Marriage: Is There a Hitch?

Does marriage make you happy? Or do happy people tend to be the marrying kind? The facts about wedded bliss

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"If you ask a superhappy married person, 'Are you happier now than you were [before marriage]?' they'll say yes. But their happiness score hasn't gone up," says happiness guru Edward Diener of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, whose wife has stayed with him for 39 years even though he keeps a happy-face flag outside their home. "Because they're very positive, they think things are getting better all the time, but they really aren't." Marriage, however, does make total losers--the lonely and friendless among us--a little happier, since greater social interaction is one of the few proven ways to increase your life satisfaction. "It's kind of like if you're poor--you can get a lot more out of a million dollars,'' Diener explains. "But marriage isn't going to add as much if you're not lonely." In other words, marriage does the most for socially maladjusted freaks, who wouldn't have any friends or get any action otherwise.

Not only is wedlock unlikely to make me happier, but my health could falter if my relationship does. Psychologists, having previously shown that stressed-out people are more vulnerable to illness, couldn't tell if their hardships were causing the sickness or if the sickness was worsening their stress. So an Ohio State University study rounded up 90 young, happy, healthy, stress-free newlywed couples and decided to ruin their good time. Researchers put couples in a room and had them discuss the core issues they most disagreed about: babies, money, campaign-finance reform. The researchers videotaped them, hooked them to IVs and drew blood at scheduled intervals, both to get firm scientific measurements and, undoubtedly, to stress them out even more.

What the psychologists learned is that couples' contentedness depends not on how often they argue or on how much they disagree but on the way they fight. Couples who used insults, blame, sarcasm, eye rolling and interrupting had greater increases in levels of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine, the same hormones that increase during a heart attack, the researchers found. These couples had bigger spikes in blood pressure and showed greater decreases in immune-system response. They were also much more entertaining to watch. And a follow-up study showed they were more likely to get divorced.

Another finding: marital combat takes a higher toll on the female warrior. "Women, in our study and others, tend to hear negativity much more acutely and remember it much more," says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, a psychology professor at Ohio State and co-author of the study. "So it's not surprising that women would respond to it more, physiologically." This has led me to a rope-a-dope strategy in my arguments with Cassandra, since every fight weakens her a little more than it hurts me.

The only sure benefit of marriage that scientists have been able to prove is that it will lower my odds of committing a violent crime, which really is less a benefit for me than for my potential victims. A 2002 University of Florida study finds that hardened ex-cons straightened out with the routines of a solid marriage, while those who just lived with a woman were actually more likely to commit crimes. All this really proves to me is that marriage numbs your desire to do anything.

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