In my book, 10 Essentials of Highly Healthy People, I have a section titled, “The Power of a Healthy Marriage.” Here’s what I say:
Another example of the impact on health of avoiding loneliness and cultivating warm and supportive relationships is found in the research of people who are happily married. They not only tend to live longer than those who are unmarried but also appear to live more highly healthy lives; they have increased quantity and quality of life.
I’ve repeatedly seen convincing scientific and anecdotal evidence that the labor we invest into making our marriages a success will reap significant health benefits for us and for our spouses.
Researchers at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, published a study of nearly 10,000 married men who had no history of chest pain.
Men with elevated risk factors for heart disease, such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes, older age, or abnormalities on their EKG were over twenty times more likely to develop angina (chest pain) over the five years of the study. However, those who answered yes to the question, “Does your wife show you her love?” had significantly less angina.
Men with the same risk factors who answered no had twice as much angina.
The researchers drew this conclusion: “The wife’s love and support is an important balancing factor which apparently reduces the risk of angina pectoris even in the presence of high risk factors.”
Another study looked at 8,500 men with no history of duodenal ulcers. Men who reported a low level of love and support from their wives had twice as many ulcers as men who felt their wives both loved and supported them.
Those who reported that their wives did not love them had three times as many ulcers as the men who felt their wives loved them.
The companionship, love, and support provided by marriage is associated with lower mortality for almost every major cause of death, at least when married people are compared with the single, separated, divorced, or widowed.
Married people are not only more likely to live longer, but they are also more satisfied with living and seem to better survive a variety of diseases. One study showed that the percentage of cancer survivors was significantly higher for the married, as compared with the unmarried, in almost every category of gender, age, or stage of disease.
Another study showed that married couple are three times as likely to survive five years after a heart attack than are the unmarried. After looking at data on more than 12,000 adults, two researchers in England speculated that a spouse could reduce a man’s stress and encourage a healthy lifestyle.
Yet there may be other factors at play, too.
“Exactly how marriage works its magic remains mysterious,” they wrote in their report. “Perhaps a strong personal relationship improves mental health and helps the individual to ward off physical illness. More research here is certainly needed.”
However, it should come as no surprise to learn that unhealthy marriages are unhealthy.
Married couples who constantly argue are not nearly as healthy as those who have learned communication techniques that reduce or eliminate perpetual bickering. In one study of couples married an average of forty- two years, those who constantly argued had significantly weaker immune systems than did couples who engaged in fewer disagreements.
A study of newlyweds showed that those who exhibited the most negative or hostile behaviors during a thirty-minute discussion of marital problems had measurably reduced immune system function as well as increased blood pressure.
Does this lead me to conclude, then, that if you’re in an unhealthy marriage you should divorce? Not at all. In fact, medical studies show that in most cases the long-term effects of divorce can be unhealthy not only for the couple but especially for the children.
Many people think that someone who’s in a bad marriage has two choices: stay married and miserable, or get a divorce and become happier. But in 2002, the first scholarly study ever to test that assumption was published. The findings were astonishing.
The researchers found no evidence that unhappily married adults who divorced were typically any happier than unhappily married people who stayed married.
Even more dramatically, the researchers also found that two-thirds of unhappily married spouses who stayed married reported that five years later their marriages were happy.
Most surprising of all, the most unhappy marriages reported the most dramatic turnarounds: Among those who rated their marriages as very unhappy, almost eight out of ten who avoided divorce were happily married five years later.
My prescription for an unhealthy marriage is not to amputate a mate but to heal the marriage.
It takes mutual effort and steadfast commitment, but it is well worth it. If you enjoy a healthy marriage—rejoice!
As you potentially add years to each other’s life spans and lower each other’s risk of disease, set aside time to consider specific ways you can enhance your relationship even more. Never take a healthy marriage for granted, but devise a plan for making your spouse feel even more supported and cherished.
If your marriage shows signs of disease, leap into action immediately! Take responsibility to do your part in healing your marriage through improving your communication skills, resolving anger and resentment, and seeking both personal and professional help to give your marriage a chance to thrive.
Used with permission, from the book 10 Essentials of Highly Healthy People by Dr. Walt Larimore, with Traci Mullins.