It's conventional wisdom that marriage is good for your health, and sure enough, many studies do show that married people are healthier. But a recent study by John Hopkins University social demographer Mary Hughes and University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, published in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, complicates things a bit: Divorce and widowhood, they find, can actually cause more damage to your health than never getting married in the first place
Hughes and Waite analyzed data on a diverse sample of people between the ages of 51 and 61, looking at their marital and health history. While they did find that people with a strong and happy marriage showed health benefits, they also found that a disruption to a marriage—either through divorce or the death of a spouse—can harm someone's health for even years afterwards
Among the currently married, people who had previously been divorced or experienced multiple disruptions showed worse health than those who had never divorced—and than those who had never been married at all. Both the divorced and widowed who did not remarry had worse health across the board than the continuously married; even if they had remarried, they were still at greater risk for health problems that develop over long stretches of time, such as cancer and mobility limitations. But their risk for some other problems, such as depressive symptoms, decreased if they had remarried and stayed married.
Those who were never married fared better than those who had been widowed or divorced. However, the never-married showed significantly more mobility limitations and significantly worse self-rated health than continuously married people.
Although being married is sometimes championed as the key to a healthy life, this study suggests that getting married for the sake of being married can potentially cause more harm than good. Overall, the authors write that this study suggests (emphasis theirs) "being married may protect or even improve health, getting divorced or becoming widowed may damage health, and being divorced or widowed may damage health."
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About The Author
Katie Goldsmith is a Greater Good editorial assistant.