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Happy marriages give couples lifelong health benefit, long-term BYU study finds

Published: Tuesday, July 2 2013 5:30 p.m. MDT

Couples who are happy over the long haul stay healthier as the years pass, too, according to a new BYU study in the Journal of Marriage and Family. It's not just that conflict is bad for health. Happy marriages have a preventive component.

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PROVO — Couples who are happy over the long haul stay healthier as the years pass, too, according to a new BYU study just published in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

It's not simply that marital conflict is bad for health. The study shows that if you look at separate lines on a graph tracking either marital happiness or unhappiness and one depicting physical wellbeing, you'll find similar slopes. The two issues are interconnected, the association "significant." Just as an unhappy marriage can detract from health, the study found a happy marriage could improve health.

"These results not only reinforce the effect of negative marital quality on declining health but also call attention to the important influence of positive marital quality on maintaining good health," the study said.

While it's not the first to show a good marital relationship is tied to better health, this is the longest longitudinal study of marriage quality and health ever done, tracking its subjects for 20 years, according to lead author Rick Miller, a professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.

"Marital conflict is a significant risk factor for health and mental health," he said. "Marital quality matters. The evidence is mounting that a relationship's quality — the ability to get along, to support each other, to regulate conflict — is an important factor for health."

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"A burgeoning literature suggests that marriage may have a wide range of benefits, including improvements in individuals' economic well-being, mental and physical health, and the well-being of their children," is how the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation in the U.S. Department of Human Services summarized the importance of marriage in 2011. The briefing pointed out that married people are generally healthier than unmarried people.

But research has also long shown there are differences in marriage quality that impact health. A decade ago, for example, researchers at Ohio State University Medical Center found the quality of a married couple's relationship could be seen in their stress hormone and immune system response.

The BYU study is the latest one to emphasize the quality of marriage and find that a happy marriage bestows health benefits on its members, while conflict and hostility lead to poorer health. The impact is so important, in fact, that Miller and some colleagues believe health insurance should cover the cost of marriage counseling if it's needed to strengthen a union.

Doing so could save the cost of dealing with some health problems down the road, Miller told the Deseret News.

Policymakers haven't addressed marital conflict and distress as a major cause of health problems in the United States, Miller said. Health insurance won't pay for marital therapy to help couples maintain their marriages when they're on rocky ground, despite earlier research that found marital conflict competes with smoking as a risk factor for diminished health.

Couples who fight, Miller said, should get counseling to deal with conflict. Problems allowed to fester within a marriage can turn into mental and physical health problems that may require medical intervention.

Puzzle pieces

This new research is one more puzzle piece in an increasingly complex picture of how marriage quality and general well-being intersect. Other studies have shown, for instance, that people with more conflicts in their marriage go to the doctor more and health care spending increases.

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