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Your Marriage And Your Health

Tara Parker-Pope, the Well columnist for The New York Times (and my former Wall Street Journal colleague) has a book on marriage coming out next month called, "For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage."

In this Sunday's magazine she has a great piece on the topic that addresses the nuances of the so-called "marriage advantage," which holds that in general, married people are healthier than their single or widowed counterparts. Well, it turns out that the health benefits of marriage actually depend on what kind of marriage you've got, and that bad ones can wreack havoc with your immune system, among other problems.

Here, she examines the work of (married) researchers, Ronald Glaser and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, at Ohio State University College of Medicine:

...the Glasers turned their attention to domestic strife. They wondered about the role that relationships play in health and about the effects of marital stress, which, like school pressure, can be a source of nontraumatic but chronic strain. In what was to be the first of their many studies on marriage and health, the Glasers recruited 76 women, half of whom were married; the other half were separated or had divorced. The Glasers wanted to identify which married women were in troubled relationships as well as which of the women who were separated or divorced from their husbands were emotionally struggling the most. They did this by using marital-quality scales, types of questionnaires that ask couples to indicate agreement or disagreement with statements like “If I had to do it over again, I would marry the same person” or “We often do things together.” Next, using blood tests, the Glasers measured the women’s immune-system responses, tracking their levels of antibody production and other indicators of immunity strength. The results showed that the women in unhappy relationships and the women who remained emotionally hung up on their ex-husbands had decidedly weaker immune responses than the women who were in happier relationships (or were happily out of them).

Though pleased with this study, the Glasers knew that they had succeeded in taking the measure of marital happiness and health only at a single moment. The couple were also curious to study the effect of marital stress as it unfolded in real time. What happens to the body minute by minute, hour by hour, when couples engage in hostile marital disputes? To find this out, they recruited a study group of 90 seemingly happy newlywed couples. Each couple was hooked up to tubes so that blood samples could be drawn from the pair at regular intervals, and the husband and wife were seated face to face. Obscured by a curtain, the researchers watched the couples on video monitors; nurses took the blood samples. The participants, as they had been prompted to do, discussed their most volatile topics of marital conflict, like housework, sex or interference from a mother-in-law. “You wouldn’t think in a study situation that they would tear into each other,” Glaser, who is now the director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, told me. “But they get into it.” As expected, the couples who exhibited the most negative and hostile behavior during the conflict discussion showed the largest declines in immune-system function during the 24-hour study period.

This program aired on April 15, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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