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."
"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.
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.
The positive findings are probably largely about support between husband and wife, Miller said. People happy in their marriage typically support each other. "They probably encourage each other to be healthy, to go to the doctor, to take multivitamins and that kind of support," he said. "We found not only an absence of negative stuff, but the presence of good stuff in a positive, supportive, vibrant marriage."
The findings hold for both men and women, Miller said. He added that another new study he's worked on shows that a happy marriage also boosts work productivity.
Nuts and bolts
The researchers used data from the Marital Instability Over the Life Course Study, which collected data six times from married people between 1980 and 2000. Since it was designed to gather data long-term, participation was initially limited to those who were married and were between age 18 and 55. Couples from the initial 2,034-person sample who divorced along the way were not used in the long-term analysis. The final sample used for this study included 1,681 people.
The study relied on self-reporting of happiness within the marriage and the degree of companionship in each union. The questions tackling the negative dimension of marital quality looked at 13 factors, including jealousy, how critical a spouse is, irritating habits, moodiness, infidelity, financial irresponsibility and anger. The self-reporting scale of marital quality ranged from "very happy" to "not too happy."
The study's other authors are Cody S. Hollist, University of Nebraska Lincoln; Joseph Olsen, also of BYU; and David Law of Utah State University.
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