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THE STRANGEST SPECIES

Married . . . With Benefits : Studies Find Couples Who Have Taken the Vows Live Longer, Healthier, Happier Lives-- Especially the Men

February 05, 1996|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Warning: Being single may be hazardous to your health.

Decades of studies show that--statistically, anyway--marriage leads to a longer, happier life.

As marriage rates steadily decline (married couples occupied 71% of U.S. households in 1970 but only 55% by 1994), the evidence piles up: Married people tend to eat better, earn more, take better care of themselves and handle stress better than those who are divorced, widowed or never wed.

"The mutual commitment and long-term partnership is of major value emotionally," says John Mirowsky, a psychology professor at Ohio State University. "But the married also have fewer headaches, stomachaches, back pains and sick days. Funny thing is, it's better for both men and women, but there's no doubt marriage is a better deal for men."

At the altar a man may lose his bachelorhood but he often gains a live-in housekeeper, nutritionist, personal trainer, social director, sex goddess and fashion cop. The result? About four extra years of life, judging by a recent mortality study.

In another study, conducted by University of Chicago sociologist Linda J. Waite and USC economist Lee Lillard, married men who make it to age 48 have an 86% shot at hitting 65, 25% higher than never-married men. Widowers and divorced men have 67% and 63% chances, respectively.

"Men get a personal assistant . . . benefiting from social, organizational and management skills of women," Waite says. "Men's earnings improve too, because they are more motivated, more stable workers, live a more orderly life and don't show up having not eaten for three days."

Wives' earnings may not improve as much because of career breaks for child rearing, but they gain overall from spousal income.

Married women who live to age 48 stand an 84% chance of making it to 65, 23% more than never married women. Widows and divorced women have 80% and 63% chances, respectively, says Waite, who projected life expectancies based upon living pattern, age when married, income, education and other factors.

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One explanation is "marriage selection," the idea that mentally and physically healthy people are more likely to marry than unhealthy ones. But experts believe that's less important than causal factors such as more income. More money can buy better health care, more nutritious food and safer neighborhoods.

And marriage often swaps the party habits of single life for coupon cutting, 1.5 glasses of wine with dinner and minivans with air bags. Married people tend to be more stable and fatter, but they are less likely to drink and drive, abuse drugs or engage in other risky behavior than divorced or widowed people.

Even sex appears to be generally better in marriage. Most couples in Waite's study reported being "quite happy" in their marriages, claiming higher levels of "emotional satisfaction" and frequency in their sex life than cohabiting couples. Single folks had less sex than either group.

"Marriage is better for men because they have a wife," says Chris Kilmartin, a professor of psychology at Mary Washington College and author of "The Masculine Self" (McMillan, 1994). "Husbands say 'How do I feel, Honey?' Men deny emotions and don't have real friends. We have a buddyhood."

Bachelors are hospitalized three times--and divorced men eight times--more often than married men, Kilmartin says.

"Talking about your problems has a beneficial effect on mental health and, by extension, physical health." Wives also tend to bring the vigilant powers of food consciousness to the conjugal kitchen.

But women provide all these benefits at a cost. Wives report 30% more symptoms of anxiety and depression than husbands in a given week.

"Married women experience a kind of physiological version of shell shock--sweaty palms, heart palpitations, headaches, backaches and the inability to concentrate," Ohio State's Mirowsky says. "The biggest stressor is child care and related things. Most women find it more gratifying to work outside the home but it causes stress if the husband doesn't help out."

Still, despite the Florence Nightingale/Martha Stewart complex, married women are healthier in body and mind than unmarried women.

So why doesn't all this micro-managing of a husband's life weaken a wife's immune system? Doesn't juggling all those needs, plus the demands of children, inevitably lead to rocketing cholesterol levels (through high-fat stress eating) and hair loss by the handful?

"There is an extraordinary boost in having a family, being a wife, being a mother," says Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at University of Washington at Seattle.

"While all those things create stress, they are also cultural accomplishments. Unmarried women have fewer complications. They don't have an adolescent child just caught stealing or a husband who has a drinking problem, so theoretically they should be happier and some are. But it is not a little thing to know your place in the world."

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So what would it take to make marriage better for women?

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