The New Year is traditionally a time when many people feel a renewed commitment to forming healthy habits, such as exercising regularly, drinking more water, or eating healthier.
It turns out that when it comes to health, married people have an edge, especially married men. But surely the act of walking down the aisle isn’t what provides this health boon.
So what exactly is at stake?
As a team, we study how relationships affect health. One of us is a nursing professor studying how social support influences health behaviors. One is a social health psychologist exploring how stress affects couples’ relationships and health, and one is a social psychologist studying how relationships influence health behavior changes. Together, we look at how partners affect each other’s health, factoring gender into this equation.
Health benefits of marriage, for men and women
It is important to note that most studies of marriage and health have been limited to married men and women. But more recent studies are examining these relationships in partners who have the same gender identity, the same biological sex, and who are of a different gender.
One theory that tries to explain the link between marriage and health is the act of self-selection. Simply put, people who are wealthier and healthier than the average are more likely to not only get married, but also to find a partner who is wealthier and healthier than the average. Men and women with below-average health and wealth are less likely to marry.
While that may be part of the story, marriage also provides partners with a sense of belonging, greater opportunities for social engagement, and fewer feelings of loneliness. This social integration, or the extent to which people participate in social relationships and activities, can greatly influence health, from reducing the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease to reducing the risk of death or suicide.
Another important connection between marriage and health concerns the inflammatory process in the body. Research links loneliness and lack of close relationships with inflammation or how the body reacts to illness, injury, or disease. While inflammation is necessary for healing, chronic inflammation is associated with heart disease, arthritis, cancer, and autoimmune disease. While single adults also undoubtedly have very meaningful close relationships, a healthy marriage by nature provides more opportunities for intimacy and socializing, supporting the link between marriage and inflammation.
When you dig deeper, gender also seems to play a role. A study of marital quality, gender, and inflammation found a connection between lower levels of spousal support and higher levels of inflammation for women, but not men. In another study, if couples used negative communication patterns, such as one partner making demands while the other partner withdrew, women but not men experienced heightened inflammation.
Marriage and longevity
Married men and women live, on average, two years longer than their unmarried counterparts. One reason for this longevity advantage is the influence of marital partners on healthy behaviors. Study after study shows that married people eat better and are less likely to smoke and drink excessively. All of these healthy behaviors help explain why married people tend to live longer. However, men married to women tend to see additional longevity benefits than women married to men, for several possible reasons.
For example, spouses can nurture their male partners, reinforcing healthy behaviors and providing more opportunities for healthy choices. On the other hand, married men are less likely to attempt to influence their wives’ health behaviors.
Women tend to take the lead in promoting healthy behaviors that benefit their husbands. Data suggests that men and women in same-sex relationships tend to engage in teamwork to mutually promote positive health behaviors. Also, married men and women are more likely to want to change their partners’ health behaviors, such as exercise, especially if their spouses’ habits are worse than their own. These findings suggest that both persona and partner gender are important.
Relationship quality can also influence health behaviors. For example, in the context of exercise, both men and women who reported higher levels of spousal support were more likely to walk for exercise. However, as men aged, the association between spousal support and walking became even stronger for them, but the same was not true for married women.
Cultural norms and caregiving
To further understand how men’s health benefits their wives, consider the cultural norms that foster expectations that women will be primary caretakers in committed relationships.
Middle-aged people, and especially women, have also been described as the “sandwich generation,” as they are often “squished” between caring for growing children and aging parents. Caregiving can take a toll on a person’s immune system and overall health. Additionally, the invisible work related to childcare and household chores, which often falls disproportionately on women, can leave women with less time for self-care, such as being physically active.
Women also take on more responsibility in terms of coordinating physician appointments and promoting adherence to medical advice for their husbands than husbands do for their wives. However, men often increase their caregiving time when their wives are ill.
Of course, not all weddings are created equal
Relationship quality and relationship conflict also play an important role when it comes to marriage and health. Gender socialization and power differences often lead women to think and care about their relationships more than men, causing women to take the primary responsibility for handling relationship problems, while men take on less of the burden.
Research shows that women are also more likely to base their identities on their relationships, and therefore when they experience marital conflict or other relationship problems, they experience more negative emotional and physical health effects than men. This can include an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, inflammation and cardiovascular disease.
Does this mean that all men should marry to protect their health, or that unmarried people cannot enjoy the same health benefits as those who said “yes”?
At all. Unmarried people can, of course, enjoy good health and longevity. Creating and maintaining strong social ties and being involved with your community goes a long way when it comes to health. Additionally, making better lifestyle choices available, seeking preventative health care, and reducing stress can help everyone live longer, healthier lives.
Libby Richards, associate professor of nursing, Purdue University; Melissa Franks, associate professor of human development and family studies, Purdue University, and Rosie Shrout, assistant professor of human development and family studies, Purdue University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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