When I was newly home from graduate school and working my first full-time job, finding a husband and starting a family seemed to be the next expected step in the progression toward adulthood. I was looking forward to having someone to share my life with—someone to be a steady roommate, a sharer of responsibilities, and a traveling buddy for my then-infrequent vacations. Certainly prime on my mind was finding a suitable father for the kids I hoped to have in the future. Getting married would also eliminate the constant nagging of my mom and other relatives, who constantly pointed out that I wasn't getting any younger. (Ironically, I was married at 24, a mere child compared to the average marrying age today!)|
Luckily for me, I did find the right guy, and all the advantages I'd anticipated did come along with the marriage package. However, I never considered that being married would be good for my health, too. When scientific research began to appear touting the health benefits of being married, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that being married is also just one more way I'm improving my health.
We humans are hard-wired for social connection, and we all possess a basic need to belong and to be loved. For many people in today's world, the need to marry young has been trumped by climbing the career ladder, and being in a committed relationship doesn’t necessarily mean tying the knot. But despite that, most (but not all) still harbor a strong desire to be in a romantic relationship.
And it's no wonder why we seek out romance: When we find that special connection, positivity flows, and your nervous system is flooded with feel-good hormones. Dopamine, one of the hormones triggered when individuals are in love, evokes feelings of pleasure, optimism, energy and a sense of well-being. Physical touch, such as hugging, hand-holding and having sex, releases oxytocin, which lowers stress hormones. Research shows that those who experience these positive emotions associated with love have stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, greater resistance to the common cold, faster recovery after illness and injury, and decreased anxiety and depression.
In 2007, the Department of Health and Human Services put out a report of their findings after reviewing the research on the health effects of matrimony. It stated that married people are happier, live longer, drink less and even visit the doctor less often than unmarried folks. Married couples tend to have health insurance, which encourages preventative care and healthy behaviors. Additionally, married couples are more financially stable, which reduces stress. A 2004 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also found that mortality rates were lowest in married couples. (Note: Although much of this research has looked at the effects of love on married couples, there is no reason to think that those in a positive and committed--yet unmarried--relationship wouldn’t enjoy these same benefits.)
However, simply being in a relationship isn't enough to reap these benefits; the quality of the relationship matters, too. Love is a complicated emotion, and it can have both good and bad side effects depending on how partners treat each other.
According to psychology professor and researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, positive relationships prove as beneficial to survival and longevity as quitting smoking—and the benefits of love might even exceed those of exercise. On the flip side, negative relationships can wreak havoc on your health. For example, it has been found that married people have lower blood pressure than unmarried people, but unhappily married people have higher blood pressure than both happily married and unmarried groups. Additionally, a 2009 study in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that divorced or widowed people have 20 percent more chronic health conditions (such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer) than married people.
So, how do you ensure your marriage (or relationship) will be happy enough so you and your significant other can start reaping the benefits of love? Here are a few basic tips to follow for a healthy relationship:
Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, J. Bradley Layton. ''Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review,'' accessed September 2012. www.plosmedicine.org
The Washington Post. ''Health benefits of falling and staying in love,'' accessed September 2012. www.washingtonpost.com.