The Health Benefits of Marriage

The Health Benefits of Marriage

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When you tied the knot, you did so out of love (at least we hope so) and the desire to spend your days with this incredible person who completely “gets” and accepts you. But there’s a big bonus that comes along with it (and we’re not talking about that blingy ring on your finger): You did your health a huge favor by saying “I do.”From living a longer, less stressful life to reducing your chances of depression, there are a whole host of health benefits to being married. “You can’t underestimate the value of having a partner to walk through life with,” says Tim Loving, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin and co-founder of ScienceofRelationships.com.Get the scoop on the health benefits of marital bliss—and the downsides when it’s a less-than-happy union.MORE: How to Have a Secure RelationshipYou’re healthier overall.If you’re in a good, supportive marriage, chances are, you’ll take better care of yourself. “Married people are healthier because they have someone to nag them, which we can’t underestimate the power of,” notes Loving. “We have someone with a vested interest in us, reminding us about medications or to eat healthier. When we are in a relationship or with someone we care about, it pushes us to do better things ourselves.”Although some might complain about married life being more “routine,” that can actually benefit your health. “Married couples tend to have a more regular schedule and that has a huge influence on health-related behavior,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., YouBeauty Psychology Advisor. “Your routine allows you to eat well and get regular sleep. You tend to eat at home more often and the food you eat at home tends to be healthier than the food you eat out.”When you have a partner in life, you’re also more likely to get social support for healthy activities, such as hitting the gym regularly and making sure you schedule your doctor appointments. “You’re not responsible alone for all of your health behaviors,” says Markman.Adds Terri Orbuch, author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great and director of the Early Years of Marriage Project, “when you’re in a happy, healthy marriage you have a sense of closeness and bonding and a connection—you have a reason to take better care of yourself. You want to live longer and be with this person.”Of course, none of this holds true if you’re in an unhealthy relationship or if your spouse won’t let go of harmful habits, such as regularly downing junk food and smoking, which can drag down your health, too. “If someone is trying to quit smoking, but their partner continues to smoke you’re going to have to have a level of willpower that is unimaginable,” says Loving. “That’s a hard thing when the cues continue to be around. You don’t have the same support.”But you might be fatter.The good news? You’ve gained a spouse. The bad news? Chances are you’ve gained some weight, too. That’s because women are more likely to gain weight in a marriage, especially if they’re over age 30, according to research presented at the 106th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association. The study showed that both men and women who married (or divorced) were more likely than never-married people to gain about seven to 20 pounds (based on a 5’ 10” adult) in the two years following their transition into either marriage or divorce. Men were more likely to gain more weight—more than about 21 pounds, based on a 5’ 10” adult—after a divorce.“You tend to see an increase in weight as you transition into marriage,” says Loving. “That’s probably because you stop primping yourself so much. We take better care of ourselves when we’re single because we’re looking for a partner and want to show our mate value. When you get into relationship, some of that motivation is going to go away.”Chances are, you used to hit the gym more often when you were single not only because you wanted to look good but because you had the time. “Now in our spare time we have something else we want to do—like spending time with your partner,” says Loving.You’re less stressed.No marriage is perfect. There will be times when you are so frustrated with your partner that you’ll want to walk out that door and contemplate never coming back, but for the most part, happy, healthy marriages help you handle life stress better. What’s more, research shows that a good partnership has a dampening effect on cortisol responses to psychological stress, according to a 2010 study published in aptly named journal, Stress.QUIZ: How Stressed Are You?“If you’re better able to manage stress, you’re less likely to drink or smoke and are more likely to exercise and go to the doctor,” says Orbuch.The exception: If you’re in an unhappy marriage, which is a health hazard all its own. “Being in a bad marriage is a long-term stressor,” notes Markman. “All of the problems with stress kick in—depressed immune function, greater likelihood of drinking and smoking. It’s the worst of all worlds—you don’t have the social support you need and you have a chronic stressor.”What’s more, being in an unhealthy, unsupportive marriage takes a mental toll. “You’re less optimistic and positive about the world around you and that can lead to not taking care of yourself,” says Orbuch. “You’re less likely to rejoice for the good and less likely to bounce back from the bad.”You’re more likely to live longer after heart surgery.Sharing your heart can help it heal after it’s been damaged. A 2011 study from the University of Rochester found that happily married people who had coronary bypass surgery are more than three times as likely to be alive and kicking 15 years later compared to unmarried heart patients, according to a study in the American Psychological Association’s journal, Health Psychology.You’re less sensitive to pain.The simple act of holding your partner’s hand helps soothe stress and ease pain. A small study conducted at the University of Virginia found that when women were administered an electric shock while being monitored with a functional MRI, they showed less activity in the stress-related areas of their brains when they held their hubby’s hand.Another study (why do people sign up for these painful studies?)—this one conducted by UCLA researchers—found that when women in long-term romantic relationships were scanned as they received a painful heat stimuli, their self-reported pain ratings went down while viewing photos of their partners (compared to pictures of strangers or objects). What’s more, viewing photos of their loved ones while enduring pain also increased activity in the brain’s ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), which is linked to safety signaling—in other words, their partners made them feel safe despite the pain.On the flip side, if you’re in a bad marriage, your healing time from wounds goes up, according to a small study in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Researchers found that when couples were given blisters on their arms (created by tiny suction devices), the wounds healed 60 percent slower in highly hostile couples compared to low-hostility couples, taking roughly two days longer to heal. Ouch.MORE: One Easy Way to Save Your MarriageYou’ll boost your brain health.Being part of a couple in midlife (around 50 years old) is associated with a reduced risk of cognitive impairment, such as poor memory and mental functioning, in old age compared to those who are single, separated or widowed, according to a 2009 study published in the British Medical Journal. The Swedish researchers concluded that being in a relationship might come with cognitive and social challenges that have a protective effect against cognitive impairment later in life.You’ll live longer.Watch out George Clooney. Research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health shows that never married men have the highest risk of death in the U.S., compared to married couples.One of the reasons why pairing up may boost your longevity is because you have another person around to pinpoint both physical and mental health problems and push you to do something about them. Spouses tend to notice changes in behavior and appearance that can signal a health red flag more quickly than you can, according to Markman. “If you have a mole on your back, your spouse may notice it before you do,” he says. “Having that outside perspective on your life can be a real benefit for health. It means you have someone else who knows when things are getting stressful for you and helps you express those stressors in a safe environment and helps you deal with them.”You’re less depressed.Being married—not just cohabitating—boosts your psychological wellbeing, according to a study in the Journal of Family Issues. What’s more, research shows that marriage actually helps reduce depressive symptoms, while getting divorced increases them.Part of the reason marriage may help ease depressive symptoms is because of the social support a good partnership can provide. “You have someone who can listen to you and be supportive so you’ll see lower depression rates and less severe symptoms in those going through depression,” says Markman. “A married couple can also shoulder different responsibilities when a partner is sick, which helps remove some of the stress.”Adds Benjamin Karney, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at UCLA: “Loneliness is strongly associated with depression. Being with somebody reduces the isolation that causes depression.” That said, marriage alone doesn’t stop depression in its tracks. A bad, stressful relationship that doesn’t provide social support can contribute to depressive symptoms, according to Karney. “It has to be a good relationship because a bad relationship can kill you—and that’s no joke.”QUIZ: How Do You Act in Relationships?

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Rachel Grumman Bender
Rachel Grumman Bender is an award-winning freelance health and beauty writer and editor. She writes regularly for The New York Times and has written for Women's Health, Yahoo Health, Everyday Health, the New York Post, Cosmopolitan, and many more publications. Rachel has held Health Editor positions at YouBeauty.com and Cosmopolitan magazine. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism at Boston University and her master’s degree in journalism at New York University. She lives in northern California with her husband and her twins.