Miriam Kamin is feeling a lot better now, thank you very much.
It was rough there for a while--infertility, a crippling case of endometriosis, the collapse of her nine-year marriage, and four years of single parenting while building a career as a corporate blogger. Then, last May, she married Mark, a longtime friend. And that, she says, has made all the difference.
"I've struggled with depression for most of my life," she explains. "Yet, despite the fact that I've moved, relocated my kids and am working harder than I have in a very long time, I'm not on medication right now. I had no idea marriage was supposed to be this much fun."
Never mind the popular palaver about a good marriage as a source of bliss for the couple, security for the kids and stability for society. Plenty of spouses--at least after the first wedded year--just come to see it as a whole lot of work. And why shouldn't they? Pair up any two people with often clashing needs, add the pressure-cooker variables of kids, doctor bills, career, housework, car repairs and the fact that someone--he knows who he is--can't pull himself away from the TV during college-basketball season, and there are bound to be problems. Marriage is criticized as a source of stress (and it is), conflict (that too) and endless crises that need to be resolved (guilty there as well).
But it's also something more. Decades of data collection have shown that marriage--for all its challenges--is like a health-insurance policy. A 2006 paper that tracked mortality over an eight-year period found that people who never married were 58% likelier to die during that time than married folks were. And no wonder. Marriage means no more drinking at singles' bars until closing, no more eating uncooked ramen noodles out of the bag and calling it a meal. According to a 2004 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), married people are less likely to smoke or drink heavily than people who are single, divorced or widowed. These sorts of lifestyle changes are known to lower rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer and respiratory diseases. And while you might sometimes gripe that your spouse drives you nuts, just the opposite is true. Married people have lower rates of all types of mental illnesses and suicide. And none of that touches the reduced likelihood of contracting sexually transmitted diseases that comes simply from climbing out of the dating pool.
"I clearly recall my then boyfriend and myself watching TV in the early '80s and hearing about AIDS," says psychologist and sex therapist Stephanie Buehler. "We looked at each other wide-eyed. I don't know that we chose to marry because of this, but it was a factor that pushed us to stay together and remain monogamous."
All the health benefits of marriage are consistent across age, race, education and income groups, and while researchers have not conducted equally exhaustive studies of gay couples, the benefits probably flow to them too. Some of the reasons for this are obvious. Smoking and drinking naturally decline if you've got a spouse at your side flashing you a don't-you-dare look when you reach for a cigarette or a third glass of wine. Depression and other emotional ills are less likely to go undiagnosed if there's someone at home who's mindful of your moods and notices if they darken. But there are other, less self-evident things at work too--things that you didn't realize when you decided to get married and that scientists and doctors are only now beginning to appreciate fully.
Marriage on the Brain
For all the watch-your-cholesterol lifestyle safeguards spouses erect around each other, much of what makes marriage so healthy for us takes place within our own bodies, entirely without our knowledge. A lot of those benefits come down to stress--or, specifically, the management of it. Stress puts into motion a biological cascade involving hormones, glands and neural circuits, all activating one another in a complex feedback loop. When you are stuck in traffic or overwhelmed at work or worn down by the kids, the hypothalamus--a structure buried deep in the midbrain--tells your adrenal gland to pump out a supply of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol, in turn, tells your body to stop worrying about its basic metabolic needs and instead to "do the things you need to do to save yourself from whatever created the stress," says University of Virginia neuroscientist James Coan.
That's great if you're fleeing an attacking bear, since the things you need to do to save yourself require boosting your heart rate and respiration, tensing your muscles and generally cranking up your body's alert level. But such an energy-intensive system is designed to be used only in brief bursts; you either escape the bear or you get eaten by it, but either way the crisis ends. The daily stresses of the modern world can throw our bodies into emergency mode and keep us there. That takes a toll through high blood pressure, tension headaches and a lot of gnawed pencils. "If you're chronically releasing stress hormones, your body starts to fall apart," says Coan. "Ultimately, you're going to live less long--and you're going to be miserable."
Being married somehow helps the body circumvent this mess, either by hushing the hypothalamus or reducing cortisol production. Coan and his colleagues conducted an experiment in which married women underwent brain scans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). During the scans, the women were told they were going to receive a painful electric shock. The researchers then watched to see how the subjects' brains responded to the threat and found that among happily married women, hypothalamus activity declined sharply if husbands held their wives' hands during the experiment. Women who reported being less satisfied with their marriage--and women whose hands were held by strangers--got little such relief. "The effect was pretty profound," says Coan. "It was much stronger than we thought it would be."
He also found that spousal hand-holding had an effect in an entirely different part of the brain: the right anterior insula, which responds to the threat of pain by calling your attention to the part of your body that's in danger, increasing the amount of discomfort you ultimately feel. In Coan's study, the right anterior insula of happily married women stayed relatively quiet. "This suggests," he says, "that your spouse may function as an analgesic."