Is Marriage Really Good for Your Health?

If your love line and lifeline are intrinsically linked, how can you improve your odds of a happier marriage—and a longer life?

For decades, researchers have suspected that walking down the aisle ups your chances of a longer, healthier life. And many recent studies confirm that married people are less likely to develop cancer, heart disease, pneumonia and dementia. But before you go running off to Vegas, it takes more than a wedding dress (or Elvis impersonator) to reap those benefits.

Saying “I do” isn’t worth a hill of (albeit cholesterol-lowering) beans if you’re in an unhappy marriage. In fact, it can have the opposite effect on your health. Marital discord and unsupportive spouses up your stress levels and lower your immune system—even more than a thankless job might. Even a single fight can wreak havoc on your body’s ability to heal. Of course, blowouts are bound to happen in every marriage and if the alternative to fighting is stuffing all of those negative emotions down inside of yourself; well, that’s probably not very healthy either.

But the key to a good marriage includes learning how to communicate openly and fight fair–two things that are, obviously, easier said than done. While a recent study at UCLA shows that even majorly distressed marriages can be saved by couples therapy, getting both spouses to agree to go, or finding a way to afford it, can be a big hurdle. So, short of professional help, how can you find your way to happily and healthily ever after? According to the study’s lead researcher, Andrew Christensen, PhD, author of Reconcilable Differences, it comes down to acceptance. "Marriage is a package deal. You don't get a line-item veto over your partner's personality where you can discard the traits you don't like. You can push for change at the periphery but not at the core.”

Hmm, so where, for example, does my fiancé’s penchant for flying off the handle every time the Red Sox lose a game fall in all this?

“Some people are much more emotional than others,” explains Christensen. If Ryan really gets upset when the Red Sox lose, that’s not the only thing he gets upset about,” says Christensen. Maybe he can’t change those emotions, he adds, but he can work on how he expresses them.

And with that, I understand Dr. Christensen’s point about core versus periphery. Though I could stand for fewer expletives, I wouldn’t want to change my fiancé, even if I could—because that emotional tendency that makes him a bear to be around during baseball season also makes him one of the most sensitive and supportive guys I know. (Let’s just say someone needed a box of tissues during The Notebook and it wasn’t me.) And that caring nature has helped bolster my emotional health, if not my physical health, more times than the Red Sox have blown an easy win.

According to Christensen, the things that we want to change most in our spouse are usually small everyday behaviors, anyway, like doing more around the house and showing more affection. We run into problems, he says, when we approach these requests with resentment and blame. Couples can reduce the number of arguments they have—and recover from them more quickly—when they work to understand their partner’s emotional sensitivities. “We all have differences that will eventually cause conflict,” says Christensen. But learning how to accept them with empathy and understanding is what will bring people even closer together.

I believe that. When we met, Ryan and I knew we were well-matched, right down to our fear of commitment. So before even getting engaged, we decided to go to couples therapy. Whereas, pre-therapy, his armchair umpiring might have been grounds for breakup, now the most it warrants is a discussion (and maybe some kindhearted heckling). Sure, we may disagree occasionally over emotional outbursts (his) or dirty dishes (mine), but it’s comforting to know that as long as we’re always open and supportive of one another’s “cores,” we’ve got a good chance of enjoying a long, happy marriage and a long, healthy life.

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