 through death, marriage significantly lowered risk of death even after controlling for health in early adulthood.
“The protective effect of marriage exists independent of the well-known tendency of healthier people to be more likely to marry,” he says. While his research does not address how this works, he has two theories.
“A spouse deters unhealthy behavior — picture a wife nagging her husband to stop smoking and cut down on drinking,” Murray says. “And when one spouse gets sick, the other takes care of him or her. Picture a husband taking his wife to the doctor, helping her to the bathroom and fixing meals.”
Murray’s theory is bolstered by some research reported in the Journal of Internal Medicine. Single men in France and Sweden who were Volvo employees were more likely than their married colleagues to suffer from lack of social supports, increased smoking and drinking, and type A work behavior — all lifestyle factors associated with increased risk of heart disease.
“For Better” is Better Than “For Worse”
Quality of the marriage bond influences health, according to Annmarie Cano, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich. Her research has studied the influence of the marital relationship on patients with depression, pain and other chronic illnesses.
“Marital problems are linked to poor psychological and physical health, because marriage affects the thinking and perceptions of the ill spouse,” Cano says. “Most spouses expect support and care from each other during times of stress and illness.”
Her research shows that unhappily married women report more anxiety and depression than do happily married women. Women with severe marital problems, such as infidelity, are six times as likely as satisfied wives to be depressed.
And for patients with chronic illness, criticism and negative comments from their spouses can increase both pain and depression.
“When their spouse is unsupportive or critical, the patient may think that their partner is angry with them,” Cano says. “They begin to dwell on negative aspects of their marriage and their illnesses, which can intensify depression and pain.”
As “healthy” spouses of patients with chronic illness have more depression and anxiety than do controls, Cano explains that helping couples have happier and more supportive relationships can improve the physical and mental health of both spouses.
“A couple working together can be active in finding new ways to adjust to a debilitating pain problem, and in solving the problem, they may find that they have a closer, more intimate relationship than before,” she says.
“Till Death Do Us Part”
If there is a downside to a happy marriage, it’s widowhood.
“There does appear to be a cost for closeness,” says Holly G. Prigerson, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychiatry, epidemiology and public health at Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Conn. “Those with harmonious marriages to begin with have the greatest declines in health, the greatest need for health services, and the highest health costs once becoming widowed.”
Her research showed that compared with those who had a distant or strained relationship, those with rewarding marriages had significantly better health, used fewer health services and had lower healthcare costs. These subjects described their spouses as close and supportive, with few thoughts of divorce or separation, and no physical or verbal abuse.
But widowhood was more painful for those who had been happily married, with the emotional stress of bereavement leading to more illness and higher healthcare costs.
Heart-Healthy Tips: Get It Off Your Chest
“Marriage has a definite effect on blood pressure and heart health,” says Brian Baker, M.D., a professor of psychiatry at University of Toronto in Canada. “Marital support lowers blood pressure.”
In a study from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association, marital stress, but not work stress, predicted poor outcome in nearly 300 women with coronary heart disease.
In happy marriages, Baker found that spending time together led to decreased blood pressure and less thickening of the heart wall over a three-year period, but that unhappy couples showed the reverse effect.
“Whether marital strain increases blood pressure is debatable, but it probably does — certainly we know that blood pressure rises in an argument,” Baker says.
In his research, those couples with the winning combination of quality contact with their spouses, marital satisfaction and commitment were most likely to reap the benefits of marriage on the heart. While the effect on the cardiovascular system is probably the easiest to measure, Baker believes that a good marriage also has other health benefits.
“If you have a good marriage, spend lots of quality time with your spouse,” Baker says. “If not, you’ll probably avoid your spouse anyway, which may be better for your health. Quality time doesn’t necessarily mean constant conversation — just being in each other’s company works just as well.”
Now for the million-dollar question: How can you be one of those lucky couples with a good marriage?
Actually, chance is on your side. Baker found that more than half of the couples he studied described their marriages as supportive. But to improve your odds, here is his advice: “Argue in a way that is fair to your partner. Accept differences in outlook and get them out in the open, but don’t linger over them.”
Suprisingly, Baker found that those couples who argue the least are those whose health and marriage are most likely to suffer. Stress is normal and may be even be healthy in a marriage, as are conflicts over children, sex or money.
“After the semi-delusional courtship phase in the beginning, struggles develop one or two years later when couples realize they’ve entered a permanent bond,” Baker says. “The important thing is to learn how to deal with conflict. Everyone has differences, but the best strategy is to fight fair and move on.”