Healthy marriage: why it’s good for you

by Carol Weiss, MA

Healthy marriage characterized by strong commitment and effective communication increases physical and emotional well-being for both partners. Studies show that the benefits of a healthy marriage include lower disease rates, a longer life span, and a greater sense of well-being.

Happily married partners have lower rates of heart failure, cancer, and other diseases and develop stronger networks of social support than their single counterparts. According to one Harvard study, married women are 20 percent less likely to die of heart disease, suicide and cirrhosis of the liver. Married men are two to three times less likely to die of such causes. The most important protective factor offered in healthy marriage is positive stress management.

When two people share the tasks of bringing in income, parenting children, and running a household, there are twice as many resources for facing daily demands. A single head of household is more likely to face many demands without enough resources — the very definition of stress. Married partners amass more wealth over a lifetime than singles and this can translate into more options during retirement years. A healthy marriage brings together two teams of friends and family for an increased support network in times of difficulty. Strong support networks bring physical and mental health benefits such as lower rates of depression. Married partners tend to make better choices in the areas of health habits and risky behaviors. For example, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that married adults are about half as likely to be smokers as are single or divorced adults. They are also less likely to be heavy drinkers and to engage in risky sexual behaviors that lead to sexually transmitted diseases.

Unmarried couples in stable relationships enjoy many of the same benefits as their married counterparts. However, unhappily married couples do not enjoy these benefits and indeed are at risk for the many illnesses and conditions brought about and made worse by stress. A study of newlywed couples conducted at Ohio State University found that hostile and negative behavior was associated with a decline in immune system response, which can lead to greater susceptibility to disease and slower healing.

What about the couple spats that all couples experience? It is the way couples fight that affects health. How often or what couples fight about tends to matter less than their conflict style. One study looked at expressing feelings or keeping quiet in arguments. Men keeping quiet didn’t seem to have much affect on health but women who bottled up feelings during arguments were four times as likely to die during the 10-year period of the study than women who told their partners how they felt! This self-silencing in women was linked to depression, eating disorders, and heart disease.

The emotional tone that men and women use during arguments are also health indicators. In one study, couples were given topics to discuss, such as money or household chores, and the comments made were categorized as warm or hostile. For women, whether the arguing style was warm or hostile had the most effect on heart health. Even if criticism is present, communicating in affectionate warm terms lowered risk of heart disease.

Open communication and productive fighting skills can be learned in relationship therapy. Newlyweds, midlife partners, and retired couples can all benefit.

Carol Weiss, MA is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 30 years of experience working with all kinds of couples with all sorts of issues. She can be reached at 468-4006.