Two years ago, Tina got a cancer diagnosis. It started as breast cancer and spread to her lymph nodes. After undergoing chemotherapy and surgery, today she is cancer free and doing well. Still, if you ask her about her difficult journey, she will emphatically tell you this: She wouldn’t have survived without her husband.
As it turns out, Tina’s experience is borne out by the research, and not just for cancer. Marriage is also associated with better physical and mental health, greater longevity, and better survival rates after a heart attack. When it comes to our health, marital status matters. With cancer, heart disease, and stroke costing Canadians in excess of $43 billion annually, there is great potential to save scarce public health care resources by paying attention to this scientific consensus.
In the research, this effect is called the Good Marriage Advantage. Writer and researcher Susan Martinuk has assessed and compiled over 50 major studies in a report called Marriage is good for your health, recently released by Cardus.
A couple of the examples will make the point. On cancer: A large-scale American study conducted in 2013 showed for five specific cancers (prostate, breast, colorectal, esophageal and head/neck cancer), “the survival benefit associated with marriage was larger than the published survival benefit of chemotherapy.” This led one leading psychiatrist in the field of psycho-oncology to comment that “the benefits of marriage are comparable to, or greater than, anticancer treatment with chemotherapy.”
The largest heart health study ever done showed that married people were significantly less likely than single, divorced, or widowed people to have heart disease. This was true after controlling for age, sex, or other cardiovascular risk factors.
On mortality, the results are even more astounding. The late professor Robert Coombs writes: “Virtually every study of mortality and marital status shows the unmarried of both sexes have higher death rates, whether by accident, disease or self-inflicted wounds, and this is found in every country that maintains accurate health statistics.”
These findings come with an important caveat.
The marriage must be a good one. A good marriage offers lower blood pressure, decreased depression, decreased time for wounds to heal, and increased immune function. A bad marriage offers just the opposite.
This makes another point: In acknowledging the good marriage advantage, we can and should choose not to ignore bad marriages. For many low-conflict marriages (non-abusive, but low quality), support and counselling helps. Canadian researcher, counsellor and author Sue Johnson has written extensively about the power of marriage counselling and the success she has had.
Still, the sad reality is that in failing to acknowledge, publicize, and act on this research, we are failing to give all people, married or unmarried, the care they deserve.
Furthermore, for a culture where marriage is often denigrated, advertising the good marriage advantage offers hope for those who are considering marriage alongside the already married.
Even so, marriage can seem like a scary proposition. A lifetime of commitment may seem like a burden, not a blessing. We have a love-hate relationship with the institution of marriage. Most of us want to get married, but getting there and/or living this out proves difficult. Canadian marriages rates are, census after census, declining. Advertising the good marriage advantage offers hope for those who are considering marriage alongside the already married.
Married or unmarried, all can benefit from learning about the good marriage advantage. Tina didn’t need to know about the scientific consensus, she simply benefitted from a supportive, loving husband who took her to appointments and made her soup. The results are intuitive. However, the fact that few report this consensus means we don’t benefit from it more broadly.
As Martinuk puts it in her report: “If marriage was a pill, we would be clamouring for it.”
Andrea Mrozek is the director of Cardus Family.