July 30, 2001 -- There are many good reasons to choose wisely
and carefully when picking a spouse -- not the least of which is that you'll be
spending an awful lot of time with them in both the near and distant future,
possibly even raising children together.
"Help me ... help you. Help me, help you."
That famous line from the film Jerry Maguire may be the best advice a
doctor could give his or her patient.
"Some patients have the attitude, 'I'm putting myself in the hands of a
professional,'" says Stephen Permut, MD, chairman of family and community
medicine at Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia. "They want
you to make all their decisions for them."
Permut prefers to have patients get involved in their own care and engage
So you want to find someone with whom you are compatible, share
values -- someone who makes you happy. But perhaps one of the most compelling
reasons to make an informed choice is that your spouse can affect your physical
health in very direct, measurable ways.
"The choice of spouse is one of the most significant you'll
make in your life; it is more serious than choosing a house or anything,"
says Brian Baker, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto. "There is
nothing like a good, solid marriage."
The Heart of the Matter
Baker should know: He has spent the past decade conducting
studies that look at the effect of marital strain on cardiovascular health. In
one of his most recent studies, he followed both men and women with borderline
high blood pressure for three
years and found that blood
pressure is directly linked to what he calls "marital cohesion" --
how much couples do and share together.
"We found that if you had a bad marriage, it was best to
avoid your spouse -- because if you are with your spouse, your blood pressure
went up, and if you weren't with your spouse, your blood pressure went
down," says Baker. "In a good marriage the opposite was the
An earlier study found that couples in good marriages had
thinner heart walls than those in bad marriages. A thicker heart wall means
higher blood pressure, "so that is an interesting finding," says
While the majority of studies so far have looked at
cardiovascular effects, the plusses and minuses of marriage don't appear to be
limited to that system.
In fact, they could be tied to how your body handles stress,
says Baker, and the way that stress manifests itself could control the system
"It could be the immune system, or depression, gastrointestinal problems, rashes, or
emotional disorders like anxiety conditions," he says.
The Benefits of Wedded Bliss
Baker's research joins a small but growing number of studies
pinpointing the varied health effects of marriage. One study, for example,
showed that marital stress can double a person's risk of developing diabetes.
Another study, out of Sweden, showed women in marital distress had a
three-times greater risk of a second heart attack. And a third showed that
positive marital interactions can boost immunity and reduce the risk of heart
disease by keeping stress hormones low.
"The benefits are better physical health, more resistance
to infection, fewer infections, and a reduced likelihood of dying from cancer,
from heart disease, from all major killers," psychologist and author John
Gottman, PhD, tells WebMD. "The other health benefit is longevity: People
live longer if they are in marital relationships, particularly if they are in
good, satisfying relationships." Gottman, considered by many to be a
pioneer in the field of marriage research, is the James Mifflin Professor in
the department of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle.