Is marriage beneficial to your health?

Marriage or singlehood
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My husband and I regularly cycle together, it’s a sport we’re both passionate about. It’s also the ideal time for us to bond – away from work, crowds, life’s troubles, people’s opinions. Just the two of us at one with nature, in awe of God’s beautiful creation and grateful that we are healthy enough to ride together while chatting, laughing, and enjoying the amazing views around us.

While joyfully cycling next to him recently, I couldn’t help thinking how both our lives had changed for the better since being married and I wondered whether there were notable benefits to being married. So, later that day, I decided to investigate the subject further. What I found was rather fascinating – there is compelling evidence that married people are healthier than singles. Many of the health benefits being more pronounced in married men than married women. I also realised that marriage doesn’t automatically provide these health benefits. The people who are in unhappy, stressful marriages may be worse off than those who are single but have a strong support system with a caring family, friends, and loved ones.

It became clear to me that many researchers with similar ruminations have undertaken studies on the effects of marriage on health. These wide-ranging studies support what the Book of Genesis teaches: 2:18, ESV: “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” It has become evident from the extensive work done by social scientists that married people do a lot better than their unmarried or divorced counterparts. People in happy marriages live longer, are less likely to suffer from depression, have fewer heart attacks and strokes, are more likely to survive a major operation, are less likely to have advanced stages of cancer at diagnosis and are more likely to survive cancer for a longer period.

Happily ever after
Image by Mark D Young

Interestingly, marriage appears to have a ‘heart’ benefit

A study undertaken in England, with a sample of 25,000 people found that married people were 14% more likely to survive after having a heart attack and they were even well enough to be discharged from the hospital two days sooner than single people who suffered a heart attack.

The results of this study are preliminary and the reasons for the improved outcomes in married people are not yet clear. Nonetheless, it appears that the findings highlight the importance of physical and emotional support after such a traumatic event. There have been other studies undertaken that link marriage to improved heart attack recovery outcomes. However, this study was the first to imply that one’s marital status affects how quickly heart attack patients can leave the hospital. One also has to consider the health status of each individual before the event as well as the severity of the heart attack. It could be that the heart attacks in the single group were more severe or perhaps their health was worse than those in the married group. If the latter, I can’t help wondering why is it that the single group’s heart attacks were more severe or that they were not as healthy as the married group to start with?

Despite some of these findings, this is not to discourage those people who are happy being single. They should not feel pressured to find a marriage partner. Some people are called to be single. I know many content singles who have a fantastic support system of close friends, loved ones, and family. This particular study certainly demonstrates that there is an association between marriage and better health and recovery after a heart attack, but one cannot conclude that marriage is the only reason for this benefit.

Why then does this link between marriage and health exist?

On delving further, I found that several researchers have explored this question extensively. Below are some noteworthy theories as well as a few personal experiences.

Compared to about a quarter of singles or cohabitors, studies reveal that over 40% of married people comment that they are very happy or more joyful and content with life in general. The majority revealing that the joys of single life and divorce are overrated. Further studies have shown that only 18% of divorced adults say they are very happy with their life overall. In fact, divorced adults were twice as likely as married couples to say that they were not too happy with life in general. However, a minority of adults do move on to create marriages that are happier than the ones they left. Similar outcomes have been shown in studies done across 17 developed nations. These studies revealed that even after controlling for age, gender, education, children, financial satisfaction, church attendance, and health – married people have an elevated level of happiness than those who are not married. So, even across nations, the strength of being married and being happy is consistent.

Marriage will make you happier

Findings found that being married resulted in a general state of happiness, despite the boost in health and financial satisfaction. Interestingly, this was not the case with couples cohabiting – the majority of whom do not experience a boost in happiness, nor an increase in perceived health and financial satisfaction.

In Norway, a study of 100,000 Norwegians found that in both men and women, “the married have the highest level of subjective well-being, followed by the widowed. Even long-divorced people who cohabited were not any happier than singles.”

I’ve only been married for five months, but despite my inexperience, I feel more content since being married and am beginning to experience more of its benefits. Since I married later in life, I have much to compare it to – having been in a few serious relationships and having been single for many years too. During my singlehood, I felt relatively content, my faith is strong, I had a great support system, two adorable little dogs, and a lot to be grateful for. I didn’t need someone to fulfil me. I realise now that it was a healthy foundation before entering into a new relationship.

Despite my contented single state before, having someone who is deeply committed to me and who demonstrates it in every way, has certainly had a positive impact on my well-being. From what he has told me and the sparkle in his eyes, it has been extremely beneficial for him too.

Nic & Delilah with Pastor Simon
Image by Mark D Young

Being married is safer

Studies have found that single and divorced women were four to fives times more likely to be victims of violence in any given year than wives; bachelors were four times more likely to be violent-crime victims than husbands. Two-thirds of acts of violence against women committed by intimate partners were not committed by husbands but by boyfriends (whether live-in or not) or former husbands or boyfriends.

As one scholar sums up the relevant research: “Regardless of methodology, the studies yielded similar results: cohabitors engage in more violence than spouses.” Linda Waite (the George Herbert Mead Distinguished Service Professor of Sociology and Senior Fellow at NORC at the University of Chicago, whose research interests include social demography, ageing, the family, health, sexuality and social well-being) analysed the National Survey of Families and Households and found that even after controlling for education, race, age, and gender, people who live together are still three times more likely to say their arguments got physical (such as kicking, hitting, or shoving) in the past year than married couples.

I can vouch for this – marriage definitely makes me feel safer. My husband looks out for me and instinctively protects me when he feels I am being threatened in any way. I haven’t felt this level of protection in any of my previous relationships or when I was single. My husband’s level of commitment and protection increased ten-fold after we got married. From where I sit, there is something transformational that happens when couples enter into the covenant of marriage.

It boosts your immune system

Researchers have established that individuals in happy relationships have better immune function than those who aren’t. Studies found that cortisol tends to have a slower release in married people compared to singles. High levels of cortisol usually indicate higher stress levels, which impair one’s immune system.

Here again, I can offer some personal evidence, I suffered an extremely traumatic event about two years ago due to a doctor-caused injury. Despite having a good friend caring for me at the time as well as much support from other loved ones, my blood tests, brain wave scans, and other health checks indicated that my body was in a state of severe distress. I focussed on leading an even healthier lifestyle than I had before the event, ate only organic and free-range foods, eliminated all preservatives, artificial colourants and flavourings from my diet, I got rid of all chemical products in my house and incorporated gentle exercise that I could tolerate as part of my recovery. Despite ticking all the right boxes, the picture was still glum in some areas.

During my healing, I met my now-husband and ten month’s later we got married, all the while continuing my health regime. Surprisingly, after about two months of marriage, my next monthly check-up revealed a marked improvement in my brain wave tests – kudos were sent home to my husband, my specialist commenting that it would appear that marriage had certainly expedited some factors of my healing.

It can be life-saving

The beneficial powers of marriage are more evident in late middle age. When Linda Waite and a colleague analysed mortality differentials in a large, nationally representative sample, “they found an astoundingly great “marriage gap” in longevity: nine out of ten married men who are alive at 48 will make it to age 65, compared with just six in ten comparable single guys (controlling for race, education, and income). For women, the protective benefits of marriage are also powerful, though not quite as large. Nine out of ten wives alive at age 48 will live to be senior citizens, compared with just eight out of ten divorced and single women. The benefits of marriage are proving to be incredibly powerful, that according to statisticians Bernard Cohen and I-Sing Lee, who compiled a catalogue of relative mortality risks, “being unmarried is one of the greatest risks that people voluntarily subject themselves to.”

This does not appear to be a selection effect either. Even controlling for initial health status, sick people who are married live longer than their unmarried counterparts. Having a spouse, for example, lowers a cancer patient’s risk of dying from the disease as much as being in an age category ten years younger. A recent study of outcomes for surgical patients found that just being married lowered a patient’s risk of dying in the hospital. For perhaps more obvious reasons, the risk that a hospital patient will be discharged to a nursing home was two and a half times greater if the patient was unmarried. Scientists who have studied immune functioning in the laboratory find that happily married couples have better-functioning immune systems. Divorced people, even years after the divorce, show much lower levels of immune function.”

Marriage can even save your children’s lives

Studies have shown that if parents get married and stay married, their children lead healthier and longer lives. “In one long-term study that followed a sample of highly advantaged children (middle-class whites with IQs of at least 135) up through their seventies, a parent’s divorce knocked four years off the adult child’s life expectancy. 40-Year-olds from divorced homes were three times more likely to die from all causes than 40-year-olds whose parents stayed married.”

Marriage can improve your behaviour

On average, married people eat better, maintain healthier lifestyles, and take fewer risks than singles. Interestingly, evidence suggests that married people tend to go for regular health checks and doctors’ visits and follow their doctors’ recommendations.

Your financial situation may improve

Scientific literature indicates that married people not only make more money, but they also tend to manage their money better and build more wealth as a couple than either individual would on their own. Couples who earn similar income levels are far less likely to report economic hardship. Also, the longer you stay married, the more assets you gather. Comparatively, there is no relationship between the length of cohabitation and wealth accumulation. In one American research study, married couples who remained married witnessed their assets increase twice as fast as those people who had remained divorced over five years.

Cheating hearts are tamed

Research has also indicated that marriage increases sexual fidelity. Results indicating that cohabiting men are four times more likely to be unfaithful to their partners than husbands. Astoundingly, cohabiting women are eight times more likely to cheat than wives. It appears that the promise of permanence in a romantic relationship is more beneficial to both men and women. Conversely, only one out of ten cohabiting couples were still living together after five years. Whereas 80% of couples marrying for the first time were still married five years down the line, and nearly 60% remain married for life (based on current divorce rates in some countries). Although marriage may be riskier in the 21st century than it once was, it still proves to be a better bet when it comes to making love last.

Breaking away hearts
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Marriage encourages higher levels of intensity and commitment

A study undertaken by Michael Pollard and Kathleen Mullan Harris found that “cohabitors are also substantially less certain about the permanence of their relationships than respondents in married relationships, and they report substantially lower levels of “complete” commitment to their partner, especially for males. Taken together, the results indicate a distinct difference in relationship intensity between cohabiting and married couples, with little overlap; married relationships of any duration consistently ranked higher on all of the intensity measures than cohabitations at even the longer durations.”

Marriage cultivates a better sex life

Despite what we see on television and in the media, where singlehood appears to promise erotic untold joys, husband and wives are more likely to report having an immensely satisfying and healthy sex life than their single or cohabiting counterparts. Studies found that divorced women were the least likely to have a sex life they found emotionally satisfying. Contrary to secular beliefs, men have reported that having a wife beats shacking up by a wide margin. In fact, 50% of husbands have reported that sex with their wives is tremendously satisfying physically, compared to 39% of cohabiting men.

Marriage is good for mental health

Another study reveals that marriage is good for your mental health. Researchers have found that both married men and women are less depressed, less anxious, less psychologically distressed than single, divorced, or widowed individuals. In contrast, divorce has the opposite effect, it lowers both genders’ mental health, thereby increasing hostility and depression. It is also shown to lower a person’s self-esteem and sense of purpose in life.

Researchers have found that getting married gives the individual’s a mental health boost. Findings from longitudinal studies revealed that when people got married, their mental health improved consistently and substantially. Conversely, when people divorced, they experienced a substantial deterioration in mental and emotional well-being. Overall, they also reported lower levels of self-acceptance and a more negative outlook on life than their married counterparts.

Suicide rates in both husbands and wives were also much lower than in singles or divorced people. There is also a lower risk of married people having problems with alcohol abuse or illegal drugs.

Take-away – based on research and personal experiences

We’ve all heard some cynics saying, “marriage is just a piece of paper”. If that were the case, why are those same individuals not signing that piece of paper? Perhaps the truth lies in the fact that the “piece of paper” matters a great deal.

There is something about marriage as a social institution – a shared objective and public, legal vow – before God (for believers) and others, that gives wedlock the power to change people’s lives. Working together towards a common goal, splitting the chores, combining finances, creating more wealth, deeper communication and intimacy, the process of building a strong union with cords that cannot easily be broken, ultimately provides humans with a much deeper purpose in life. Marriage households have double the talent, time, and labour pool of singles. As time passes, spouses specialise – each producing more in both market and non-market goods than singles who have to carry all of life’s tasks and burdens alone.

Marriage is a partnership through life, supported by religious values, family, and community. Therefore, it has the power to do what economic partnerships are unable to – provide a stronger sense of meaning and purpose to life, it encourages couples to dig deeper when marriage feels less than blissful, and it enables them to heave the cart of life together – as one.

Marriage also reduces selfishness, as each person is both responsible for and responsible to another human being other than themselves. Each half working together to live more responsible, satisfying, and fruitful lives. I’d go as far as to say that marriage has a transformative nature, it changes the way two individuals look at one another, the future, and their roles in society.

Curiously, many couples who stick it out when times are extremely tough, find that their marriages do still turn out to be happy. Research has found that only 12% of very unhappily married couples who stay the course remain unhappy; whereas 70% of the unhappiest couples now describe their marriage as “very” or “quite” happy.

In conclusion to my contemplations and a few research papers, it appears that just as ripe marriages can sour, sour marriages can ripen. If society recognises the value of marriage, there is even a higher chance of those sour marriages ripening once again. From a Christian perspective, we learn that God created marriage as a loyal partnership between one man and one woman; marriage is the firmest foundation for building a family; God designed sexual expression to help married couples to build intimacy, and marriage mirrors God’s covenant relationship with His people.

Wedding bands
Image by Mark D Young

If you’d like to read more about this topic, there’s a great selection of books here.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are purely those of the writer, they are not endorsed by Safrea or any of its members.

Authored by Delilah Nosworthy

Author

8 Responses

  1. A thoroughly researched, insightful and well-written article as always, Delilah. I especially loved the insights into the transformational feeling one experiences after just getting married 😇🥰

  2. Well done on this article Delilah. Interesting perspectives and research. I can look forward to a long and healthy life by the sounds of it – and so can you! Thanks for sharing your research, personal experiences and wisdom.

  3. Thanks for an interesting and insightful read Delilah. Once again, well done on a good write-up.

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