Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is research that married people are more likely to survive cancer, less likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack, less likely to develop depression and other mental illnesses, and the list goes on.

The health benefit of marriage seems small but significant, roughly equivalent to that of a healthier diet or regular exercise. According to one study, compared to single people, married people are 14 percent more likely to survive a heart attack, and ready to leave the hospital two days earlier.

Interestingly, men seem to benefit from marriage more than women, perhaps because married women tend to be in a subordinate position, or tend to be more afflicted by marital conflict. In at least one study, single women fared almost as well as their wedded counterparts. Also, older couples seem to benefit considerably more than younger ones.

The health benefit of marriage is generally ascribed to better social support. A spouse generally encourages healthier habits and provides psychological and practical support in times of need. She or he is likely to be there in an emergency, if only to call an ambulance. Married people are more likely to have health insurance and less likely to engage in risk behaviour such as substance use or dangerous driving. And they still enjoy a certain degree of social approval and recognition.

Rather than marriage promoting health, it may be that health promotes marriage, that is, that people with better health and more resources are more likely to get or remain married. But it appears that the health benefits of marriage persist even after controlling for such factors.

Of course, one need not be married to enjoy the benefits of companionship. Non-marital cohabitation appears to confer similar advantages. Single people may depend on relatives, friends, colleagues, and have fun with their dates. They may also own a dog, cat, or other pet. Pet ownership has been associated with some of the same benefits as marriage, including better mental and cardiovascular health—and one might wonder which provides the most benefit.

Both marriage and pet ownership have been found to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can impair immune function. Cuddling, or even just interacting, with a spouse or pooch releases the ‘love hormone’ oxytocin, which promotes feelings of calm and closeness.

The feeling of loneliness, in contrast, is so unpleasant that, throughout history, solitary confinement has been used to torture and punish. People who feel lonely are at higher risk of psychological and physical problems, including depression, alcoholism, infection, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Man is a social animal, and depends on others not only for sustenance and protection, but also for identity and meaning.

However, loneliness is not so much an objective state of affairs as a subjective state of mind, a function of desired and achieved levels of social interaction and also of type, or types, of interaction. It is not unusual to feel lonely within a marriage that is no longer validating and nurturing us, but diminishing us and holding us back. As Chekhov noted, ‘If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.’

People in unhappy marriages may feel more stressed and unsupported than most single people, to say nothing of people who are going through a divorce. Divorce is one of the most stressful of all life events. Beyond middle age, divorced people, even if they have remarried, are in worse health than people who never married.

These, of course, are just statistics, and there may be more to them than meets the eye. Everyone is different, and all marriages are different. Matrimony may be good for your health if you are the marrying type, and if you can manage to remain happily married. But the Dalai Lama never married and he’s in pretty rude health.

If you'd like to share your thoughts or experiences, please do so in the comments section.

Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide, and other books.

Find Neel on Twitter and Facebook.

Selected references:

  • Robles TF et al (2014): Marital quality and health: a meta-analytic review. Psychol Bull 140(1):140-87.
  • Hayes RM et al. (2016): The impact of marital status on mortality and length of stay in patients admitted with acute coronary syndrome. Int J Cardiol. 212:142-4.
  • Ploubidis GB et al. (2015): Life-course partnership status and biomarkers in midlife: Evidence from the 1958 British Birth Cohort. Am J Public Health 105(8):1596-603.
  • Wu Z et al. (2003): In sickness and in health: Does cohabitation count? Journal of Family Issues 24:811-38.
  • Levine GN et al. (2013): Pet ownership and cardiovascular risk: a scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation 127(23):2353-63.
  • Hughes ME & Waite LJ (2009): Marital biography and health at mid-life. J Health Soc Behav. 50(3):344-358.
  • Tucker JS et al. (1996): Marital history at midlife as a predictor of longevity: alternative explanations to the protective effect of marriage. Health Psychol. 15(2):94-101.
Neel Burton
Source: Neel Burton

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