Some studies have shown that marital happiness has no effect on the benefits of being married. This is clearly absolute nonsense. Any statistical health advantage in unhappy marriages almost certainly comes from women telling men to see a doctor when something seems wrong. But emotional stress and an unsatisfactory relationship is clearly going to impact health. Healthy relationships increase lifespan. Abusive, violent, manipulative, exploitative relationships are ruinous to health.
“I can’t understand why my father died at 72,” said Sandy. “He jogged every day, was a non-smoking vegetarian and did yoga every morning. He never reacted angrily when my mother called him names and bullied him, he was one of the most placid men I know, so he didn’t even fit the Type A profile.”
Marital stress is associated with thickening of the heart chamber (unlike job stress), elevated levels of adrenaline, high blood pressure and the production of cytokines which cause inflammation (a newly recognised cardiac risk).
However some studies appear to show that divorce can damage one’s physical health so dramatically that the person never recovers. Oh please! The end of a high-stress, unloving, possibly abusive relationship will immediately cause cortisol and adrenaline levels to sink as fear, unpredictability and constant repression of one’s own needs and desires disappear. It is often a matter of urgency that man should put asunder what God has joined together, and while we’re on the subject what is the point of a very long life lived in an unhappy marriage? There is no prize waiting at the finishing line.
There is no marriage contract detector in our genes; rather it is a social convention that being bound together under law – law is also not a biological feature – is stabilising. It is our perception that marriage is stable that reassures us. But for many people marriage is destabilising – especially people with depressed, aggressive, unloving, unfaithful, manipulative or personality-disordered spouses. The only factor causing illness in divorce from partners such as these is guilt and the feeling of failure, again coming straight out of our own thinking. Children raised in abusive and dysfunctional families will be more damaged than if they live with one loving parent. Lundy Bancroft in his book Why Does He Do That? reports that the men he treated for domestic abuse were men who witnessed their father abusing their mother. “I’m so afraid that divorcing my husband will damage my daughters,” said one woman, who had discovered her husband had been unfaithful dozens of times, including with women she thought were friends. But the opposite is true: a woman who does not love herself enough to change a life like that will model an unhealthy pattern of relationships to her daughters.
This isn’t rocket science. A relationship should last only as long as it serves the people in it – emotionally, not financially. For those who prefer the marriage bond, we need a new set of vows – not until death do us part, but as long as the relationship benefits us both. There are few benefits in getting married these days – pension rights and the next-of-kin status are some of the remaining legal perks – but many people feel these are insufficient to compensate for the legal fees and sense of failure if people wish to become unmarried, nor do they counterbalance the tendency to stop making an effort with each other once you have nabbed your man/woman which is so often the case within a legal bond. There are few things advocating involving the State in one’s love life, and many reasons for not doing so. Marriage certainly does not protect against boredom, strife, stress, abuse or infidelity – it never did. It does not protect children from emotional abandonment, and children’s happiness comes from empathetic and supportive parents, not from a legal institution.
A happy marriage is a wonderful way to live one’s life, but it is this word “happy” that these longevity studies so often leave out. Marriage is never more important than the people in it. Being married has nothing to do with life extension. Being happy does.