The science is in. Marriage longevity is real. Numerous studies conclude that a healthy marriage protects your physical and mental health and increases your life expectancy.
In this post, I’m using the term “marriage longevity” to describe a long, healthy marriage which in turn often promotes a long, happy lifespan.
The field has been researching this for decades. If you have a close and loving bond with your partner, you’re going to live longer and enjoy better health than other people your age who never married, or are separated, divorced, or widowed.
But the benefits of marriage longevity are not evenly distributed. Variables such as gender and age are important.
It’s interesting how cultural beliefs and “common sense” attitudes are sometimes contradicted by clinical research.
For example, it has been a longstanding belief that women are protected by marriage and derive the greatest benefit.
This is simply not true.
While it is a fact that women and men both enjoy marriage longevity, the beneficial impact is much greater for married men.
Not only that, husbands benefit even when they perceive their marriages as less than ideal. Wives, however, are far more sensitive to marriage quality, and the beneficial impacts decrease as marriage quality decreases.
Marriage’s Impact on Longevity Cuts Both Ways, However
For example, 90% of 48-year-old married men will live to reach age 65. However, only 65% of divorced 48-year-old men will reach 65.
Another gender difference is when the measurable beneficial impact begins. For husbands, marriage protects their longevity immediately. However, wives take a longer time to accrue benefits, but they also tend to increase over time.
I’m guessing here, but perhaps one of the reasons why men experience an immediate benefit is that in the early days of marriage, the influence that a new wife has on her husband’s behavior is at an all-time high. Research tells us many recently married men between the ages of 20 to 45 tend to curb their reckless behavior and partying, and “settle down.”
There is a benefit to a healthy marriage at the other end of the age spectrum as well. Research tells us that elderly couples in happy marriages also have better overall health than other people their age who have never married, are separated or divorced. However, once again, there is a measurable gender difference.
For example, widowed spouses over age 65 are 3 times more likely to report being physically ill than their married peers. However, despite this fact, research also tells us that elderly widows are typically in better shape than widowers the same age.
It’s also important to note that not all marriages promote marriage longevity. An unhappy marriage with constant bickering can elevate blood pressure, increase depression, and aggravate anxiety. We also know that the negative impact of an unhappy marriage affects both genders, but the health impacts of a troubled marriage tend to hit women more than men.
An axiom of this research is that a good marriage protects, and a bad marriage (or no marriage) infects.
If you want marriage longevity you have to be in it to win it.
Marriage requires commitment. Having a deep abiding commitment, and knowing that your partner is committed as well renders obstacles much easier to overcome.
Research suggests that couples who are merely living together have a significantly lower level of commitment, and do not resemble married couples ar all.
Commitment seeks clarity. Commitment complains when needs are not being met. When troubles arise, committed spouses read blogs like this and seek out science-based couples therapy.
Committed couples want to learn new relational skills because they want to more lovingly move through time together as life-partners.
A marriage that can last through time requires a committed mindset. Commitment asks us to put our partner’s needs on a level equal to our own. It also asks us to accept influence, and carefully considers our partner’s thoughts, feelings, and values.
We live in an era where the idea of being “in a relationship” is more politically correct than “being married.” This has always struck me as odd. Commitment is an option that is open to us every moment.
We all need to talk about our marital challenges from time to time, but it’s important to be prudent in what you say, to whom and how often.
Think of your marriage longevity as having an ecology. You have to carefully examine the pattern of relations between you, your spouse, and all of the other people who populate your daily environment.
For example, a few months ago, I worked with a woman (let’s call her Marie) who described her daughter (let’s call her Diana) as her “best friend.”
Diana was in her mid-30’s with 2 kids and a somewhat rocky marriage of her own to attend to. Marie actively spoke with Diana on a daily basis and was totally open about any and all of her marital issues.
Diana started bickering with her husband over petty annoyances but didn’t understand why.
Marie came to realize that the lack of a boundary with Diana may have offered her some degree of immediate comfort, but it was placing an undue added strain on her daughter every day.
Take a hard look at what you share, with whom, and how often. Healthy boundaries promote marriage longevity because they lower the stress level in the family system.
The late Caryl Rusbult was a Professor in the Department of Social and Organizational Psychology at the VU University. She was trained as an experimental social psychologist. Caryl dedicated her professional career to the study of interdependence processes, especially as they apply to marriage and intimate relationships.
Her Investment Model of Commitment Processes is one of the most well-known and influential theoretical frameworks in the area of marital longevity.
This model holds that commitment to marriage is influenced by 3 distinct factors: the marital satisfaction level, the quality of alternatives, and how heavily the spouse is invested.
Caryl made numerous important theoretical contributions to the literature. Perhaps her most famous is called “CL-ALT,” which stands for “comparison level for alternatives.”
John Gottman is an enthusiastic fan of Dr. Rusbult’s work. He incorporated the notion of “comparison level alternatives” into Gottman Couples Therapy.
Gottman says that “CL-ALT” describes the pattern in which we compare our present life circumstances with a different, fantasy scenario that we imagine would be a better alternative.
For example, it’s quite normal to entertain thought experiments like “should I have finished my law degree, or am I happier doing what I’m doing right now?”
But when marital satisfaction declines, you or your partner might fantasize about alternative partners or fantasies about being single. Dr. Rusbult’s work researched this thought-driven, slippery cascade into relational dissatisfaction.
Gottman expanded her research on this downward spiral. When couples stop sacrificing for the relationship and think they’d be better off with someone else, trust, respect, and commitment erode at an alarming rate.
CL-ALT thinking is profoundly destructive. “Why did I marry him instead of Bob? Should I have waited until I was older? Wouldn’t it be great if he died and I’d be single with all that insurance money?”
We’ve all seen “true crime” shows where a husband or a wife plot the murder of their spouse.
Even though these perpetrators clearly have serious personality disorders, it’s obvious that in all of these crimes there is clearly an elaborate CL-ALT fantasy life in play.
Research shows that CL-ALT fantasies are dangerous and toxic to marriage longevity. They typically express themselves in absorbing fantasies being single and free, or a better life with a new partner.
This type of nagging self-doubt and toxic aspiration is also found in what is commonly described as a “mid-life” crisis.
If these thoughts are coming up for you,…shake them off. Think of your partner as the devil you know, and choose them instead. The problem with fantasy is that it always imagined perfectly, but never plays out that way.
Reign in your fantasies of relational bliss with another partner, or musings of perfect undisturbed solitude. Neither is realistic. Relationships can be challenging at times. Work on the one you have instead. Your thoughts are incredibly powerful. Choose them with care.
We have to tell our partner who we are, so they don’t confuse us with the partner in their head.
It’s easy to think that you know your partner only too well. But we must always stay current.
We can’t read each other’s minds. So be curious. Ask what your spouse needs and act on that information. Otherwise, your lack of curiosity will distort your perceptions.
Giving your spouse the benefit of the doubt is an important way to improve marriage longevity.
During the early years of your marriage, you’ve built a love map of your spouse’s world.
But many couples reify this map. They fail to notice that as they both move through time, these maps need to be constantly updated.
Love maps are not concrete…they are perpetually wet cement.
What drives our partner? What do they appreciate most about their marriage? How have their values and needs shifted over time? And how do we need to respond to those changes?
The Love Map is not the territory of the heart. Love map questions are not answered once and for all time. It’s important to notice how our spouse is moving through time, and how they are changing and growing both as a person as well as a partner. Marriage longevity is a process of attending to nuance and continuing to pay attention.
“None of us are married to just one person in our lives, even if we only marry one person.” Esther Perel
Understand that the health and well-being of your spouse also provides for your own.
Self-care, by definition, includes caring for your spouse, knowing that their marriage longevity supports your own as well.
But if your partner has not cared for you well, your trust in them may fade over time.
The good news is that if you’ve nurtured your marital friendship as you’ve moved through time, marriage longevity logically follows. Things just seem to get easier.
But if like many couples, you’ve accumulated hurts and resentments over time, and you haven’t done the necessary work to repair your marriage, the cost of a living troubled, neglected marriage will, instead, increase over time.
Marriage longevity is a balance sheet of your mutual compounded interest in each other over time. But the good news is that it’s never too late to make deposits in each other’s emotional bank accounts. Science-based couples therapy can help you attain marriage longevity. Call us to learn more.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.