“Until death do us part;” it is one of the most common phrases used in most marriage vows in the United States today. However, many give little thought to the death part of the wedding vows. Is there a way married couples can extend their lives by living in a satisfying marriage? Moreover, is there absolute proof that possessing a healthy marriage will directly affect the physical health of women and the children that come from the marriage?
The Research behind the Results
Decades of research suggest that healthy marriages decrease the chance of premature death. According to one study done at Ewha Woman’s University in partnership with The University of Wisconsin, couples who feud lower their immune system defense, cause endocrine issues, and negatively impair autonomic responses (Choi & Marks, 2008).
However, the most fascinating of all studies have shown that a majority of those in poor health prior to marriage improved their health over time even if they belonged to a high risk ethnic group or have a family history of health issues (2008).
Physical Benefits of Marriage
As previously stated, being in a positive marital union certainly has its benefits emotionally, mentally, and socially. Research shows that those in a healthy marriage seem to outlive those who have never been married (National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, 2008). How is marital satisfaction interpreted through the adult stages of life? Are the needs of newlyweds the same as couples who have been married for 50 years?
Marriage Stages: Satisfaction and the Newlywed Woman
Most people believe newlywed couples are probably the happiest and most satisfied in this stage compared to all the other stages of marriage. However, contrary to popular belief, the newlywed stage of marriage has the potential to be the most devastating to physical health and least satisfying stage of all of them.
One reason this stage is the most devastating is that women tend to build up a fantasy marriage, and when the marriage fantasy does not come true, disappointment occurs. Furthermore, newlyweds tend to have poor conflict-resolution skills until later in the marriage thus, conflict in the newlywed stages seem to have a more devastating and stressful effect in the marriage.
One study concluded that the woman in the relationship predicted how the relationship would either decay or grow within two years and this growth heavily depended on the support wives asked for from their husbands in the newlywed stage (Pasch &Bradbury, 1998).
According to the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 90 newlywed couples underwent a study tracking hormonal changes that occur within the body and behavioral changes when conflict arose (Kiecolt-Glaser, Glaser, Cacioppo, & Malarkey, 1998, Gottman, Levenson, & Woodin, 2001). The mean age of each of the couples was 25. Each couple was admitted for a 24 hour period. Kiecolt-Glaser, Glaser, Cacioppo, and Malarkey (1998) also stated, “The test tracked changes in autonomic, endocrine, and immune function as well” ( p. 656 ). Among these newlyweds, negative or hostile behaviors during marital conflict (coded from videotaped interactions) were associated with increased levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, growth hormone, and ACTH as well as greater immunological change over the following 24 hours. The female spouse demonstrated greater and more persistent physiological changes related to marital conflict than their husbands (1998).
Another phenomenon is known as, “self silencing.” Self silencing is the term given when one half of the marital union goes along with the other half’s opinions and beliefs to avoid conflict. This technique usually starts in the early stages of the marriage, but can begin at any stage and can lead to coronary heart disease (Eaker, Sullivan, Kelly-Hayes, D’Agostino, & Benjamin, 2007). Furthermore, self-silencing leads to depressive symptoms over time (Whiffen, Foot & Thompson, 2007) . One study done by the University of Ottawa in conjunction with Simon Fraser University (2007) solidifies the statement made by Paykel that, “Marital distress is the most common antecedent to a depressive episode, especially in women” (p. 994).
Pregnancy and Marital Satisfaction
As women begin parenting, one wonders how pregnancy could affect a woman’s marital satisfaction. During this time, women need double the emotional support she usually receives. Marital satisfaction on average, declines shortly after parenthood begins (Snowden, Schott, Awalt, & Gillis-Knox, 1988). Ironically, women who experience dissatisfaction during pregnancy usually continue dissatisfaction after becoming parents (1988). So, how did this affect their health?
In the study, women were given forms to fill out, one in early pregnancy and one on late pregnancy. The questionnaires asked for information such as self confidence, previous children, etc. The results were that most women held on to their self confidence, but if they were uncertain or they had mixed feelings about the pregnancy, their health was worse (some, which required early hospitalization) and their marital satisfaction was lower (Snowden, Schott, Awalt, & Gillis-Knox, 1988.
Parenting, Marital Satisfaction and Physical Health
Wickrama, Conger, Lorenz, and Matthews (1995) conducted a study on 155 long-term relationship couples at Iowa State. The results showed that if the father had a fulfilling career, and the mother had a positive parenting identity, physical health was good. The subjects lived in the rural mid-west United States. The average length of the marriage was 20 years and the average amount of children per couple is two; one child must be in or around 8th grade and the other four years older or younger of the target age (Wickrama, Conger, Lorenz, & Matthews, 1995).
However, a most fascinating finding occurred with the mothers in this study: Although satisfied because of high involvement with their children or roles in the household, their perceived physical health declined (1995).
Another example that the marital bond status in couples directly affects physical health can be found in a three-generational study done on Mexican Americans at the University of Texas by Farrell and Markides. The study showed that marital contentment and satisfaction weighed more on their physical health in the early and mid-generations and less on the older generation (Farrell & Markides, 1985). What about Polygamous Marriages?
A study of the differences between polygamous and monogamous marriages was conducted because the hypothesis existed that, “the polygamous family structure has an impact on wives’ psychological, social and family functioning” (Al-Krenawi & Graham, 2006). The sample came from Bedouin-Arab women who some were polygamous marriages (33%), and some in monogamous marriages (67%). Women in polygamous marriages showed, “significantly higher psychological distress, identity crisis, higher levels of somatisation, phobia, and other psychological problems” (2006). Sadly, these women complained the most about physical pain such as body aches, headaches, trouble sleeping, and nervousness (2006). The study reported that wife-order and age was an important factor in how severe the women complained.
Marital Satisfaction in the Middle Aged
As with all other marital stages, it has been proven that marital satisfaction in middle-aged couples directly affects physical health. One difference that middle-aged parenting couples face that younger parenting couples do not have to face is moving from full nest to empty nest. According to the book, “Fighting for Your Empty Nest Marriage,” many spouses take a sober look at their marriage Arp, Arp, Markman, Stanley & Blumberg (2000). Because many couples build their marriage around children, the marriage seems to get lost within the parenting role.
Moreover, there is proof that as people become older, more significance is placed on their long-term relationships. Parents, especially mothers who had chosen to stay home with their children struggle to find their identity (Arp, et al. 2000). This “identity crisis” usually leads to questions in the marriage and whether or not the marriage is a marriage or just a parent partnership. Sadly, if these problems are not faced and fixed, divorce after children leave the home is a major possibility.
Research shows that a sense of humor and being with someone they enjoy being with is important to a relationship’s satisfaction in the later years (Lauer, Lauer, & Kerr, 1990). This study consisted of 100 resident couples in retirement communities over the spread of eight states (1990). When a couple can laugh and have fun together, the endorphins released during laughter promote good health.
Ironically, some of the most compelling research in this age category shows that women’s physical health is affected by their husband’s well-being, but the reverse is not true most times (Walker & Luszcz, 2009).
Another study confirms that women are more affected physically by their husband’s chronic illness was done by Hafstrom, and Schram, The study took a sample of 147 families where neither spouse was chronically ill and compared it to 69 families in which one spouse was chronically ill. The breakdown was 43 in which the husband was chronically ill, and 26 in which the wife was chronically ill. The study showed that when the husband was chronically ill, marital satisfaction was lower for her, but when the wife was chronically ill, little to no difference was reported (Hafstrom & Schram, 1984).
Furthermore, being marriage in itself does not automatically mean that the couple has good physical health for women (Gove, Hughes, & Style, 1983). The research merely points out that satisfying and loving marriages are beneficial to physical health and not being in a marriage itself (1983).
The solution to an unhealthy marriage is marital counseling with a Christian counselor who cares about the well-being of the couple. The action of trying to “work it out” may save the marriage, and in return, save their physical health in the process. God designed marriage to be beautiful and fulfilling, physically and emotionally with both husband and wife being completely satisfied. When couples look to Him, their marriage is what God intends. The design of marriage means more than companionship or sex. The couple must communicate harmoniously; otherwise the marriage can be as toxic to the body as a divorce.
The research in this paper has been a blessing to me in a way that has enhanced my marriage immensely. I learned to laugh a lot more and to trust God for my deepest needs. When I allow God to meet those needs, this frees both of us to enjoy each other without undue pressure. I pray that someday I can help others in marital crisis as I have been helped.
Al-Krenawi, A., & Graham, J. (2006). A comparison of family functioning, life and marital satisfaction and mental health of women in polygamous and monogamous marriages. International Journal of Social Psychiatry, 52(1), 5-17. doi:10.1177/00207640060061245.
Arp, C., Arp, D., Markman, H., Stanley, S., & Blumberg, S. (2000). Fighting for your empty nest marriage. Wiley & Sons, Inc. New York City.
Choi, H., & Marks, N. (2008). Marital conflict, depressive symptoms, and functional impairment. Journal of Marriage & Family, 70(2), 377-390. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00488.x.
Eaker, E., Sullivan, L., Kelly-Hayes, M., D’Agostino, R., & Benjamin, E. (2007). Marital status, marital strain, and risk of coronary heart disease or total mortality: the Framingham offspring study. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(6), Retrieved from http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/cgi/content/full/69/6/509
Farrell, J., & Markides, K. (1985). Marriage and health: A three-generation study of Mexican Americans. Journal of Marriage & Family, 47(4), 1029. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
Gottman, J., Levenson, R., & Woodin, E. (2001). Facial expressions during marital conflict. Journal of Family Communication, 1(1), 37-57. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
Gove, W., Hughes, M., & Style, C. (1983). Does marriage have positive effects on the psychological well-being of the individual? Journal of Health & Social Behavior, 24(2), 122-131. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
Hafstrom, J., & Schram, V. (1984). Chronic illness in couples: selected characteristics, including wife’s satisfaction with and perception of marital relationships. Family Relations, 33(1), 195. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Glaser, R., Cacioppo, J., & Malarkey, W. (1998). Marital stress: Immunologic, neuroendocrine, and autonomic correlates a. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 840(1), 656-663. Retrieved from E-Journals database.
Lauer, R. H., Lauer, J. C. and Kerr, S. T. 1990. The long-term marriage: perceptions
of stability and satisfaction. International Journal of Aging and Human Development, 31, 3, 189-95.
National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, 2008.What is the relationship of marriage to physical health? Retrieved from healthymarriageinfo.org, http://www.healthymarriageinfo.org/docs/phnmarriagefs.pdf
Pasch, L., & Bradbury, T. (1998). Social support, conflict, and the development of marital dysfunction. Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology, 66(2), 219. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
Snowden, L., Schott, T., Awalt, S., & Gillis-Knox, J. (1988). Marital satisfaction in pregnancy: Stability and Change. Journal of Marriage & Family, 50(2), 325-333. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
Walker, R., & Luszcz, M. (2009). The health and relationship dynamics of late-life couples: a systematic review of the literature. Ageing & Society, 29(3), 455-480. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
Whiffen, V., Foot, M., & Thompson, J. (2007). Self-silencing mediates the link between marital conflict and depression. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, 24(6), 993-1006. doi:10.1177/0265407507084813. Wickrama, K., Conger, R., Lorenz, F., & Matthews, L. (1995). Role identity, role satisfaction, and perceived physical health. Social Psychology Quarterly, 58(4), 270-283. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.