How to use science to improve your marriage

Since the 19th century, scientists have been proving that marriage is good for your health. But as recent research has shown, it’s not as simple as tying the knot to ward off the Grim Reaper. It turns out that “it is the relationship, not the institution, that is key,” as marriage historian Stephanie Coontz tells the New York Times. Good marriages are good for your health; bad marriages, not so much. And even within happy, loving marriages, the way that you handle conflict can impact your health. In other words, you may be head over heels in love, but if you fight dirty, then you’re a cigarette habit to your partner’s heart. (Literally: One recent study showed that a stressful marriage can be as bad for the heart as a regular smoking habit.) Some other interesting tidbits from the NYT magazine article that nicely summarized the recent research in this field:

  • “Despite years of research suggesting that single people have poorer health than those who marry, a major study released last year concluded that single people who have never married have better health than those who married and then divorced.”

  • “Married people are less likely to get pneumonia, have surgery, develop cancer or have heart attacks. A group of Swedish researchers has found that being married or cohabiting at midlife is associated with a lower risk for dementia. A study of two dozen causes of death in the Netherlands found that in virtually every category, ranging from violent deaths like homicide and car accidents to certain forms of cancer, the unmarried were at far higher risk than the married.”

  • “The results [of a recent test] showed that the women in unhappy relationships and the women who remained emotionally hung up on their ex-husbands had decidedly weaker immune responses than the women who were in happier relationships (or were happily out of them).”

  • And this immune response can happen in real-time, too. In another test, fairly happily married couples were blistered on their arms (don’t worry, they were paid for it!) and then encouraged to discuss either pleasant or contentious topics: “After the blistering sessions in which couples argued, their wounds took, on average, a full day longer to heal than after the sessions in which the couples discussed something pleasant. Among couples who exhibited especially high levels of hostility while bickering, the wounds took a full two days longer to heal than those of couples who had showed less animosity while fighting.”

  • “In [another] study, remarriage helped only a little. It seemed to heal emotional wounds: the remarried had about the same risk for depression as the continuously married. But a second marriage didn’t seem to be enough to repair the physical damage associated with marital loss. Compared with the continuously married, people in second marriages still had 12 percent more chronic health problems and 19 percent more mobility problems.”

  • “In 2000, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a three-year Swedish study of 300 women who had been hospitalized with severe chest pains or heart attack; the study found that those who reported the highest levels of marital stress were nearly three times as likely to suffer another heart attack or require a bypass or other procedure. It is notable that these increased risks weren’t associated with other forms of stress. For instance, women who were stressed-out at work weren’t at any higher risk for a second episode of heart problems than women who were happy in their jobs.”

  • “The emotional tone of a marital fight turned out to be just as predictive of poor heart health as whether the individual smoked or had high cholesterol. It is worth noting that the couples in [this] study were all relatively happy. These were husbands and wives who loved each other. Yet many of them had developed styles of conflict that took a physical toll on each other. The solution, [the study author] noted, isn’t to stop fighting. It’s to fight more thoughtfully. ‘Difficulties in marriage seem to be nearly universal,’ he said. ‘Just try not to let fights be any nastier than they need to be.’”

  • “There are important differences between men and women when it comes to health and the style of conflict that can jeopardize it. The women in [this same] study who were at highest risk for signs of heart disease were those whose marital battles lacked any signs of warmth, not even a stray term of endearment during a hostile discussion (‘Honey, you’re driving me crazy!’) or a minor pat on the back or squeeze of the hand, all of which can signal affection in the midst of anger. … For men, on the other hand, hostile and negative marital battles seemed to have no effect on heart risk. Men were at risk for a higher coronary calcium score, however, when their marital spats turned into battles for control. It didn’t matter whether it was the husband or wife who was trying to gain control of the matter; it was merely any appearance of controlling language that put men on the path of heart disease.”


photo by Victoria Peckham