A happy marriage has long been believed to add to people’s wellbeing. Studies going back to the mid-nineteenth century concluded that married men and women lived on average longer, healthier lives than their unmarried or widowed counterparts.
“Marriage is a healthy estate,” wrote Dr. William Farr, a British epidemiologist and pioneer in medical statistics who conducted some of the earliest research on connections between marital status and health. “The single individual,” he went on, “is more likely to be wrecked on his voyage than the lives joined together in matrimony.”
Marriage Is No Guarantee for Better Health
But Mutual Support Does Help
Findings like these have led to a widespread belief that marriage has advantages other lifestyles can’t offer, as, for example, reflected in public policies promoting married life like the “2003 Healthy Marriage Initiative” of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources (HHR).
But does this still hold true? At the time of Dr. Farr’s studies it could indeed be perilous to go through life all alone, especially for women. But that may not be as much the case today. While a number of subsequent studies confirmed what has become known as the “marriage-advantage,” there are others that warn about potential downsides as well.
For instance, it is clear that the institution of marriage per se does not automatically produce health benefits. In fact, unhappy and dysfunctional marriages (and other long-term relationships) can be far more stressful and damaging to one’s health than single life.
But even good marriages are not all free from undesirable side effects. Research shows that marriage can trigger weight gain in both genders. A recent study suggested that especially married men don’t fare as well when it comes to weight control and are at greater risk of becoming overweight and obese compared to bachelors. Women, on the other hand, tend to take better care of their health needs after they get married than before.
While most studies on health benefits from marriage focus on long-term physical and psychological conditions like chronic disease, mental health and longevity, few actually have investigated the effects of day-to-day diet and lifestyle choices married people make and how they affect each spouse. One such study on health behavior and attitudes among couples found that partners in stable relationships – whether they are formally married or not – do indeed influence each other’s actions for better or worse.
“Particularly women may benefit from having a significant other in relation to health behaviors, which contribute to weight and weight change over time, e.g. physical activity and dietary intake habits – more so than men,” the authors of the study report concluded.
Obviously, the influencing can work both ways. Healthy habits can dominate in a relationship, as can unhealthy ones. If both partners consider health a priority, it will be easier to make a team effort such as preparing healthy meals or working out together.
It is well known that getting support is one of the most important components of a healthy lifestyle, whether it concerns weight management, physical fitness, or abstinence from (or cessation of) smoking and alcohol/drug abuse. It is much easier to keep resolutions and commitments when they are shared, and the beneficial effects usually spill over to other parts of life where they can do equally good.