Health in Happy Couples: the Michelangelo Effect

Health in Happy Couples: the Michelangelo Effect
Ever wonder whether there is better overall health in happy couples? Or whether there is better psychological and physical health in happy couples compared with unhappy partners? Let’s first start with depression because it affects about 20 million adults in the U.S. alone and is therefore one of the most common diseases. The bad news here is that women are twice as likely as men to suffer from depression. Depression is correlate very highly with other markers of mental health.

Researchers using data from the largest national studies ever done[i] found that marriage reduces the blues in both men and women. Here’s the skinny:

  1. In studies of those continuously married versus, those single or living together, researchers found that entry into marriage significantly reduces depressive symptoms in women (and men).
  2. Single and stable women reported increases in depression over a five-year period while the married women did not.
  3. Depression isn’t a factor in the decision to get married. In other words, the problem of self-selection in experimental designs doesn’t appear to screw up the results.
  4. In short, we now know that a stable marriage helps women ward off the blues. Other studies[ii] show that when we look at overall mental health, married women are emotionally healthier than singles.

What about the argument that marriage is better for men than it is for women?

We know that married men are far better off than single men. Granted, men may benefit from marriage even more than women, but those differences can be accounted for by the nature of male single life: the bachelor tends to have more unhealthy habits and is less likely to have emotional social support than the bachelorette. So when he marries, he steps up to a much healthier lifestyle.

Single women on the other hand, are not significantly different in their lifestyles than their married counterparts. So where do married women suffer relative to singles? In two areas: when they are in bad marriages or when they have kids. It’s as simple as that. Women in bad marriages report having trouble sleeping, not feeling OK and being more stressed than gals who say they are in a satisfying marriage. In other words, a woman’s emotional health in a happy couple may contribute a lot more to her well-being than we previously thought.

Married with Children

As to having kids, women with young kids have more stress than women without kids. Duh! Oh, and they feel they have no time for themselves, for self-caretaking, so they report more stress. Duh, duh!

If you’re looking to have kids, be prepared for a more stressful life and more of the responsibility. If you are married and one of those lucky few who have a house husband, you’ll have more responsibility outside the home. Then you’ll have the privilege of feeling guilty about being a “bad mom.” There’s no winning here ladies. Stress comes along with young kids and teenagers. If you’re a single mother with kids, countless studies have shown that your stress level is much higher than marrieds with kids or singles with no kids.

Nonetheless, here’s the bottom line: Contrary to myth, being in a happy couple tends to be emotionally uplifting for women. It reduces depression and improves overall mental health. Does it help men even more? Yeah, but what woman didn’t know that?

The Physical Health of Happy Couples

I think the key to understanding some of the conflicting research on marriage, health and happiness is the variable of marital satisfaction. Many studies simply did not measure marital happiness as part of their experiments or surveys. Of those that did, here’s the overview. Bad or unsatisfactory marriages may contribute to health and psychological problems. Being in a happy couple may protect a woman from certain diseases or help her to recover faster if she does get ill.

We can’t go into all of the studies so here are a few. A study of long-term marriages in which the partners were unhappy, showed that women more than men were likely to suffer from high blood pressure and obesity[i]. Other studies showed that poor marital quality correlated to depression, worsened physical health, poor sleep and metabolic problems.

Yet, I believe that singles with strong social support are almost as satisfied as married women in good relationships. That’s because social support and love are probably the key drivers behind the physical and emotional health of happy couples and singles.

Women in Happy Couples

In comparison studies, women in happy couples had the least atherosclerosis in their arteries and lived much longer if they did have heart disease. They had fewer doctor visits, lower blood pressure than singles or women in unhappy marriages. Studies of long-term couples showed that they report fewer headaches and back pain. Happy couples healed twice as fast from flesh wounds than those who demonstrated hostility toward each other.

In fMRI studies of the brain, men and women in long-term marriages showed activation in the areas of the brain associated with dopamine. In other words, happy couples lit up the passion centers, as if they were newlyweds. There is no question then that the social support of a loving partner contributes to the overall health in happy couples.

Bottom Line:

Marriage by itself is not an answer to all of life’s problems. On the other hand, not only is there greater physical and emotional health in happy couples but recent studies have found other positive effects. They’ve dubbed them the Michelangelo Effect. In my newly revised bestselling book Love in 90 Days: The Essential Guide to Finding Your Own True Love, I take a close look at how great couples, like great sculptors, shape each other in fulfilling individual dreams and goals. They accomplish these feats by practicing eight habits.

To learn more about the eight habits of happy couples be sure to visit our Happy Couple page!

[i] See R. G. Wood, B. Goesling & S. Avellar (2007) The Effects of Marriage on Health: A Synthesis of Recent Research Evidence. This is a meta-analysis of 70 studies. Available at target=”_blank”

[ii] For a list of references contact the author.

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