Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Marriage Benefit

Modern research confirms that marriage is good for you, but the benefits for men and women are different. If we could randomly select 10,000 men to be married to 10,000 women, and if we could then follow these couples over the decades to see who died when, statistical analysis suggests that what we would find is this: being married adds seven years to a man’s life and two years to a woman’s life. Recent innovative work by emographer Lee Lillard, formerly at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and his colleagues sociologist Linda Waite of the University of Chicago and economist Constantijn Panis of Deloitte Financial Advisory Services has focused on untangling how and why being married lengthens life. Their research has analyzed what happened to more than 11,000 men and women as they entered and left marital relationships during the period 1968 to 1988. They carefully tracked people from before their marriages until after they ended (either because of death or divorce) and even on to any remarriages. And they closely examined how marriage might confer health and survival benefits and how these mechanisms might differ for men and women.

The emotional support that spouses provide has numerous biological and psychological benefits. Being near a familiar person can have effects as diverse as lowering heart rate, improving immune function and reducing depression. In terms of gender roles, Lillard and Waite found that the main way marriage is helpful to the health of men is by providing them with social support and connection, via their wives, to the broader social world. Equally important, married men abandon what have been called “stupid bachelor tricks.” When they get married, men assume adult roles: they get rid of the motorcycle in the garage, stop using illegal drugs, eat regular meals, get a job, come home at a reasonable hour and start taking their responsibilities more seriously—all of which helps to prolong their life.

This process of social control, with wives modifying their husbands’ health behaviors, appears to be crucial to how men’s health improves with marriage. Conversely, the main way that marriage improves the health and longevity of women is much simpler: married women are richer.

This cartoonish summary of a large body of demographic research may seem quite sexist and out-of-date. It is important to note that these studies involved people who were married in the decades when women had much less economic power than men. Nevertheless, these results point to something more profound and less contentious, namely, that pairs of individuals exchange all kinds of things that affect their health, and such exchanges—as with any transaction—need not be symmetric, either in the type or amount exchanged.

Source of Information : Scientific American Mind November-December 2009

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