(November 2009) Mounting research shows that married people are healthier and live longer than unmarried people. The marriage advantage works differently for men and women, but both benefit, especially as they enter older ages. Professor Linda Waite at the University of Chicago has studied the ways that marriage, widowhood, divorce, and remarriage affect physical and mental health. Some of the findings are surprising, and they are important for the well-being of the growing number of older people.
During a PRB Discuss Online, Linda Waite, sociology professor and the director of the University of Chicago’s Center on Aging, answered participants’ questions about how and why marriage affects health, and policies that might enhance the benefits of marriage and social networks for older people.
Nov. 17, 2009 1 PM EST
Transcript of Questions and Answers
Rebecca Birungi: Prof Linda what is the relationship between health and marriage? Secondly from the research carried out what is the percentage of married people who lived longer than unmarried people? How does marriage influence happiness despite the pressures?
Linda Waite: Married men and married women tend to live longer lives than people who are not married. Getting married reduces risks of dying and becoming divorced or widowed increases them. Married men and women in the US tend to have better emotional and mental health than the unmarried. And married men and women have, on average, higher levels of happiness than the unmarried.
Jay Gribble: Do the health benefits result from marriage per se, or do couples that live together in a committed relationship reap the same health benefits?
Linda Waite: We know less about the health of cohabitors than of married people BUT recent research on Sweden and Norway suggests that there (and I would guess in the US) cohabitors are LESS committed than married people, on average and are more likely to break up. Marriage both signal commitment and undergirds it with legal and social supports. But a couple committed to staying together for the very long term, with social and legal support, might do quite well. What matters is how much they invest in each other and in their relationship.
Ron Walker: Have you considered the reverse causality, i.e. that people who are “unsettled” (e.g. in their eating and sleeping habits, their sexual activity, their giving and receving of mutual assitance and care ,and other social interactions etc which affect health) are less likely to be and stay married?
Linda Waite: Ron—You betcha! this is certainly the case. people who have any of poor habits or attributes you mention are less likely to get and stay married. But IF they get married, they are likely to be healthier than if they did not. There have been fascinating studies of young men with histories of serious delinquency that follow these men into adulthood. those who stumble (the authors’ words) into a pretty good marriage show much more pro-social lives than those who don’t (Sampson & Laub). Men tend to reduce drinking, drinking and driving and other risky behaviors when they marry, to work more, to earn more, to spend less time in bars and more in church. So there is both some selection of the better catches into marriage and some change for the better in habits and behaviors.
Chandra Mani Acharya: Marriage is good for health but in western countries why they divorce in short time. Our country like nepal marriage is holy relation and our culture also support for longlife. why we cannot see longlife in western country.
Linda Waite: Chandra, Western societies have moved toward more freedom for individuals over the last 100 years and one of those freedoms is the freedom to end a marriage that one no longer wants. That comes with advantages and disadvantages. children often suffer and adults probably invest less in their marriage and more in themselves when divorce is common and easy to obtain. Most adults who divorce remarry and most stay remarried, although the chances of divorce are slightly higher than for first marriages. So people in most western societies are not willing to give up the freedom to leave a marriage for lifelong marriage.
Prof.Biran Affandi MD,PhD: 1.Is there any relationship between the age of marriage and health? 2.How about the relationship of the length of marriage and health ?
Linda Waite: Dr. Affandi, We know that at least in the US and similar countries those who marry quite young are more likely to divorce. But no one has asked your first question quite that way, so we don’t know if those who marry young get more benefits from marriage than those who wait. On the relationship between the length of marriage and health, some studies suggest that men and women get benefits from each year they are married, which we would expect if they lead healthier lives. But I don’t think that this has been settled.
Melody Schiaffino: How does the “health” of the marriage affect this relationship? For example, we know many people remain married regardless of emotional satisfaction, is this accounted for and is it still better to stay in an unhappy marriage rather than risk divorce/being single? Thank you.
Linda Waite: Melody, Yes, the health of the marriage affects the health benefits it produces. Conflict-riven marriages create stress and stress can damage health. Distant marriages may provide few emotional or instrumental supports. But good enough marriages seem to be better than being single. It appears that only the poor quality marriages damage health and are worse than being unmarried. And people get benefits besides emotional satisfaction from marriage and these must be weighed in deciding whether a marriage is worth it.
Epokor Michael Kudjoe: Marriage is a Holy sacrament which when kept will bring more than joy and health to all involved. Marriage will by no means on its own lead to good health or longevity. A research i did in one of the rural communities in Ghana come out that without the social or entertainment amenities men tend to use their wives as pleasure instruments anytime the wake up in the middle of the night. What i am trying to say here is that if the woman refuses she gets the beating of her life and give in to it to be sexually abused just in the name of marriage. This of course is no fault of hers.
1. So how can there be good health when one has to go through this abuse for the sake of marriage?
2. How can marriage lead to improvement in health when there is no existent of love?
3. Can marriage be bring the wellbeing of partners who are authoritaive?
Linda Waite: Marriage brings many things to spouses, one of which is sexual access. In most societies spouses share a sex life and in the US, married men and women have sex more frequently and are more satisfied with their sex lives than are the unmarried. However, abuse of one’s spouse creates stress, which harms health, may cause physical injury, which harms health in the long run, and certainly lowers the benefits of marriage. But even an abusive spouse may be a good provider and protector. Recent research on the US suggests that those leaving an abusive marriage do not, on average, see an improvement in their emotional well-being.
Kalmijn, M. and C. W. S. Monden (2006). “Are the Negative Effects of Divorce on Psychological Well-Being dependent on Marital quality?” Journal of Marriage and Family 68(6): 1197-1213.
Janet Nunziata: Dear Dr. Waite, Do the benefits of marriage vis-a-vis health function the same way in a second marriage as a first time union?
Linda Waite: Janet, Yes, as far as we can tell. Although some of my recent work suggests that the process of divorce or widowhood is so stressful that it leaves a sort of scar on physical health and functioning even years later.
Meskerem Bekele, Ethiopia: Dear Linda, It is a wonderful chance to me to discuss with you. You know what? This issue is the package of any other issue for me. Me and my husband believe that family is the source of all goods for this planet and the base of the family is marriage. So in spite of this, this kind of research motivates us. But is this research includes all marriages or a happy marriage only?
Linda Waite: Meskerem, Happy marriages seem to deliver more health benefits than those that are pretty good but not great. But those that are poor quality—full of conflict or very distant—seem to be worse for health than being single.
stan becker: What is the best way to address the question of whether the differential could be due to selectivity into marriage of persons who are more physically and mentally healthy to start with?
Linda Waite: Hi Stan, Scholars have tried a bunch of tricks, most of which involve following men and women over a long period during which some of them get married, some get divorced or widowed and some get remarried. Then we look for discrete changes in the likelihood of dying when there is a change in marital status. If we see a decline in the likelihood of dying for all men who become married, regardless of their characteristics and the age at which they changed status, then we feel pretty good about the social processes going on. See some of these efforts to address the issue:
Lillard, L. A. and C. Panis (1996). “Marital Status and Mortality: The Role of Health.” Demography 33(3, August): 313-327.
Lillard, L. A. and L. J. Waite (1995). “Til Death Do Us Part: Marital Disruption and Mortality.” American Journal of Sociology 100: 1131-1156.
Ramesh: How strong predictor do you think marriage that affect health? what is the definition of marriage? Is it include cohabitation? How does it affect health?
Linda Waite: Ramesh, We think that marriage affects health differently for men and for women. For men, getting married is associated with changes in their behaviors away from risky and unhealthy behaviors like drinking and poor diet toward healthier behaviors. Men’s wives also tend to manage their health and their interactions with the health care system and to act as a confidant. Women tend to get financial support for themselves and their children from marriage, including, in the US, access to health insurance. Marriage usually means legal marriage. Cohabitation tends to be less committed and to bring some but not all of the benefits of marriage.
kennedy: how kids from divorced family are affected.
(2)how can u differentiate kids brought up by a father alone and mother alone(divorced )
(3)can u look at a kid and say this kid is from a broken family.
(4)given that these kids are grown ups what advice u can give them
Linda Waite: Kennedy, Kids whose parents divorce face higher risks of poor outcomes (although many do quite well). they are less likely to finish high school, less likely to finish college, less likely to marry, more likely to divorce. They are more likely to have poor emotional health. I don’t know so much about single mothers vs single fathers. I think both can do well. And no, you can’t look at a child and tell he or she is from a broken family. There are lots of advice books for divorced parents raising children. Most say to forget your grievances against each other and cooperate in raising the children.
Sizarina Hamisi: I would like to have an explanation of how a dysfunctional marriage can improve one’s life.
Linda Waite: It probably can’t improve one’s health, although it may still bring financial and instrumental support.
Rahat Bari Tooheen: Marriage has social and mental benefits, of which there is no doubt. But are the benefits same in the developing countries as developed countries? And what of the differences between socioeconomic strata?
Linda Waite: Rahat, I don’t think we know much about differences in health benefits for those in different socioeconomic strata. And I haven’t seen any research on developing countries on this topic. It seems like an important set of studies to do.
J Kishore: Marriage is universally accepted as essential activity to establish an social institution. You will find very few who has courage to remain alone and face stigma through their lives. So in unmarried group very few left who are normal according to social definition. epidemiologically one can prove health difference between the two groups-married and unmarried. How one can make the two groups comparable?
Linda Waite: there have been some comparisons of the mortality advantage of marriage and it is greatest where the most people get married, like Japan or Korea, because those who do not get married are so unusual and probably unhealthy or otherwise quite disadvantaged. Researchers try to compare the same people before and after they get married to see if marriage has an effect on health and mortality
Ron Walker: Research shows that compassion of carers is a factor in recovery. Pharmaceutical studies show the immense power of the giving of placebos, i.e. people reacting physically to their being given attention and something (howerver chemically inactive)apparently with good intentions. And there is [m]ore on these lines, all of which suggests to me that the mutual emotional support, companionship and even love present in typical marriages might have powerful health effects. Have you observed and explored this possibility?
Linda Waite: A scholar named Janet Kiecolt-Glaser has looked at physical changes that happen to married men and women when they discuss something unsettling or something neutral. And Richard Davidson has looked at pain sensitivity when married women hold their husband’s hand; they feel less pain when they do than when they don’t, especially if they rate their marriage as very good or excellent. So yes, emotional support, companionship and love are key mechanisms through which marriage improves health.
Samuel K. M. Agblorti: I agree that marriage might affect the wellbeing of spouses positively. Has your study consider[ed] the spatial and socio-economic dimensions of spouses studied. I strongly believe that these variables may influence the findings of your study.
Linda Waite: No one has looked at the spatial or socioeconomic dimensions of spouses. We take them into account but have no looked separately at those with high education or low income.
Moctar: Thank you for this very important subject …. the relationship between marriage and health. The fact that the married live longer than unmarried depends of the type of society. In… a context where marriage is almost universal, like African society, this relationship is still valid? I think that we should take into account other parameters to explain the longevity of married people.
Linda Waite: Even where marriage is universal some people lose their spouse to death and may face higher mortality themselves. Those whose spouses live in the city while they live in the village may get different benefits from being married than spouses who live together. One could also consider polygamous marriage to see if that brings the same benefits.
Dr. Anima Sharma: Hi, its me again, My last question was based on sociocultural issues but this one also includes the demographic factors along with health and nutrition. I think the derivations of your study are more relevant for the developed countries and higher socioeconomic group of people. In several southeast Asian countries especially among the backward communities, women are treated as economic entity. Also, due to several sociocultural and economic reasons they are married at an early age to the groom who may either belong to his age group or may be an old or middle aged person. Not only that in the male chauvenistic societies women are over-used reproductively (sexual exploitation), because of two reasons, one to generate more progenies especially the male child and for the sexual gratification. This accompanied with the lower nutritional level has multiple impact on her health, which may vary from contracting STDs/RTIs, HIV/AIDs, and even maternal/ foetal mortality. Even the surviving children may not be all that healthy. In such societies the biases against women result in creating the factors like illiteracy among women, ignorance, lack of decision making etc., which aggravate the situation further. Hence, my humble summation is that unless you gather facts on ground realities, do not make generalized statements, which are more misleading and sound hollow and superficial.
My intention is not to disregard your findings but only to highlight the gap areas , which you may mend if you are trying to expand your research or want to go for the next phase of it. Thanks and Best,
Linda Waite: It is certainly the case that virtually all the research on the health benefits of marriage has been done in developed countries. We know much less about less developed countries. And female disadvantage may occur in some societies regardless of whether the woman is married, so the problem is treatment of women not marriage. Poor nutrition is a terrible problem for all, with especially troubling effects on infants and children that may last all their lives. The question is, given all this, does a child do better if raised by two married parents and do women and men do better if married than if single? I don’t know the answer for developing countries.
Raphael: Again, i want to know the health benefits of marriage.
Linda Waite: Longer life, better physical health, better functional health at older ages, and better emotional health. On average. Of course there are plenty of very health singles; it’s just that the chances of good health are lower for singles than for the married.
Subhas Yadawad: No doubt marriage gives some benefits both husband and wife. Will you please elaborate these benefits? Marriage will pose some problems as well. What they are?
Linda Waite: Married men tend to have better health behaviors, work more and have higher earnings. Married women have more money and, in the US, better access to health insurance. Both have better emotional health, on average. Marriage requires some sacrifice of one’s own goals for the goals of the marriage or the spouse. It constrains people’s behavior (which is generally good for men). If things go badly for the other person, like he gets a chronic illness, you are tied to his fortunes.
Dr. Anima Sharma: Dear Waite, There is umpteen of literature and studies depicting the advantages of marriage on longevity. Most of which comes from the Western Universities conducted by the Western people. What these studies speak may be true for the Western Societies or the people leading the ways life as per the standards of Western culture but when it come to the Oriental world then I have certain apprehensions. I neither agree with your statement nor disagree with it because I have witnessed ample of examples from my personal experiences of both the lives. It is not marriage per say but several other factors too, which contribute to longevity. Marriage is one of the important part of one’s life cycle but it is not the whole. In our culture, marriage is for procreation as well as to carry out the socio-cultural responsibilities associated with it. I am an Indian and am proud of its rich cultural heritage. You know, traditionally our society is closely knit in which sense of belongingness within the family and society is very strong. We have sages and hermits who outlive most of their contemporaries. We have the culture of monogamy/ serial monogamy (circumstantial), living alone as widow, celibacy etc. and I am sorry to disagree with you by saying that none of the people belonging to these categories have shorter lives than their contemporaries, the credit of which may be attributed to our traditional joint/ extended family system, community/ village system etc. We are knitted together through the real kinship ties or may be fictitious kinship ties, which are as good as the real one. As regards the physical demands and if you think that having more partners or having high frequency of physical gratification keeps one healthy then I would say that according to my thinking it is as much hypothetical as imagining that absence of it would reduce the life span. I am not an orthodox, I have earned doctorate in (Socio-cultural) Anthropology and have first hand experience from the empirical studies carried out by me in Slums, Urban, Rural and Tribal areas in different parts of India. I am aware of the social abuses and cultural stigmas attached with several socio-cultural issues, viz. a viz. illiteracy, poverty etc. issues, which have diametrically opposite impact on the demographic trends, but in that conglomeration marriage occupies a place along with other issues. With no offences meant because I understand the cultural differences etc. I only want to put forth my observations for your kind consideration. You may agree or disagree with as well, even more emphatically; I would not take it personally as I consider it a platform to express the personal objective views in scientific manner. Thanks and Best,
Linda Waite: Anima, Marriage is certainly only one factor that contributes to health and longevity. the question has been “does marriage contribute at all?” and the research on the US and similar countries suggests it does. But we know much less about less developed countries.
Moses Adegbola: Dear Professor Waite,1. How would you describe the health index and life expectancy among couples in gay unions, polygynous unions vis a vis marriages between one man and one woman?
Linda Waite: Moses, Researchers have defined health in many different ways, including longevity, physical health, emotional health, incidence of diseases or a particular disease, or recovery from disease. No one has looked at the differences between heterosexual and gay unions or polygamous unions in health benefits.
Andrine Davidson: Dear Prof Waite, What does the research say about unhappy marriages?
Linda Waite: They probably don’t deliver the same health benefits as better marriages and if they are unhappy and conflictual enough, they may be worse than being single.
saradiya Mukherjee: is child marriage good for health??????????
Linda Waite: I guess it depends on the alternatives. Certainly childbearing at very young ages is not good for the health of the young woman or the child.
Emeka Nwosu, Nigeria: How can you enlighten a friend as to the bebefits of marriage.
Linda Waite: THAT is a good question! I guess you have a conversation with him or her. And remember that marriage is good on average; that doesn’t mean it is better for any particular person.
Kehinde: Linda,wow,what a great topic on marriage,i love it but i hope you are not only focusing on heterosexual marriages alone,its good to recognize minorities like homosexual and lesbian marriages as well because a lot of people enjoy gay marriages as much as heterosexual marriages.
Linda Waite: No one has done a study of health benefits of gay or lesbian marriage. It would be interesting to see. If health benefits of gay and lesbian marriage work like the other attributes of marriage that have been studies, like sexual activity and earnings, then gay marriages will tend to have characteristics more common among men and lesbian marriages will have characteristics more common among women. So gay marriages would have higher incomes but less attention to health habits and lesbian marriages would have more support and emotional sharing but less money.
Andrine Davidson: Follow-up question: Has there been any study done on co-habiting couples who have not married, and what are the findings regarding health?
Linda Waite: Andrine- No, very little on cohabiting couples and health. On one of the other benefits of marriage for men—higher earnings—cohabiting men fall somewhere between single men and married men, so they get some of the benefits of marriage but not all. I would guess it works the same way for health.
Gloria Billups: How can you resolve a disagreement if neither partner is willing to be flexible during conflict?
Linda Waite: THAT’S a question for a psychologist or marital therapist. There are some really terrific programs to teach couples how to disagree constructively. One is called PREP and the other is called PAIRS. Take a look.
Olivia opoku-Adomah: What are some the courses of married people living longer? What can unmarried people do to live longer?
Linda Waite: Married men have better health habits than the unmarried and take fewer risks. Their wives often check their health and get them to the doctor. Wives often provide emotional support and in the US provide the link between men and their families. Husbands provide income and other support for the household, companionship, and some emotional support. Unmarried people need to work hard on their support networks, helping others and accepting help in return. Find people to talk to, join groups of others with similar interests.
Veris Lee: What resources are avilable to share with our participants in our sessions? What topics should we emhasize to help them understand the marriage health relationship?
Linda Waite: Look for materials from the Institute for American Values. They have published a number of very accessible pieces on marriage. Also try the National Marriage Project.
Karin Ringheim: I understand that women fare better after death of a spouse or divorce than men do. To what extent has the care-giving role that women tend to provide to their husbands, (including greater responsibility for cooking and cleaning) been studied in terms of the disadvantage that men experience after loss of a spouse? Would more equitable responsibilities within marriage lead men and women to have more similar outcomes in its aftermath?
Linda Waite: Karin, Women seem to do better with widowhood than men do, at least on some dimensions. Widowed men often have trouble with running the household, since in this generation their wives often did most of that, and widowed women have trouble with managing money, fixing stuff, and tend to be poorer than widowed men, since their husbands were likely to do THAT stuff. No matter how couples specialize, if you depend on your spouse for anything, if he or she dies you don’t have much experience doing it. That’s part of why widowed people are more likely to die (and have poorer health) than married people.
For more information on this topic, see:
Marlene Lee, “Aging, Family Structure, and Health” (2009).
Mary Mederios Kent, “Health Effects of Marriage and Other Social Relationships: Interview With Linda Waite” (2009).