Do married people live longer, healthier lives than their single counterparts? This is not an issue that came up only recently, e.g. in connection with the increasing acceptance and legalization of same sex marriage or statistics that show unmarried people outnumbering married ones for the first time in America’s history. In fact, as far back as in the mid 1800s, scientists have investigated the potential benefits of marriage, not only in terms of economics and social status but specifically for health.
A British epidemiologist named William Farr was one of the first to study what he called “conjugal condition,” by which he meant the impact of marital status on people’s health. He found that married couples had on average longer life expectancies than the unmarried or the widowed. His findings, although now outdated in methodology and scope, still hold and have been confirmed by multiple studies on the subject that is known as the “marriage advantage.”
Loving Relationships Can Foster Well-Being
Obviously, it would be a mistake to credit marriage itself as the sole source of such benefits. Back in William Farr’s days, as today, it is tempting to exaggerate the importance of the institution while underestimating the difference that quality and character of a marriage makes, says Tara Parker-Pope, a health writer for the New York Times/Well blog. “The mere fact of being married, it seems, isn’t enough to protect your health,” she says.
In fact, clinical studies have found that being in stressful relationships or marriages can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease. In other words, you can actually die of a broken heart, quite literally.
Marital distress can be a chronic stressor, concluded one study that focused on couples facing problems early on in their marriages. Among other effects, some spouses showed “poorer immunological responses,” meaning their immune system weakened, leaving them less protected against any number of diseases.
And it doesn’t have to come to open conflict to diminish the advantages that may or may not come after tying the knot. No matter how happy and excited couples are at the outset, wedded bliss has a limited shelf life, writes Sonja Lyubomirsky, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, in a recent op-ed article on the issue in the New York Times. “New love seems nearly as vulnerable […] as a new job, a new home, a new coat and other novel sources of pleasure and well-being,” she says. “The special joy wears off and [newlyweds] are back where they started, at least in terms of happiness.”
So, is there any chance for lasting marital bliss with all its promises? There can be, according to Dr. Lyubomirsky, if couples stick it out and get over the hurdles that inevitable come when reality sets in. What sometimes happens is that spouses rediscover each other once the kids are grown and out of the house. So-called empty-nesters have a chance to fall in love all over again, but this time on more solid ground and with fewer expectations. That can be healthier and still enhance their overall well-being.
Of course, there are no specific rules how to keep the proverbial fires going or rekindle them if necessary. What often goes missing as marriages endure is an element of surprise and variety, says Dr. Lyubomirsky. Eventually routines dominate our lifestyles and we settle for the status quo. We know who we are and think we know all there is to know about our partners. While familiarity does not necessarily breed contempt, it certainly can foster a growing degree of indifference.
This is where couples can and should become creative and engage in activities both partners enjoy to bring back a bit of excitement into their lives. The curiosity and keen interest in each other they once had when love was young does not have to be lost. On the contrary. Some say, those who play together, stay together. So, let’s explore…
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