Marriage may be good for your health, both physical and mental, many think. But it’s not obvious, and, not surprisingly, the quality of your relationship counts, too. Single people do better than people who are unhappily married, according to some research.
So what can you reasonably expect from a good marriage? Psychology research has a few answers.
Don’t assume you must be intensely in love, even in the early days. According to Arthur Aron, a noted researcher about love, there’s no evidence of soulmates. Instead, we fall in love when we find someone who is “good enough” and reciprocates our interest. If you see a new partner as an opportunity to expand—maybe through a bigger social circle, new activities, or a broader sense of who you are—you are likely to fall in love.
In the long run, the early romance won’t decide if you’ll thrive as a pair. What counts is how you communicate. “How happy you are at the start of a marriage depends on both people’s mental health. But the rate of change depends on communication skills,” he says. “The happy couple’s happiness can deteriorate quickly, while people who may start off less happy will get happier if the couple practices good skills.”
If you do communicate well, you can reap many benefits from a committed relationship. Psychology Today blogger Alice Boyes, author of The Anxiety Toolkithas pointed out five essential ones.
1. You’ll pick up your partner’s positive perceptions about you.
Maybe you think you’re not especially bright because you did badly at school, but your spouse appreciates your sharp memory and accurate assessments of people. Over time, you’re likely to value your own abilities somewhat more.
2. You may adopt better health habits.
If your husband doesn’t eat candy, you may lose the habit too. We tend to echo those around us if we admire them. Men are most likely to benefit from a wife who takes an interest in their health, studies show.
3. You’ll feel more secure.
Knowing your partner will take care of you if you have a crisis can help calm warriors. You may also be able to try new things or take risks, knowing you’ll have a “soft place to fall.” Some people are afraid that they’re not lovable. Aron argues that they’ll feel less anxious with a stable partner. “Find a person who is secure, and you will get more secure,” he says.
4. You can save shared memories.
Remembering the good times is a key strategy for happiness, and it’s natural to do so when you’re in the same company. In a happy couple, you’ll reminisce about a vacation or a baby’s first step.
5. You’ll learn each other’s mental biases and can correct them when they pop up.
Let’s say your husband always assumes the worst. You can stop him with a joke. Maybe you rush into decisions. He can slow you down. People tend to resist correction. But when your present and future are intertwined, you know your partner has every reason to help you flourish and are more likely to listen to advice or learn to think a little differently.
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If you like being single, however, you might be interested to know that marriage may not be the ticket to good health, as you may have heard. There’s research suggesting otherwise, notably a 16-year survey of a nationally representative sample of more than 11,000 Swiss adults.
As Psychology Today blogger Bella DePaulo, author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, notes, “If marriage makes people healthier, then people who marry should report better overall health and less illness than when they were single. If the purported benefits of marriage are cumulative, then people should get even healthier over the course of their marriages.”
But in the Swiss study, people who married reported slightly worse health than they had as singletons, and their health tended to deteriorate over time even more than you might expect from age. Marriage also didn’t protect them from major illnesses. Other research has found only a brief “honeymoon effect” on happiness and life satisfaction. Dissatisfied people tend to return to their previous level of dissatisfaction. The Swiss study also found a satisfaction bump after marriage that later eroded.
But here’s a warning: Divorce led to a drop in satisfaction, a big one—three times bigger than the positive tick up from marrying.
What does that suggest? Don’t get married if you think there is any chance you might end up divorced. And remember that divorce isn’t rare—your chances are probably higher than 40 percent.
Perhaps when you read the list of benefits above, you thought, “This sounds like my relationship. This is already happening for us!” If so, you might want to get married to celebrate your good relationship and deepen your commitment. If the list sounds like an unrealistic, distant ideal—perhaps not.