The new year is traditionally a time when many people feel a renewed commitment to making healthy habits, such as regular exercisedrink more water or eat healthier.
It turns out that when it comes to health, married people have an edge, especially married people. But surely the act of walking down the aisle isn’t what provides these health benefits.
So what exactly is at play?
As a team, we study how relationships affect health. One of us is a professor of nursing who studied how social support influences health behaviors. One is a social health psychologist who examines how stress affects a couple’s relationship and health, and one is a social psychologist who researched how relationships influence health behavior change. Together, we will explore how partners influence each other’s health, taking gender into this equation.
Health benefits of marriage, for men and women
It is important to note that most studies of marriage and health are limited to married men and women. but more recent studies it examines relationships with partners who have the same gender identity, the same biological sex and who are of different genders.
One theory that seeks to explain the relationship between marriage and health is act of self-selection. Simply put, people who are wealthier and healthier than average are more likely to not only marry but also find a spouse who is wealthier and healthier than average. Men and women with poorer health and wealth than the average the odds are slim to marry everyone.
Although this may be part of the story, marriage also provides partners with a sense of belongingmore opportunities for social engagement and reduced feelings of loneliness. This social integrationor the extent to which people participate in social relationships and activities, can greatly influence health – from reduce the risk of hypertension and heart disease on lowering the risk of death or suicide.
Another important relationship between marriage and your body is involved in the process of inflammation of the body. Research links loneliness and lack of close relationships with inflammation, or the body’s way of responding to illness, injury or disease. Although inflammation is necessary for healing, chronic inflammation is associated with heart disease, arthritis, cancer and autoimmune diseases. While single adults undoubtedly have very meaningful intimate relationships as well, a healthy marriage inherently provides more opportunities for intimacy and companionship, supporting the link between marriage and inflammation.
If you dig deeper, gender seems to play a role as well. A study related to marital quality, gender and inflammation found a connection between lower levels of spousal support and higher levels of inflammation for women, but not men. In another study, when couples used negative communication patterns, such as one partner demanding while the other partner withdrew, women but not men experienced elevated inflammation.
Marriage and longevity
Married men and married women live, on average, two years longer than their unmarried counterparts. One reason for this longevity benefit is influence of couples on healthy behavior. Study after study shows that married people eat well and don’t smoke and drink too much. All of these healthy behaviors help explain why married people tend to live longer. However, men who are married to women tend to see more longevity benefits than women married to menfor several possible reasons.
For example, female partners may be looking for their male partners, reinforcing healthy behavior and provide more opportunities for healthy choices. On the other hand, married men less likely to try to influence health behaviors of their wives.
Women are likely take the lead in promoting healthy behavior, which will benefit their husbands. The data suggests that men and women in same-sex relationships tend to engage in collaboration to mutually promote positive health behavior. Also, married men and women are more likely to want to change their partners’ health behaviors, such as exercise, especially if the spouse’s habits are worse than their own. These findings suggest that the person and the gender of the partner are important.
Relationship quality can also influence health behavior. For example, in the context of exercise, men and women reported higher levels of marital support more likely to walk for exercise. However, as men age, the association between marital support and walking became stronger for thembut this is not true for married women.
Cultural norms and care
To better understand how men’s health benefits from their wives, consider the cultural norms that promote expectations that women will be primary caregiver in committed relationships.
Middle-aged people, and in particular women, are also described as “sandwich generation,” because they are often “sandwiched” between caring for growing children and aging parents. Nursing may take a can harm the immune system and a person’s overall health. In addition, invisible work related to child care and household chores, which are often disproportionate to women, may leave women with less time for self-care, such as being physically active.
Women also have many responsibilities in terms of coordinating doctors’ appointments and improving adherence to medical advice for their husbands than husbands for their wives. However, men usually increase their time spent on caregiving when their wives are sick.
Of course, not all marriages are created equal
Relationship quality and relationship conflict also play important roles when it comes to marriage and health. Gender socialization and power differentials often lead to women’s thinking and care more about their relationship than mencausing women to take primary responsibility for handling relationship issues, while men bear less of the burden.
Research shows that women are more likely too base their identity on their relationshipand therefore when they experience marital conflict or other relationship issues, they experience more negativity emotional and physical health effect than men. This may include an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, inflammation and heart disease.
Does this mean that all men must marry to protect their health or that unmarried people do not enjoy the same health benefits as those who say “I do”?
Absolutely not. Of course, the unmarried enjoy good health and longevity. Create and maintaining strong social relationships and join a community very far when it comes to health. Additionally, making the best lifestyle choices available, seeking preventative health care and reducing stress will help everyone live a longer, healthier life.
Libby Richards is Associate Professor of Nursing, Purdue University; Melissa Franks is Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Purdue Universityand Rosie Shrout is the Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies, Purdue University.
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