Love and Marriage

Good and Bad Marriage, Boon and Bane to Health
By SHARON LERNER

In the early 1970’s, demographers began to notice a strange pattern in life span data: married people tended to live longer than their single, divorced and widowed counterparts. The so-called marriage benefit persists today, with married people generally less likely to have surgery and to die from all causes, including stroke, pneumonia and accidents. At its widest, the gap is striking, with middle-aged men in most developed countries about twice as likely to die if they are unmarried.

Many have argued that the difference in life expectancy is actually because healthier people are more likely to marry. But an emerging group of marriage advocates has put a spotlight on the medical potential of the institution. “Marriage is sort of like a life preserver or a seat belt,” argues Dr. Linda Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and an author of “The Case for Marriage,” published in 2000. “We can put it in exactly the same category as eating a good diet, getting exercise and not smoking.”

But even as marriage is being packaged as a boon to health, there is a new caveat. While people in good, stable partnerships do, on average, have less disease and later death, mounting evidence suggests that those in strained and unhappy relationships tend to fare worse medically. Women seem to bear the brunt of marriage’s negative health consequences.