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Does a Better Relationship Mean Better Health?

The perks of marriage and long-term relationships.
(continued)

Quality Counts

Just wearing a ring isn't enough. A better marriage may mean better health.

A study of heart bypass patients showed better survival, over 15 years, among the happily married. But the flip side is also true. Being in an unhappy marriage can be unhealthy.

Why? One reason may be that chronic stress from a bad marriage may affect the immune system, and women may be particularly vulnerable.

Women are more sensitive to hostility in a relationship than are men, Kiecolt-Glaser says. Her team videotaped couples disagreeing. "Couples who were more hostile during disagreements showed steeper changes in stress hormones and healed wounds less quickly," she says. In short, more hostility may hamper the immune system for couples with chronic relationship troubles.

But relationship quality can also affect men. "We now know that depression, obesity, and hypertension can all result from women suffering in unhappy marriages," Varma says. "But I also see a lot of substance abuse and depression in my male patients in the same situation."

Based on her practice, Varma believes that men and women are equally affected by unhappy relationships -- the results just manifest differently.

Thriving Solo

Of course, people can thrive on their own.

"If someone is single, it may or may not point to a difficulty in establishing close relationships," Varma says. "For some, this is the case. For others, it's simply that they have not found their life partner yet. The key would be to surround yourself with good people that care for you, and that you are willing to help."

The same goes for people who divorce.

Divorce is linked to a greater risk of premature death, especially in men, notes David Sbarra, PhD, associate professor at the University of Arizona, Tucson. But "most divorced adults fare very well in time and enjoy a high quality of life after the end of their marriage," Sbarra says. "Therefore, it is likely that if you're in an unhappy marriage and have tried to work it out but just can't, divorce is a real and reasonable option. If you divorce and feel happy, then I wouldn't worry too much about the potential negative health effects."

Women may fare better on their own than men do. "When we look at singles and health, we see that women tend to be OK and men not so much, most likely for the same reasons men benefit more from marriage," Fagundes says.

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Reviewed on January 26, 2012
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