Philip Moeller

Intimacy, shared support, and household roles help married couples achieve well-being and longevity gains

Marriage is, for many people, their most important relationship, the source of much happiness, and, for some, even adds extra years to their life. So, what is it about marriage that's so important to us? And what happens within a marriage to produce happiness and well-being?

"Married people overall do better on virtually every indicator of health and well-being," says Robin Simon, a sociology professor and researcher at Wake Forest University. "Even when they get sick, married people are more likely to recover."

Other researchers have found that marriage's well-being advantage has narrowed and perhaps even disappeared compared with other types of living arrangements. The prevalence and social acceptance of unmarried couples and people choosing to live alone have risen a lot in recent years. "Over the last 30 years, the health gap between the married and never-married has narrowed to almost nothing," says Debra J. Umberson, a sociology professor and researcher at the University of Texas.

"I do believe the gap between marriage and cohabitation is not as wide as people think," Simon agrees, although she feels marriage still comes out ahead. "It's really not as much about marriage as having an intimate partner," she says. "In all of my work, marriage is good. Intimacy is good."

Intimacy, trust, and commitment form one component of the four resources experts cite as giving married people an upward boost in happiness and well-being. The others are:

-- The legal rights and advantages of marriage, such as tax and health-plan benefits.

-- Social roles that can give husbands and wives a stronger sense of their own identities and also enhance their well-being in other ways. By dividing up all sorts of activities--domestic, family, community, leisure planning, and the like--couples get more done, relieve stress on one another, and can expand the range and amount of outside activities. And while spousal nagging can bring down relationships, it seems to effectively get partners to take better care of their health.

-- The social support spouses provide to each other. By bringing their own sets of external relationships into the marriage, they expand the richness and reach of each other's social connections. This social connectivity, Umberson and other experts stress, is a vital and often under-appreciated source of happiness.

While the link between marriage and well-being has been intensely studied, predicting marital success is difficult. Exactly which people are likely to make successful spouses, and what can they do to increase the odds of being successful and happy in marriage?

Rates of divorce have recently declined, but marriages and other intimate relationships seem to have an underlying survival rate of only 50 to 60 percent, notes Andrew Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University.

"The state of marriage is that it's going in two directions," he adds. "For people with a college degree, marriage is still going strong." However, Cherlin explains, "for people with less education, there's less marriage, more break-ups, more children born out of marriage, and more stress." Happy marriage outcomes are much less common in such households.

We're getting married later, which might contribute to successful outcomes. The median age for a man's first marriage is nearly 27 1/2, and for women, it's over 25 1/2. Married women are waiting longer to have children, and there is increasing parity in all key metrics between men and women.

Another predictor of successful marriages, Umberson says, is the quality of a couple's childhood relationship with their parents. "The kind of relationships you have with your parents growing up are predictive of marital quality in adulthood," she says. Further, they're "predictive of the quality of all relationships in general."

Finally, there is a chicken-and-egg component to successful marriages. "People who are married are happier than people who aren't," Cherlin says. "The question is how much of this is cause and how much is effect?" While natural selection surely has an impact here, Cherlin says, "people who are inherently happy are more likely to get married, but marriage makes them even healthier."

Another reality of marriage, which social scientists have documented over and over, is that the honeymoon does end, and the amount of happiness produced within a marriage peaks in its early years and commences a steady decline. Forget Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn frolicking on a golden pond. "The decline is probably the greatest in the first few years of marriage," Umberson says. "But from the data, there's never a period when there's an upturn."

This reality of marriage, she and others say, may be one of the most important and practical lessons people should keep in mind at all stages of their marriage. "I think it's actually useful for couples to know that it's normal for there to be ups and downs over time in the quality of a relationship," Umberson explains. "You just can't sustain the highs" of that honeymoon period, and expecting otherwise can place enormous strain on the relationship.

People should also pay a lot of attention before they get married to whether they have a mutually supportive relationship, Simon says. "People should not take this for granted" and maintaining such a relationship "takes work," she says.

The key to good marriages is similar in Umberson's view.

"I think it's the presence of emotional support, and that the person you're with does make you feel emotionally supported," she says. On the other hand, "If your partner is critical and demanding" all the time, those "are just red flags" in terms of marital happiness. And in terms of stress, she notes, "marital strain is worse for your health than marital happiness is good for your health."

Umberson concludes that she has conducted research on couples that were happily married for a long time. One common characteristic of many of these marriages was the willingness of each spouse to simply accept "each other for what they are." That's a lesson for the newly and long-married alike.

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