Why Love Is Good for Your Health

Marriage and other long-term relationships have health perks, but men and women don't benefit equally

Stress. Contrary to popular belief, men tend to get stressed out more easily than women. Lab experiments have shown that when given a stressful task, men exhibit greater spikes in the stress hormone cortisol than women.

Fortunately for men, being in a romantic relationship—not just marriage—may curb their stress response. A 2010 experiment found that paired-off men had smaller spikes in cortisol levels than single men after taking part in a competitive game, whereas single and spoken-for ladies had comparable cortisol increases. Advantage: Men.

Weight. A marriage license or a long-term relationship won't buy you a clean bill of health, of course. One area where marriage appears to actually harm health is the waistline. "Historically there's been this idea that marriage makes people healthy, particularly men," says Susan Averett, PhD, a professor of economics at Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. "That may be the case, but not with respect to BMI." (BMI refers to body mass index, a simple ratio of height to weight.)

While both men and women in long-term relationships tend to gain weight (probably because they've implicitly agreed to let themselves go), women appear to gain a bit more weight on average after marriage than men—even if they don't have children.

But the catch is that more men than women cross over into the dangerous categories of overweight and obese following marriage. This could be because women are more likely than men to be underweight going into marriage, so they can afford the extra pounds more than their groom can. Another strike against men could be that they scale back their exercise regimen more so than women after getting married.

Although unmarried couples living together also gain weight, and women gain more than men, the weight gain is less pronounced than in married couples. "It's a little different because you might think of yourself as still on the market," Averett says. Advantage: Women.

Sex. TV images of swinging bachelors and bachelorettes might say otherwise, but being in a solid relationship actually tends to be good for your sex life (at least for the first decade or two). Married and cohabiting couples both have more sex than people who are single or dating, and married people in particular report more satisfying sex lives than their counterparts who are dating or shacking up.

Still, where sex is concerned, marriage appears to be a better deal for men. In a landmark national sex survey conducted in the 1990s, 49% of married men said they were "extremely" emotionally satisfied with their sex life, compared to just 33% of men who were unmarried or not living with a partner. By contrast, only 42% of married women were extremely satisfied with their sex lives, compared to 31% of women who didn't live with a partner.

Women's sex lives aren't as fulfilling as men's in marriage "because they often have resentment in inequities in domestic duties that still exist, [and] they feel they don't get the appreciation they deserve," says Pepper Schwartz, PhD, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle. Advantage: Men.

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Carina Storrs
Last Updated: February 16, 2011

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