Statistically, married men and women enjoy better health than their single, separated, divorced, or widowed counterparts. But the size and scope of this "health benefit" have changed dramatically over the past few decades, with disparities between the experiences of men and women, according to a new analysis in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior ("The Times They Are a Changin': Marital Status and Health Differentials from 1972 to 2003" by Hui Liu and Debra J. Umberson).
The authors track the self-reported health status of married and unmarried men and women over three decades. In 1972, women who were married, divorced, widowed, or never married all had about the same rate of excellent/good health (a probability of about .92), while separated women had lower rates of excellent/good health (a probability of about .9). Married men in 1972 were more likely to report excellent/good health (about .92 probability) than those who were widowed, separated, or divorced (about .91 probability). Never-married men were least likely to report good/excellent health (about .89 probability). By 2003, however, the dissolution of a marriage had become a health liability for both genders. Men and women who went through separation, divorce, or the death of a spouse had the worst health, the authors write.
Over the years, unmarried men have become about as healthy as married men, in contrast to the 1972 statistics. The authors attribute this increase to better social support for single men, although they point out that there are many other ways to interpret this data, such as improvements in medical care since the 1970s. Widowed people in 2003, especially women, had far worse health than married men and women. Ultimately, the authors find marriage a risky proposition these days because so many marriages fail. They conclude that "getting married increases one's risk for eventual marital dissolution, and marital dissolution seems to be worse for self-rated health now than at any point in the past three decades."
Why is post-marriage life so dismal for both men and women? Studies have shown that marriage provides economic benefits and social support, both of which can positively impact a person's mental and physical health, the authors write. If a married couple is deeply unhappy, however, separation or divorce seems like a solution that will ultimately make each partner happier and healthier. The authors point out that the couple pays the price, though, in the increased economic strain of maintaining separate households. If a partner has been out of the workforce for a while the economic blow is even worse, and can harm their health even more.