Is marriage good for your health? In general, research suggests yes. Married people live longer, have better access to health care, enjoy a more satisfying sex life, experience less stress, live a healthier lifestyle, and have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes, and depression compared to their single counterparts.
The list of health perks conferred by marriage is so long, in fact, that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has made it a centerpiece of its two-year-old, $5 million national media campaign to promote wedded bliss.
But there's a catch—men and women don't get the same or equal benefits from a legally sanctioned pairing. A man's sex life is likely to improve more than a woman's after getting married, for instance, while a woman's risk for depression tends to decrease more than her partner's when she's in a long-term relationship.
And in reality, getting hitched may not be strictly necessary. Women and men can reap some health benefits just by living together, or even by being in a stable long-term relationship, research suggests. Experts believe that same-sex couples, many of whom don't even have the option to get married, also score health gains, though almost all research so far has focused only on heterosexual relationships.
"I don't think it's necessarily a matter of the marriage license; it's a matter of the level of social support and mutual attachment," says John Gallacher, PhD, a researcher at the Cardiff University School of Medicine in Wales, who recently published a paper on the health benefits of relationships in a BMJ journal.
We interviewed experts and sifted through the scientific research to determine which sex fares better in each of these eight categories.
Life span. Marriage offers the ultimate health benefit: a longer life. Compared to their unwed counterparts, married people have longer average life spans and are drastically less likely to die at an early age.
The link between marriage and longevity is much stronger among husbands than wives, however. A 2007 study that looked at death rates among European people over age 40 found that the rate was twice as high in unmarried men as in married men. The disparity in death rates was far more modest between unmarried and married women.
Marriage is especially good at warding off fatal accidents, violence, and other semi-avoidable calamities, which are more common in younger people, says Michael Murphy, PhD, a professor of demography at the London School of Economics and the lead author of the 2007 study. But regardless of age, men's life spans appear to benefit more from marriage than women's.