By Chris Iliades, MD
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
Experts agree: A healthy marriage increases longevity and boosts both physical and emotional health. And the health benefits of marriage don’t discriminate this seems to be true for both men and women, for long marriages, new marriages, and gay marriages.
"A wealth of studies has been done that shows mental and physical benefits of a healthy marriage no matter what your sex, age, or race," says Deirdre Lee Fitzgerald, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic. “These benefits include longevity, well-being, and cardiovascular fitness."
Decades of research show that people in a stable, healthy marriage live longer and enjoy better health than people who are divorced, widowed, separated, or never married. Specific benefits include:
- A decrease in the rate of premature deaths
- Less domestic violence
- Less depression
- Less substance abuse
- Better heart health
- Better ability to heal wounds
Who Benefits the Most From a Healthy Marriage?
"Although the benefits are across the board, they are not the same for everyone. Some people benefit more than others," explains Fitzgerald. Here is what the research shows:
Men benefit more than women. "Although both men and women benefit from marriage, the effect is greater for men," says Fitzgerald. "Men even benefit when they don't perceive their marriage as being very high in quality. For women, quality is more important and the benefits drop away as quality decreases." Health benefits of marriage start right away for men, but take longer to develop in women and increase over the duration of the marriage.
Marriage benefits accrue to all ethnic groups. The benefits of a healthy marriage are not restricted to any racial group. African Americans and other ethnic groups show the same health benefits as white couples. "Men still have an advantage though," says Fitzgerald. In fact, "white men have more benefits than men from other ethnic groups. Studies also show that minority married couples derive health benefits from sharing resources."
Young married couples take fewer health risks. "People in a healthy marriage between the ages of 20 and 45 significantly reduce their risk of early death from risky behaviors such as substance abuse and reckless driving. This is particularly true for men, but also for women," notes Fitzgerald. Studies show that young married couples are less likely to participate in unprotected sex and poor nutrition habits, and they experience less depression.
Older married couples stay healthy. Studies show that elderly couples in healthy marriages are generally healthier than their peers who are widowed, divorced, or never married. For example, widowed adults over age 65 are three times more likely to report being disabled than their married peers. "Elderly single women seem to cope better than men," says Fitzgerald.
Gay marriage improves health, too. "The same emotional and physical health benefits that are observed for heterosexual couples in a healthy marriage seem to hold up for gay couples in a healthy marriage," notes Fitzgerald.
A Bad Marriage Can Wreak Havoc
The opposite also holds true: As a healthy marriage can keep you that way, a bad marriage can make you sick.
“Effects of a bad marriage include high blood pressure, heart disease, and increased rates of cancer, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. Although both men and women suffer from a bad marriage, the effects tend to be harder on women," says Fitzgerald.
Consider these facts:
Ninety percent of 48-year-old married men will live to reach age 65, but only 65 percent of divorced 48-year-old men will live that long.
U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that a healthy marriage is relatively safe from domestic violence. One of the most dangerous times for a woman is during separation or divorce from an abusive marriage.
A bad marriage creates a highly stressful environment, which increases the likelihood of divorce. Research shows that divorce is associated with an increased risk of physical illness, depression, and premature death.
How to Make Your Marriage a Healthy Marriage
Here are Fitzgerald’s tips for a healthy marriage:
Share your values. They don't need to be the same, but they need to be known and respected.
Listen to each other with care and compassion.
Accept each other's positions on the issues on which you disagree and work toward a compromise that you both can live with.
Allow your marriage partner to grow and mature.
Make choices that bring you closer together.
Fitzgerald also recommends two books for maintaining a healthy marriage: ACT With Love, by Russ Harris, MD, and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, by John Gottman, PhD.
"Do healthier people tend to make healthier marriages, or do marriages make people healthier? It is probably a combination of both, but we can say that being in a healthy marriage is good for your physical and emotional health," says Fitzgerald.