Cyprus Mail

Marriage provides health benefits

Bride with pink bouquet and lace dress hold hands with groom. Original public domain image from Wikimedia Commons

By Libby Richards, Melissa Franks and Rosie Shrout

The new year is traditionally a time when many people feel a renewed commitment to create healthy habits, such as exercising regularly, drinking more water or eating more healthfully.

It turns out that when it comes to health, married people have an edge, especially married men. But surely the act of walking down the aisle is not what provides this health advantage.

So what exactly is at play?

One theory that seeks to explain the link between marriage and health is the act of self-selection. Simply put, people who are wealthier and healthier than average are more likely not only to get married but also to find a partner who is wealthier and healthier than average. Men and women with poorer health and wealth than average are less likely to marry at all.

While this may be part of the story, marriage also provides partners with a sense of belonging, more opportunities for social engagement and reduced feelings of loneliness. This social integration, or the extent to which people participate in social relationships and activities, can greatly influence health – from reducing the risk of hypertension and heart disease to lowering one’s risk of death or suicide.

Another important connection between marriage and health involves the body’s inflammatory process. Research links loneliness and lack of close relationships with inflammation, or the body’s way of reacting to illness, injury or disease. Though inflammation is needed for healing, chronic inflammation is associated with heart disease, arthritis, cancers and autoimmune diseases. While single adults undoubtedly have very meaningful close relationships too, a healthy marriage by nature provides more opportunities for closeness and socialisation, supporting the link between marriage and inflammation.

Married men and married women live, on average, two years longer than their unmarried counterparts. One reason for this longevity benefit is the influence of marital partners on healthy behaviours. Study after study shows that married people eat better and are less likely to smoke and drink excessively. However, men married to women tend to see additional longevity benefits than women married to men.

Relationship quality can also influence health behaviours. For example, in the context of exercise, both men and women who reported higher levels of marital support were more likely to walk for exercise. However, as men aged, the association between marital support and walking became even stronger for them, but the same was not true for married women.

To further understand how men’s health benefits from their wives, consider cultural norms that foster expectations that women will be the primary caretaker in committed relationships.

Middle-aged people, and in particular women, have also been described as the ‘sandwich generation,’ since they are often ‘sandwiched’ between taking care of growing children and ageing parents. Caregiving can take a toll on the immune system and one’s overall health. Additionally, invisible labour related to child care and household duties, which often disproportionately fall to women, can leave women with less time for self-care, such as being physically active.

Women also take on more responsibilities in terms of coordinating doctors’ appointments and promoting adherence to medical advice for their husbands than husbands do for their wives. However, men often increase their time spent caregiving when their wives are ill.

Relationship quality and relationship conflict also play important roles when it comes to marriage and health. Gendered socialisation and power differences often lead to women’s thinking and caring about their relationships more than men, causing women to take primary responsibility for managing relationship issues, while men take on less of the burden.

Research shows that women are also more likely to base their identities on their relationships, and so when they experience marital conflict or other relationship issues, they experience more negative emotional and physical health effects than men. This can include increased risk of metabolic syndrome, inflammation and cardiovascular disease.

Does this mean that all men should get married to protect their health or that unmarried people can’t enjoy the same health benefits as those who have said “I do”?

Not at all. Unmarried people can, of course, enjoy good health and longevity. Creating and maintaining strong social ties and engaging with one’s community go a long way when it comes to health. Further, making the best lifestyle choices available, seeking preventive health care and reducing stress can help everyone live a longer, healthier life.


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