Have you heard of the “marriage benefit” in health? This is a well-researched finding that people who are married live longer and get sick less than single people. Most of this benefit is in cardiovascular health—a lower risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke.
But published in the October 2015 Annals of Behavioral Medicine is a research report from Brigham Young University (Utah, USA) that suggests that this “marriage benefit” is only true for people in happy marriages..
But first, why should marriage confer a health benefit? Marriage—or at least a long-term committed relationship—is believed to help due to various factors. One is that married people may tend to see the doctor faster when they have a problem. A spouse is likely to notice the problem as well, and encourage or “nag” the spouse to get the problem looked at.
People in long-term relationships also seem to have fewer dangerous lifestyle habits—such as heavy drinking or unsafe driving— than people living alone. Further, married people have been shown to have lower rates of depression and stress, and less likely to be chronically lonely, which has been shown to be a serious health hazard.
Finally, married people are more likely to eat better, and take their mediations if someone is at home with them. A diabetic, for example, may have a spouse who is as interested in the blood sugar readings as the patient himself.
To measure if these benefits accrue only to happily married people, the Utah researchers studied 94 married heterosexual couples (married an average of 5.4 years), and interviewed them separately and privately about how happy they were in their marriage. They wanted to know if their spouse was mostly supportive, or if they were in more “ambivalent” relationships, where sometimes their spouse was supportive, but frequently there were negative feelings between the two.
They measured blood pressure of each person at the beginning of the study, and then put a constant blood pressure monitor on each person, where the blood pressure was checked twice an hour for many hours. Each time the cuff inflated, the person recorded on a handheld computer what they were doing at the time, and if they were interacting with their spouse.
The results showed that the people who were in ambivalent marriages had significantly higher systolic blood pressure readings than the people in supportive marriages. Psychologist Arthur Aron of Stony Book University (New York) believes that the big problem in many relationships is unpredictability. He says, “When you know someone is not going to be supportive, you acclimatize to that. But if they are sometimes one way and sometimes the other way, it’s much harder.”
This suggests that if you are in a long-term relationship that is happy and supportive, congratulations. If you have a relationship where you don’t feel supported by your spouse, this is something you should work on together (perhaps counseling) to see if the relationship can be improved. If so, your heart and blood pressure should improve as well.
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