Many studies have suggested that being in a long, stable marriage is decidedly good for your health. Married people are apparently less likely to develop all sorts of health problems, from the acute (the common cold) to the chronic (heart attacks and cancer).
Married people also tend to live longer, some research has shown, although this benefit is much greater for men than for women.
But is it getting married or staying married that offers the health advantage?
The latter, according to a new study from University of Chicago researchers. It found that a “marital disruption” — divorce or widowhood — tends to damage people’s long-term health, even if they later remarry.
In other words, your accumulated marital history — your “marital biography,” so to speak — may (and I emphasize that word because this research needs to be confirmed by others) have a bigger impact than you realize on your health in middle age and beyond.
And what if you’ve never married? Among the people whose health data was analyzed for the study (8,652 white, black and Hispanic people aged 51 to 61), those who had steered clear of the marriage altar were generally healthier than people who were currently married but who had been divorced or experienced the death of a spouse.
According to the study, which appears in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, the aspects of health most likely to be strongly associated with past marital disruption are those that develop slowly, such as chronic medical conditions (diabetes, heart disease, cancer) and mobility limitations.
“We argue that losing a marriage through divorce or widowhood is extremely stressful and that a high-stress period takes a toll on health,” said study co-author Linda Waite, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, in a press release. “Think of health as money in the bank. Think of a marriage as a mechanism for ‘saving’ or adding to health. Think of divorce as a period of very high expenditures.”
A big caveat
Waite and her co-author acknowledge that one of the study’s biggest limitations was that it failed to consider marital quality. And, indeed, other research has found that unhappily married people tend to have more risk factors for disease, such as high blood pressure (a risk factor for heart disease), than their happily married or even their single peers.
Defining “happy” and “unhappy” marriages is tricky, however. There are unhappy low-conflict marriages (those with such “soft” complaints as “We’re not communicating,” “Our sexual relationship isn’t good,” “We’ve grown apart”) and unhappy high-conflict ones (those marked by chronic infidelity, addiction, abuse, and other destructive behavior). Do both types of unhappy marriages affect health outcomes equally?
I posed that question to Bill Doherty, Ph.D., a professor and director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota.
“Staying in a very unhealthy marriage — a toxic, destructive marriage — is not healthy,” he said. But, he added, staying in a low-conflict marriage — and working through the problems — appears to benefit the long-term health of not only the husband and wife but also their children.
Researchers didn’t always believe that was true. But new, more rigorously designed studies, ones that observe families both before and after divorce, said Doherty, have found that divorce tends to be detrimental to children’s health — even years later, when they’re adults. “There’s a subset of children whose lives are better after divorce — children who are living with parents whose high level of conflict drags the children down,” he said. “But that’s the minority of divorces.”
Health — and happiness?
So, perhaps it’s a good thing that more and more couples (according to anecdotal reports) are deciding to delay divorce during this Great Recession — if they end up staying married after the economy recovers, that is.
And here’s another finding that unhappy-but-low-conflict couples who are sticking it out may find motivational: According to earlier research by Waite, two-thirds of unhappily married couples who avoided divorce attorneys and stayed together reported that their marriages were happy five years later.