There is much talk these days of the positive health advantages of marriage. Anyone in a committed relationship, including same sex couples, is healthier, happier and lives longer than those who are not. However, actually being married appears to offer even greater benefits. People feel safer and more secure with the public, formal commitment.
The first known study on these health benefits was conducted in 1858 by an Englishman named William Farr. He found that those who had never been married died ‘in undue proportion’ to those who were married. For the widowed, the figures were even higher.
Since then, there have been a number of such studies done in different countries. The positive health benefits of a good committed relationship have become known as the Marriage Effect. These studies have found, for example, that we are less likely to develop cancer, suffer heart attacks, develop dementia, suffer depression and even die in a car accident if we are married. Indeed, as I write it is reported in the news that Dr Paul Carter and colleagues from Aston Medical School have shown that marriage is linked to a better chance of surviving a heart attack.
Such surveys suggest that marital happiness contributes far more to global happiness and wellbeing than anything else, including satisfaction with work and friendships.
This is all very well for those of us who feel we are in a happy relationship, but what of the ones who are struggling? The health consequences of marital break up are also well documented. Divorced and separated people show poorer mental and physical health than comparable married adults, people who have never been married, and the widowed.
As a relationship therapist, my interest is in those of us who are living with high levels of marital stress. Too often we accept our lot because we cannot face a break up and have no idea what to do about the repetitive negative habits we live with. The drip drip of negativity not only damages the relationship, but it also damages each individual’s health and those of their children. The shame associated with an unhappy relationship can overwhelm us. Maintaining the pretence of happiness can be exhausting.
The health risks of distressed relationships are apparently multiple. They include increased risk of mood swings and depression, elevated stress hormones, elevated risk of diabetes and heart disease, and a weakened immune system. Not only that, but our children have fewer and fewer models of a good relationship to learn from. And we are their primary example. Of all the things we are taught in life, it is remarkable that the couple relationship - the foundation of our families - is left to chance. Rather than equip ourselves with the skills and techniques we need, we rest in what we have learnt from our parents. Or we rest in the hope that our instincts and dreams will naturally shape what we want.
Given these findings, I wonder why we limit our attention to such things as exercise, yoga, meditation programmes, diets, holidays and work, work, work. If our intimate relationships have such an effect on our wellbeing, why do we let them drop to the bottom of our priority lists and just hope for the best?
It seems that we have a huge challenge on our hands. Our expectations of intimacy and marriage have risen sharply since the days of our parents and grandparents. They wanted companionship and family built on the traditional roles of men as breadwinners and women as home-makers. But in the last generation, our roles and expectations have changed radically. We want more passion, more support and much more emotional connection – and we want it until death do us part. In an age when social media has largely taken the place of the local community and face to face contact, many of us feel increasingly isolated. We are less and less equipped to navigate the tough parts of our relationships when the option of withdrawing into a virtual world is so much easier.
The template for our intimate relationships still largely sits somewhere between that of our grandparents and that of today’s cry for personal empowerment, whatever the cost. However, neither of these strategies works towards relational empowerment in the pressured and demanding society we have created today. Relational fitness is as important as physical fitness, and as we have discovered, both are intimately linked to each other.
In order for us to benefit from the wellbeing a good relationship provides, we must learn new tools and techniques for our relational fitness. We must understand that a good relationship is not something we have if we’re lucky, or if we make the right choice, but rather it is something we actively DO. It is something we intentionally co-create together – and that takes practice and know-how.