- Historically, many researchers thought that marriage could have an overall positive effect on health.
- Married people tend to live longer and report better health than single people, though there are some drawbacks to marriage.
- A new study argues that marriage may not be doing anything to improve health. Past benefits may have been overstated.
Marriage is supposed to be good for your health.
That’s been the general consensus of many medical researchers over the past few decades. But the specifics are complicated, as should be expected with such a complex topic.
Abusive and cold ones have clear negative effects; married people are more likely to be overweight or obese; and various studies have found different benefits and drawbacks for men and women. Overall though, researchers have generally found that married people tend to be healthier and live longer.
But if that “marriage benefit” existed at all, it might be evaporating, according to a study published July 5 in the journal Social Science Quarterly.
Dmitry Tumin, a sociologist with the Ohio State University College of Medicine, wrote that scientists who have looked for health benefits over the past few years have reported those effects to be fairly small and inconsistent.
More importantly, Tumin said that his analysis shows marriage isn’t really improving health for anyone. Even groups who used to experience some health benefits from marriage are now less likely to see any health improvement at all.
Benefits and drawbacks
Researchers think there are several reasons why marriage could potentially improve health, according to Tumin, though these ideas are controversial. It’s possible that spouses encourage some healthy behaviour overall or that they provide access to a support network for social, emotional, and material needs.
It’s also possible that these benefits have been found in the past just because married people were healthier in the first place.
Here are some of the benefits that researchers have found:
- Married men and women have a lower risk for certain types of heart disease, according to an NYU study — though some other research has found that people who end up divorced or widowed have increased risk.
- Married people are likely to have better overall health than other adults, even after controlling for age, sex, race, education, income, and other factors, according to a CDC report.
- Men who are married are more likely to make use of preventative health care.
- Some research has found that married people report better mental health status and lower alcohol use.
At the same time, researchers have also found drawbacks associated with marriage:
- Relationships and friendships can take a hit. “Multiple studies [have shown] that married people are less likely than single people to help, support, visit, and maintain contact with friends, family, and neighbours,” Bella DePaulo, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of “Singled Out,” wrote in Psychology Today.
- Married men are generally among the most likely to be overweight or obese, according to the CDC. Some studies have found that women are less likely to be physically active after getting married as well.
- Several studies have found that the mental health boost — or “honeymoon effect” — that comes after getting married dissipates over time.
Most of these studies specifically refer to heterosexual marriages, as there’s less data on married LGBT couples. But at least one recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found that older legally married LGBT adults reported better quality of life and more economic and social resources than single or unmarried partnered LGBT adults. Physical health was basically the same for partnered and married LGBT adults, better than the health of single adults. But married women in this study were subject to more bias in everyday life.
What’s changing now
The fact that married people tend to be healthier doesn’t mean that marriage is responsible for that effect, so Tumin wanted to see if an analysis of different age groups would show whether or not they became healthier over time if they were married.
He used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics to examine 12,373 men and women from three separate birth cohorts (1955-1964, 1965-1974, and 1975-1984) who had never been married or were currently in a first marriage for up to four years, from five to nine years, or for ten or more years.
Tumin found that “the protective effects of marriage have eroded over time,” which is consistent with several other recent studies that cast doubt on common wisdom that marriage has health-promoting effects.
The only married people who turned out to be healthier than their non-married counterparts were women who had been married for ten years or more — and that was only true for the oldest cohort in the study (those born between 1955 and 1964). For younger women, that protective effect did not exist.
It’s possible that the theoretical health benefits of marriage never really existed in the first place. The use of less robust statistical analysis in the past may have made it seem like marriage was more beneficial than it actually is.
But it’s also possible that changing circumstances have made that effect disappear. People are less likely to get married now — and if they do get married, it often happens later in life. Tumin wrote that there’s less stigma against being single now than there used to be, which could explain why single people are experiencing better health than they used to when compared to married counterparts.
Plus, economic factors may have removed some health benefits associated with marriage. Tumin wrote that work-family conflict is on the rise and that the need to maintain two incomes may be increasing stress in general.
“Against a backdrop of greater demands at home and at work, and less time spent together, today’s married couples may indeed experience marriage more as a source of conflict and stress than as a resource that safeguards their health,” he wrote.
General trends don’t apply in all cases — even if married people were healthier, it doesn’t mean that an individual person should get married to improve their health (that sounds like a bad idea). And waning health benefits don’t mean you should dump your spouse.
Happy marriages in particular seem to have health benefits, but that’s probably more related to the effect of happiness in the first place. Whether you achieve that happiness single or as part of a couple, it’s fine either way.
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