Folding laundry and flipping through our 500 channels recently, I found myself sucked into a talk show with this irresistible topic line: “Next up: Marry me—or die!” The program’s guest was a well-coiffed mercenary peddling the sort of relationship handbook you see heaped in great heart-shaped stacks in bookstores this time of year—the kind with subtitles insisting that the key to lifelong love is understanding your partner’s planetary leanings, employing the tricks of dog trainers, or learning to pole dance. A young woman in the audience asked the author how to persuade a reluctant boyfriend to give her the engagement ring she wanted. The author recommended sitting the young man down and making him aware of the decades of research proving that married men live longer than singles. “You’d be doing him a favor,” she enthused. “Without you, he’ll die young.”
I’m not sure actuarial tables should loom so large in matters of the heart, but my romantic streak may be out of step with the times. According to a recent survey for the Kaiser Family Foundation, 7 percent of U.S. households included someone who’d gotten married in the last year just for the health insurance. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune and decent family coverage must be in want of a wife.
It’s also frequently repeated that married men and women enjoy longer, healthier, happier lives than people who stay single, though those who repeat it most frequently tend to be selling something. Married people are more satisfied with their lives than those who never tie the knot—but apparently not by much. A longitudinal study of 24,000 German adults published in 2003 concluded that on a scale of zero to ten, married people came out approximately .115 percent happier than single people. A good multivitamin may do more for your mood.
Still, I’ve absorbed too many Jane Austen novels to give up on the idea that marriage is good medicine. Poets and purveyors of chick flicks tell us that love will save us, salve our wounds, and offer safe harbor from the storms and stresses of life. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I set out to find out whether the scientists agree.
It turns out that marriage doesn’t just make life seem longer, as the old joke goes—it may actually increase our longevity. On average, married men live about ten years longer than lifelong bachelors, while married women live about four years longer than single women, according to a 1995 University of Chicago report often cited by family-values policy groups hoping to promote matrimony over cohabitation. (So far, moving in together has not been shown to confer the same benefits.) “The topic has definitely become political,” says William Doherty, a marriage and family therapist and a professor in the University of Minnesota’s family social science department. “People do tend to have agendas when they do this kind of research.”
Doherty, one of the founders of a national registry of “marriage-friendly therapists” and the author of several books, including Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World that Pulls Us Apart, is decidedly pro marriage. Yet he is skeptical of the claims, occasionally promoted by policymakers, that marriage could be a means toward improving national health and paring down health care costs. “Nobody ought to be choosing to get married based on the research on longevity,” he says. “It’s got to feel like the right thing to do.”
As Doherty points out, many of the perceived health benefits of walking down the aisle have less to do with true love than with the social support marriage often provides. Those perks include greater stability and financial well-being, access to health insurance, and an interested partner who will point out when that hacking cough has gone on too long or when the mole on your back requires a second opinion. A recent survey conducted by the American Academy of Family Physicians found that nine out of ten men will wait a few days after they get sick before seeing a doctor and three of ten will put if off “as long as possible.” What factor finally nudges them to see their physician? Some 80 percent credited their spouse for nagging—er, lovingly urging—them to seek the care they need.
“That’s why it would be hard to believe that marriage, particularly a good marriage, has no impact on our health,” Doherty says, pointing to a rather touching study of happily married couples conducted by the University of Virginia. One partner in the Virginia study was placed in an MRI machine and told to prepare for an electric shock—hardly a fun evening out for anybody. When the other partner reached into the machine to hold hands, however, the part of the brain that anticipates pain was pacified. That loving touch also reduced agitation in the hypothalamus, the part of the brain responsible for the stress hormones that mess with our immune systems. So who knows how many colds you could avoid simply by having someone around to hug you?
Of course, the possible health consequences of marriage would seem to be more complicated for couples whose relationships are, well, more complicated. A few years ago, researchers at Ohio State University found that couples who argued a lot healed from injury more slowly than couples who were more agreeable. (It’s worth noting that participants in this study had their arms blistered by researchers who then charted the healing. Volunteering for such a study may itself be a sign your marriage is in trouble.) Of course, refraining from arguing with a spouse is no guarantee of better health. Researchers at Boston University found that the risk of dying from any cause was four times higher for wives who reported keeping their feelings to themselves than for women who hollered back.
One expression of good health that is enjoyed far more by married people than by singles is sex. “Married people have sex more regularly because they have access to a partner, which is half the battle,” notes Bean Robinson, associate director of the University of Minnesota’s Program in Human Sexuality. Estimates suggest that, depending on age, married people have sex 25 to 300 percent more often than single people do. (The research shows that married couples under thirty make love an average of 112 times a year, those over seventy average around 16 times.) “But how many times people have sex has very little correlation with satisfaction,” says Michael Metz, a St. Paul psychologist, marriage therapist, and author of Men’s Sexual Health: Fitness for Satisfying Sex. Not nearly as preoccupied with performance anxiety or proving how many times a month is “normal,” married couples, he says, experience “more intimate, satisfying, and regular encounters.”
While sex typically doesn’t burn enough calories to count as a good cardio workout, Robinson says having the desire and the ability to do it can be a good indicator of overall health. Research suggests that couples in happy marriages have sex more often than other couples—or is it that couples who have sex more often have happier marriages? “It’s kind of a feedback loop,” Robinson says. “The more you do it, the more loving and bonded you feel with your partner—[and] the more loving and bonded you feel toward your partner, the more you do it.”
One of the engines behind this powerful human drive is the hormone oxytocin—often called the “love hormone” or, more cloyingly, the “cuddle chemical”—which surges during sex and less supercharged contact such as massage. Among its many benefits, oxytocin has been shown to counter the effects of the stress hormone cortisol and even reduce a craving for sweets. Metz says, “Sexual release is one of the major adult anti-anxiety techniques available,” with health benefits so far-ranging they may be hard to quantify—not that researchers don’t try. One recent British study found that intercourse-induced oxytocin helps cut the stress of public speaking and solving arithmetic problems out loud—results you may want to duplicate before your next Power Point presentation.
After sex, married people tend to sleep together—which may also have an impact on their health. For his 2006 book Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing, U of M family social science professor Paul Rosenblatt interviewed more than forty Twin Cities couples, asking probing questions about what goes on under the covers. “The most surprising finding was how many people thought they were still alive because they shared a bed with another person,” he says. A handful of his subjects had helped diagnose sleep apnea in their partners, a few had saved their bedmates from diabetic shock, and one man had become aware of his wife’s seizure because her spooning position had changed during the night. Though Rosenblatt concedes he has no scientific reason for saying so, he adds, “Even in the depths of our sleep, we are aware of our partners and we know when something is different and when they may need our help.”
Cynics will look at the evidence differently. For years, men have been shown to be the major health benefactors of married life simply because single men have fared much worse. But study results released last summer by Michigan State University suggest that the wellness gap is closing as single men seem to be taking better care of themselves.
Still, there is some fresh science that lovers may find useful this month. Researchers at Rutgers University’s Human Emotions Lab have found that women who unexpectedly receive flowers display signs of instant happiness—and that their good mood lasts at least three days. Marriage may not give you eternal life, but a nice bouquet could set you up for a very happy Valentine’s weekend.