Does a Better Relationship Mean Better Health?

The perks of marriage and long-term relationships.

From the WebMD Archives

Conventional wisdom holds that married people live longer and are healthier than singles. And research suggests that may be true. Studies show that married people, particularly men, are less likely to die early and are less likely to die from heart disease or stroke. But why? And what about people who are in committed relationships but haven't said "I do"? Or those who are happily single? Experts weigh in on long-term love and your well-being.

What's So Healthy About Marriage?

Safer behavior. Christopher Fagundes, PhD, psychologist and researcher at The Ohio State University, says there is less risk-taking and substance abuse when couples marry -- even less than if they just move in together.

Socially connected. "If you’re married, ideally that’s your closest relationship," says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, S. Robert Davis Chair of Medicine at The Ohio State University. "That means there’s a partner and close source of support readily available."

On the other hand, says psychiatrist Sudeepta Varma, MD, of NYU Langone Medical Center, people who are alone and unhappy may run the risk of social isolation. That can lead to depression and neglecting one’s health.

Health helper. UCLA psychologist Theodore Robles, PhD, says, "Your spouse is a large force of influence in your own behavior. You have someone to remind you that you shouldn’t eat that; that you should have one less drink." That means your spouse can help you maintain healthy habits."

People who are in happy marital relationships are also more likely to follow their doctors’ recommendations, research shows.

What About Other Long-Term Relationships?

Living with your significant other may also have health benefits. "The general consensus is that, yes, cohabiting has positive effects but not to the same degree as marriage," Fagundes says.

Much of the research in this area has been done on heterosexual couples. But the experts interviewed for this story didn't see why the benefits of having a partner shouldn't extend to same-sex partnerships.

"The love and support -- and how this translates into us taking better care of ourselves when we have someone who is invested in our happiness -- is immeasurable," Varma says.


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.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on January 26, 2012



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