Here’s a chicken-or-egg problem: Research shows married people enjoy better health. But why? Is it because marriage is good for your health and encourages healthier behavior, or because healthier individuals are more likely to get married?
A study published in the September issue of the journal Personal Relationships, written by Cortez and colleagues, investigates the link between being healthy or unhealthy and getting married.
Let us first consider the view that marriage is good for your health, meaning marriage causes improved health. How can getting married lead to greater well-being—better cardiovascular health, a lower body mass index (BMI), and lower chances of developing a chronic illness?
A variety of mechanisms could be responsible for this effect, like better economic benefits, greater social support, or a healthier lifestyle.
In contrast, the opposite causal direction, the view that healthier people are more likely to get married, suggests a selection effect. After all, not everybody marries. Perhaps unhealthy people are less motivated or able to get married. Or maybe they are considered less desirable marriage partners, so they find it harder to get married. To solve this chicken-or-egg problem, we turn to the recent study.
Sample and methods
This investigation utilized a sample from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics’ Transition into Adulthood Supplement, which began in 2005 and collected data every two years.
The participants were 20-21 years old at Time 1 (T1) and 26-27 years at Time 4 (T4).
The sample comprised 302 individuals (equal number of men and women; 47% White; 71% with some college education by T4) who were not cohabiting/married at T1, nor had married and divorced across the eight years (i.e. by T4).
Measures included marital status change, BMI, chronic illness (e.g., asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes), and social determinants of health (gender, race, education).
Support for the selection effect (healthier people get married)
The results regarding the selection effect were mixed and in some ways counterintuitive. Specifically, those with an unhealthy BMI were actually more likely to get married. In addition, there was no relationship between having a chronic illness at T1 and later marriage, except in the case of White adults—they were less likely to marry.
How can we explain these counterintuitive findings (showing more unhealthy people get married), especially since other studies (though in older individuals) have found being healthy may increase the likelihood of marriage?
One possibility is that health and body weight are no longer as predictive of marriage as they used to be. Specifically, other characteristics (e.g., education, income, employment status) may play a bigger role in predicting marriage these days.
Furthermore, younger adults are usually healthier than older ones, so chronic diseases in this age group are often less serious and more easily managed than chronic diseases in older adults (e.g., asthma in a young adult vs. heart disease in an older person).
Therefore, compared to the presence of chronic illness, factors like stable employment and a good income are possibly bigger predictors of marriage among young individuals.
Support for the causal effect or “marriage is good for your health.”
What about the view that marriage causes greater health?
Let us first look at the results for people who were already healthy (e.g., with a healthy BMI): Data showed marriage was not associated with significant changes in the health of healthier people. For instance, those with a healthy weight did not get healthier after marriage. Why?
Perhaps marriage had less of an impact on healthier individuals because they were already quite healthy. So marriage mainly provided them with additional support to continue their healthy behaviors.
Now consider the findings concerning people with an unhealthy BMI:
A large portion of those who had an unhealthy BMI benefited from marriage. Specifically, marriage was associated with 100% decreased odds of unhealthy BMI eight years later. However, these benefits of marriage were observed mainly in men and people of color, not Caucasians or women.
It is not clear why these benefits depend on gender and ethnicity, though the gender differences in the health benefits of marriage have been previously documented. Some research suggests these gender differences are slowly disappearing, perhaps because gender roles, which presumably gave rise to these differences, are changing. For instance, dual-employed households are much more common these days than they used to be.
Analysis of data showed support for both theories: marriage resulting in greater health, and healthier people being more likely to get married.
Overall, young adults in their early 20s who had an unhealthy body mass index (BMI) were more likely to get married (selection effect) and more likely to achieve a healthy BMI (causal effect) in their late 20s.
In addition, Caucasians and women were less likely to benefit from marriage than men and people of color.
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