Marriage vows don’t come with disclaimers. But mounting research suggests that the bit about “in sickness and in health” should. Corinne Reczek, a sociologist, has been studying spouses for years. She and many others have consistently discovered that while men always experience a major boost in their physical health after getting hitched, women do not derive the same degree of benefit. The prevailing explanation for this difference has to do with what she calls the “health work” that happens at home. “It’s the work that women do to make their men healthier: they cook meals, they encourage exercise.” More often, they make the medical appointments, they promote good sleep, and they discourage drinking and smoking. Husbands, on the other hand, “don’t try to make their wives as healthy,” says Reczek, a professor at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio. “So there is a dynamic going on in marriage that is unequal.”
That inequality between men and women is reflected in the responses of more than 29,000 Canadians who took the Symptom Profiler test last year, a self-evaluation tool developed by Scienta Health in Toronto. The data shows that although married men reported the fewest symptoms compared to all other males, married women were no better off than divorced or widowed females. “The finding is consistent with a good amount of literature showing that for women it’s not marital status per se that results in well-being,” says Harry Reis, a psychologist at the University of Rochester in New York. “It’s the quality of the marriage.”
“People who are in poor marriages where they’re fighting all the time are probably no better off than being single, and maybe worse off,” says Linda Waite, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago. A bad marriage harms well-being in two ways: it creates stress, which can “slow wound healing” and “affect immune function.” And it deprives spouses of a safe haven. Explains Waite: “A bad marriage doesn’t allow you to recover from the other stresses you face, like work.” Historically, women have been willing to tolerate a greater level of unhappiness in marriage, according to David Roelfs, a sociologist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky.
Less patience might benefit women: marital satisfaction is a matter of life and death. In Rochester, Reis recently studied mortality after coronary bypass surgery and found that happily married women were more likely to be alive 15 years later than unhappily married women. But there was no difference between unhappily married women and non-married women. The opposite was true for men: post-op, unhappy husbands were still better off than singles.
Even before marital doldrums set in, women are in a risky position once they tie the knot: they are more likely to gain weight (roughly 21 lb. or more) within two years than their husbands, according to researchers at Ohio State University in Columbus. Men, meanwhile, were more likely to pack on the pounds within two years after a divorce. Lead author Dmitry Tumin’s explanation is similar to Reczek’s “health work” theory. Women may neglect their health as new wives because they have additional responsibilities and time constraints; men who are newly divorced may suffer by not having someone to monitor their behaviour.
It might sound stereotypical or sexist to suggest that husbands needs a nagging wife to stay healthy, but Reczek’s work interviewing couples about how they influence each other reveals there’s truth to the cliché. “Both men and women identified how the men were really bad for their own health and their wives’ health,” says Reczek. “I expected that women would identify it, but I didn’t expect men to boast about it the way they did.” She was also surprised that although spouses were aware of the pattern, they did nothing to stop it.
That’s because an unhealthy habit can double as a romantic ritual. “It creates stronger ties, it’s fun, it’s part of a pleasurable relationship—sharing ice cream late at night or sitting on the couch together,” suggests Reczek. “Sometimes being bad together is what keeps a relationship together.” For better or worse.
Win a consultation
Go to macleans.ca/howhealthy, fill out the Symptom Profiler survey, and you could win an evaluation from Scienta, a health clinic in Toronto, that will help identify your risk for heart disease and diabetes. The winner, chosen at random, will get a six-month program with its founder, Dr. Elaine Chin, and naturopathic doctor Shelley Burns, a prize valued at $2,500.