Sept. 15, 2003 -- Married men are healthier men. But for women, the health benefit of marriage depends on the health of the marriage.
Over and over again, studies show that marriage is good for men's health. For women, the picture has been less clear. Some studies suggest that women need marriage like a fish needs a bicycle.
That's true, a new study finds -- but only for women who aren't highly satisfied. Women who say their marriages are very satisfying have better heart health, healthier lifestyles, and fewer emotional problems, report Linda C. Gallo, PhD, and colleagues.
"Women in high-quality marriages do benefit from being married," Gallo tells WebMD. "They are less likely to get heart disease in the future. And in terms of emotional distress, satisfied women reported more social support and being less angry, depressed, and anxious."
It isn't just that the less-satisfying marriages were bad. The women in good marriages also were healthier than divorced, widowed, and single women. So top-notch marriages are healthy in and of themselves.
The Toll of Unsatisfying Marriage
Gallo and colleagues studied women enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh's Healthy Women study. This long-term study is designed to weed out the factors responsible for women's increased risk of heart disease after menopause.
The study collected data from 490 women in their 40s -- nearly all of them married -- and followed them for 13 years. The findings appear in the September 2003 issue of Health Psychology.
Women who got little satisfaction from their marriages came to the study in worse health. They didn't get better over time. Happily married women started out in pretty good health and aged well.
"Women in distressed marriages -- and in this group, this meant they were not all that distressed, but less happy than other women -- already suffered the negative effects of being in a less-than-happy marriage," Gallo says. "The women in happy marriages were thinner, gained less weight over time, and had lower cholesterol levels. The less happy women tended to exercise less."
What's going on? Is there something magic about saying "I do?"
"It doesn't necessarily have to be heterosexual cohabitation," Gallo says. "Human connectedness is a basic fundamental need for people. Marriage or being in a close relationship is an important part of life. When it is good, it doesn't just make life pleasurable. It is good for health. When people are in happy situations, maybe they exercise together; maybe they sit down to healthy meals together. It is adaptive."
Marriage Different for Men, Women
There's still that nagging question of why the average marriage is healthier for the average man than for the average woman. Timothy J. Loving, PhD, assistant professor in the University of Texas' Department of Human Ecology, has looked at this issue.
"Men identify their wives as their main support, someone who is there to talk to," Loving tells WebMD. "Women maintain a larger support network. They are able to use other relationships for support. Wives don't gain as much from marriage, on a psychosocial level, as a husband would."
That's true says Boston University psychologist Deborah Belle, EdD. Belle has studied the health effects of relationships for more than 20 years. She's also found that only happily married women benefit from marriage, but that married men get a benefit whether the marriage is happy or not.
Why? One reason, Belle says, is that women appear to be more sensitive to the negative aspects of relationships than men. Another reason: Women support their partners better than men do.
"What is most striking is that men's' support is so heavily dependent on one partner -- the wife," Belle tells WebMD. "Women specialize in providing support. Women's socialization and subordinate social status trains women to focus on others' needs -- and more than men, they believe that others' needs can be met. Often women dedicate their lives to providing support for others."
This doesn't mean that men don't -- or can't -- be supportive partners. They certainly can. And women can be terrible partners. But, on average, women as wives tend to be supportive. The average husband gets more support from his wife than the average wife gets from her husband.
Evidence comes from studies of men's and women's relationships. Men and women are less lonely when they report spending time with women. Time spent with men has no effect on reducing loneliness, Belle says. And in times of stress, both men and women turn to women for emotional support.
"I'm widowed after a long marriage to a wonderful man," Belle says. "I married again a month ago. I have a wonderful spouse. I don't think men are incapable of support. It's just that not all men achieve it."
Are Single Women Doomed?
Even though her study showed that happily married women are healthier than unmarried women, Gallo doesn't think all women must marry or suffer ill health.
"If we'd been able to break down the group of single women in our study, we'd probably find that it contains a subgroup of single women who are very content," Gallo says. "They have friends. They have careers. They get some things that women with high marriage satisfaction get. I guess it is possible to fulfill those needs in another way. It is just more the social norm to get married."
Of course, there's nothing magic about marriage. Gallo warns that while a happy marriage is good for a woman, an unhappy marriage is a horse of a different color.
"Women who aren't in happy marriages are at most risk," she says. "So just getting married isn't as important as getting a quality partner."